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My New Favorite Shirt and the Art of Burmese Lotus Weaving

By Dave Fox
Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar)

SONY DSCTributaries slice outward from the banks of Inle Lake, running like aquatic backroads through nearby villages. Lotus leaves tangle along the shores, their roots anchored firmly in the mud below.Villagers around the lake have discovered these stoic and plentiful roots make for sturdy fibers — and they’ve concocted a remarkable process for weaving them into clothing.

Our boat cut southward through one of these offshoot channels, passing ancient stupas and busy settlements until we arrived at a lotus weaving center – a two-story wooden building on stilts, with a staircase leading up from the water.

SONY DSCInside was a bustling factory. A woman sat cross-legged on the floor and showed us how the fibers are extracted from the rest of the centimeter-thick root.

First, she sliced the outer skin of the root with a sharp knife, taking care not to cut too deeply. As she pulled the two halves apart, micro-thin filaments remained intact. She then twisted the two pieces of root in opposite directions, intertwining the thin strands of fiber until they resembled string the width of dental floss. After many hours, there would be enough thread to set on a loom and begin weaving.

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The looms were “homemade” contraptions of boards nailed together. A clattering system of pulleys made a rhythmic thwacking sound as women throughout the factory wove the strands into fabric. On the second floor were more looms, where silk and cotton were woven in the same process. And yes, if you are taken to a factory demonstration anywhere in the world, there will be things to buy. Shirts, pants, and scarves were available at bargain prices by Western standards.

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Two days later, I would meet a a local man – a waiter in a restaurant – wearing  the same mustard-colored style of shirt I bought. He would ask how much I paid for my shirt, and gasp when I told him. Twelve US dollars, he would laugh, was double what the price should have been.

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My “overpriced” 12-dollar shirt served me well on a trip to the nearby winery. More on Inle Lake wine coming soon!

But this so-called “tourist tax” is a reality I don’t mind. I’ve seen other tourists grow indignant when they discover they’ve been “ripped off,” charged a higher price than local residents.

I’m always baffled that someone who can afford to travel halfway around the world would rant that it’s unfair to pay a fraction of what they pay at home – to a person who is struggling just to feed their family. I’m happy with my 12-dollar shirt and the free demonstration that came with it.

I could ramble further about this issue, but I’ll save the rest of that outburst for another day.

We climbed back into our boat and puttered onward. Next stop: a cigar factory that puts Cuba to shame.

 

The Ko Than Hliang Silk and Lotus Weaving Factory (a different factory from the one we visited) has its own webpage with lots more photos and a short history of their family-owned business. Check it out at silkandlotusweaving.blogspot.sg.

Published on Sunday, December 23, 2012

3 Responses to “My New Favorite Shirt and the Art of Burmese Lotus Weaving”

  1. December 24, 2012 at 4:25 AM

    I admire your charitable spirit. So, are you going to buy a cigar to go along with the shirt? I would gladly help support a cigarmaker’s family.

  2. Gerhard Hoffschlaeger
    June 5, 2013 at 6:04 PM

    Hi Dave,
    only one question. For the 12 Dollar you get a Inle lake Silk
    Shirt or a cotton shirt.
    best regards
    Gerhard

  3. Paul
    March 10, 2014 at 4:03 AM

    My daughter bought a tie for me there, excellent !
    I am glad to see somebody else who thinks like me on pricing for tourists, if i have paid a price i am happy with then there is no rip off. And anyway they can use the extra cash too .

    B rgds
    Pauo

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