The Burmese crafts of cotton and silk weaving have a long tradition and the country has long been renowned especially for the fineness and intricacy of its silk weaving. However, there is something that sets a special group of Burmese weavers apart from the rest of the world’s weavers. You want to know what this is? Follow me in the world of Burmese silk and cotton weaving and I will tell you.
Silk is one of the oldest textile fibres and according to Chinese tradition was used as long ago as the 27th century B.C. The silkworm moth – belonging to the order of ‘Lepidoptera’ and the domesticated silkworm that makes up the family of ‘Bombycidea’- were originally a native of China and for more than 30 centuries the gathering, spinning and weaving of silk was a secret process known only to Chinese. China successfully guarded the secret until 300 A.D. when first Japan and later India penetrated the secret.
The art of silk spinning and weaving was invented and developed in China and only later it spread to neighbouring countries such as Burma and other parts of the world. Tradition credits Emperor Huang Ti’s 14 year old bride, ‘Hsi-Ling-Shi’ with the discovery of the potential of the silkworm caterpillar’s cocoon and the development of the revolutionary technique of reeling silk for the use of weaving.
The fibre ‘silk’ is valuable for the use in fine fabrics and textiles and is produced as a cocoon covering by the silkworm – which in fact is not a worm but a caterpillar – for its transformation into the silkworm moth. The silkworm is not the only fibre producing insect but it is only the cocoons of the mulberry silk moth ‘Bombyx mori’ and a few close akin that are used for silk weaving as the silkworm/caterpillar produces the finest quality of silk.
Silkworms possess a pair of specially modified salivary glands (sericteries), which they use for the production of their cocoons. The silk glands secrete a clear, viscous fluid that is forced through openings (spinnerets) on the mouthpart of the larvae and hardens quickly into a very thin fibre when coming in contact with air. The length of the individual fibre composing the cocoon varies from 1.000 to 3.000 feet (305 to 915 metres) what makes the silk fibre the by far finest and longest natural fibre. Silk is also the strongest of all natural fibres. In order to produce 2.2 lb/1 kg raw silk about 5.500 cocoons are required.
To manufacture silk suitable for the use of weaving it is necessary to kill the silkworm inside of the cocoon. Traditionally, this is done by boiling the cocoons. The often given explanation for the non-existence of Burmese silk – silk used for the purpose of weaving in Burma is imported mainly from China and Thailand – is that Burmese refrain from killing the silkworms because they are what they call ‘true’ Buddhists,
Weaving is a method of creating fabric by interlacing two wets of yarn threads called the ‘warp’ and the ‘weft’. While the ‘warp’ threads form the base for weaving – they are arranged parallel to one another and held in tension by a loom – the ‘weft’ is a single thread that is inserted and passed at right angles over and under the warp threads in a systematic way to create a solid or patterned piece of cloth. Weaving is originally done on a hand loom and tribal weavers continue to create their colourful fabrics – both cotton and silk – in this traditional way but most commercial producers weave their textiles by semi-automated or fully automated processes.
As stated previously, the art and craft of weaving has a long tradition and is a strong industry in Burma. Throughout the country, from the mountainous border regions in the north and east, the coastal regions in the south and west to the central dry plain and the areas in-between the looms are busy. Weaving is an art that many country girls learn from their mothers and other female relatives. Because both men and women across the country are wearing hand and automaton-woven traditional textiles and foreign interest in Burmese textiles is increasing weaving is practiced widely.
Many differences in colours, designs, styles, techniques and additional features such as embroideries do not only serve as decoration but are also indicative to the places and regions the textiles are originated from. They add an element of belongingness and racial or tribal identity to those producing and wearing them. For others they do simply constitute a fashionable option.
Some of the most distinctive and easily recognizable fabrics known as ‘A-Cheik’ are woven in Amarapura (Mandalay area). Other very distinctive fabrics known as ‘Inle Lunghi’ or ‘Zim Mei’ are coming from the Inlay Lake region.
