Man has always loved the shimmering fibre of unparalleled grandeur called silk. From the time of Chinese Empress Shiling Ti’s discovery of the silk weaving process it has withstood many a daunting challenge from other natural and artificial fibres. Silk has remained, however, the undisputed ‘Queen of Textiles’ for centuries. Exquisite qualities like the natural sheen, inherent affinity for dyes and vibrant colours, high absorbing capacity, light weight, resilience and excellent drape etc. have made silk the irresistible and inevitable companion of a woman the world over. Ancient Burma was world renowned for fabrics made out of silk. Silk weaving is one of the countries’ main professions even today. Silk production is regarded as an important tool for economic development. It is a labour-intensive and high income generating industry that churns out value-added products of economic importance. It is a cottage industry in Myanmar. Though there are over 40 countries on the world map of silk the bulk of it is produced in China and India, followed by Japan, Brazil, Korea, Thailand and Myanmar. China is the leading supplier of silk to the world. Silk is a high value but low volume product accounting for only 0.2 per cent of the world’s total textile production. Myanmar relies on it for employment generation, especially in the rural sector and also as a means to bring in foreign money.
Unlike the Indian silk industry -one of the largest generators of employment and foreign currency for the country- Myanmar business in silk has not been able to earn foreign exchange or generate employment to the same extent. The readymade garments of Indian silk form the largest segment of sales, generating around 58 per cent of export earnings from silk, while natural silk yarn, fabrics and made-ups account for around 38 per cent of silk export earnings. In 2014-15, India exported readymade garments of silk worth US$ 311.53 million. Myanmar export of silk products is negligible compared to other Asian countries that produce silk but the ASEAN single market offers an opportunity for Myanmar silk as the 10-member organisation uses silk in many important ceremonies. Most of the earnings are from retail shopping.
Lotus silk weaving is very unique to Myanmar. The lotus weavers