Weaving is present-day Amarapura’s main source of income. Amarapura, once known as the ‘City of Immortality’, capital of the Burmese kingdom and seat of the ‘Konbaung dynasty’ from 1783 A.D. to 1859/60 A.D. is located some 11 kilometres/7 miles south of Mandalay. Here, were every second house is said to have at least one loom is, among others, Burma’s most festive and beautiful clothing, the ceremonial ‘longyi’, ‘A-Cheik’ htamain (for woman) and ‘A-Cheick’ pasoe (for men), woven from silk. ‘A-Cheicks’ are textiles that are easily recognisable by their intricate weaving-patterns that make up their highly attractive and complicated designs. The silk and cotton weavers from Amarapura are famous throughout Burma. Their colourful high-quality textiles/clothes in many different designs and colour sets both traditional and modern are in strong demand and to be had everywhere in the country.
Another centre of Burma’s weaving industry is the Inlay Lake. The fabrics produced here too are often from silk. The technique employed by the Inlay weavers is an age-old one, called ‘Ikat’. Usually, the threads are dyed before the weaving process in that they are bound tightly together and immersed into a dyeing bath for each colour individually. However, the Inlay cloth is made in a slightly different way. Whereas the usual way of dyeing is to dye the threads individually, i.e. each one has a separate colour, the ‘Intha’s’ way to dye the threads is to paint the colours on the threads. The advantage of this technique is that it does not require a retying of the threads of each individual colour used.
As for the weaving process itself it is almost a mission impossible to have the threads perfectly match the woven pattern, what results in somewhat ‘blurred’ edges of the motifs. In other words, the motifs are not sharply separated from their background or motifs bordering on them. This effect of ‘soft’ edges is the distinguishing feature of the Inlay fabrics, which are very bright in colour and gay in motif.
However, there is something that sets a special group of Inlay weavers apart from the rest of the world’s weavers. And this distinguishing feature is neither a special design, pattern, technique of dyeing or weaving nor is it a special colour, colour combination or the kind of clothes they are weaving. It is nothing of these things but a unique material. A material that is unique in both origin and method of spinning of the threads/yarn. It is ‘Lotus silk’, made of the delicate fibres of the lotus flower stem.
The story of this unique material and the ‘Padonmar’ lotus stem fibre weaving began in 1914 with Daw Sar Oo (Miss Sparrow Egg). She was a young lay woman in the small village of Kyain Khan, located at the Inlay Lake in Shan State. Her wish was to present to the Abbot of the local ‘Golden Peacock Feather Monastery’ something very special and unprecedented. A wish she had developed based on the ‘Zi-natta Pakar Thani’, according to which Prince Siddhartha was upon leaving the palace to start to live his life as aesthetic monk offered a monk’s robe by a Brahma (celestial being) who had found it in a lotus blossom.
When observing the long and very fine filaments that were trailing from the cut ends of lotus stems after she had plugged the large-petal lotus blossom from them – as it is usually done in order to offer them at pagodas, etc. – she saw herself getting close to her being able to fulfil this unusual and very special wish of hers.
In the following some words of explanation concerning the topic ‘Lotus’ in general as the only thing that people do mostly associate with the term ‘Lotus’ is simply a rather unspecified flower with yellow, pink or white blossoms that is growing in freshwater lakes and ponds. But this is not exactly all and the only thing that is inherent in and expressed by the term ‘Lotus’. Here are some information for the botanists among you.
‘Lotus’ is the common name of a genus of plants of the ‘legume’ family and for several unrelated genera. The genus ‘Lotus’ belongs to the subfamily ‘Papilionoidea’ of the family ‘Fabaceae’ (formerly ‘Leguminosea’). The ‘Jujube’ suggested being the legendary lotus tree is classified as ‘Ziziphus lotus’ of the family ‘Rhamnaceae’, the nettle tree as ‘Celtis australis’ of the family ‘Ulmaceae’ and the dessert shrub as ‘Nitraria tridentata’ of the family ‘Zygophyllaceae’. The unrelated genus of the water lily family ‘Nymphaeaceae’ is ‘Nelumbo’. The sacred lotus of the Buddhism is classified as ‘Nelumbo nucifera’ and the American lotus as ‘Nelumbo lutea’. The representative water lily genus is ‘Nymphaea’ of the family ‘Nymphaeaceae’. While the Egyptian lotus is classified as ‘Nymphaea caerulea’, the Egyptian water lily is classified as ‘Nymphaea lotuses. The lotus flower species growing in the Inlay Lake is said to be ‘Nelumbium speciosum’, called ‘Padonmar Kyar’, red lotus, in Burma.
Being a practical woman and trained in the art and craft of weaving Daw Sar Oo immediately formed the idea of weaving a set of monk’s robes from this extraordinary material and present it to the Abbot she was devoted to.
Upon having had this idea she was facing the problem of how to transform the very soft and fine fibres of the lotus flower stem into durable yarn for the use of weaving. She entered into a series of experiments the results of which were very disappointing. But, finally, she succeeded in spinning strands of sufficient thickness from the extremely fine threads of the lotus stems, which was a feat in itself.
The ‘harvesting’ of lotus stems takes place during the monsoon months Nayon/June, Waso/July, Wagaung/August and Thawthalin/September. This is the best time for the gathering of the lotus stems as in this rainy season the Inlay Lake’s water level is at its highest mark, thus the stems of the lotus longest and the filaments best. During dry season the stems are much shorter and the fibres are less abundant due to the lower water level of the lake. The best fibres are those from the dark-pink lotus and it requires some 150.000 lotus stems to manufacture one set of a regular monk’s robe.
Prior to the ‘harvesting-time’ the spirits of the Inlay Lake are put into a good mood by ritual offerings of pop-rice, incense, flowers and saying of prayers. Then the harvesting of the lotus stems that must be transformed into yarn within three days after being plugged begins.
Lotus flowers are because of their beauty, shape, size and colours often compared with roses and are in some languages – German, for instance – called (in literal translation) See Rose’, ‘Lake Rose’. And just like the thorny rose stem the lotus stem too has a thorny and very strong surface, which must in the first step be separated from the soft core of the stems. Then the stems are cut approx. 4 inches/10 centimetres from the root-end and are given uniform lengths.
In the next step bundles of some 5 stems are taken into one hand and with a blade in the other hand the stems are cut half through about 2 inches/5 centimetres from their top. The blade is lied out of hand and the top pieces are broken away from the stems. What is now left is a silk-like, sticky filament that is drawn out on a wet table surface.
These are afterwards rolled on a plane surface by hand into fine threads after being given a quick turn of the wrist before being rolled into thicker and longer threads by adding another batch of strands at the end of the respective strand by rolling the sticky fibres together until they have reached the lengths wished for. This process is repeated till the stems are used up. Then the next bundle is taken into the hand and everything is starting all over again.
The fibres are then dried, washed, starched, stretched and manually spun into yarn before being rolled on bobbins.
Finally, the lotus threads are woven and the fabric is then either left in its natural state or dyed into the red or yellow of the monk robes or e.g. gray for other pieces of textiles. The very first one of all of these monk robes was woven by Daw Sar Oo back in 1914.
Upon having presented this truly unique set of monk’s robe to her much venerated Abbot, he changed her name into Daw Kyar Oo (Miss Lotus egg) as a sign of his gratefulness and in appreciation of her wonderful achievement. The ‘lotus-silk’ fabric is rather coarse but pleasant on the skin and has the properties of silk, keeping the body warm when the weather is cold and cool when it is hot.
This unique material is spun and woven only in Kyain Khan Village at Inlay Lake in southern Shan State and nowhere else in the world to be had. Nowadays, scarves, blouses and other pieces of clothing are woven for mainly tourists. Sure, these items wear quite a hefty price tack but the money is well spent for you get something really unique that not only looks good but also has an interesting story to tell.
Weaving time is from June to January and while in the past only monk robes were woven from this rare, precious and relatively expensive material to dress venerated monks and Buddha Images, nowadays also shawls, blouses and shirts are available to tourists. Meanwhile these articles are also exported. The most likely not insignificant income from the sales of lotus fibre articles had a rejuvenating effect on this traditional art.
But the lotus fibre weaving tradition is still endangered as there is only one family of lotus weavers left to perpetuate this unique form of weaving and many of the lotus weavers are quite old. Since Daw (Sar) Kyar Oo had no descendents she passed on her knowledge to the grand children of a friend’s family.
Daw Ohn Kyi’s family – the last family left to preserve the tradition – has founded a cooperative in 2004 that serves the purpose of conveying the knowledge and skills needed to help the lotus weaving tradition to survive to a new generation of lotus fibre weavers.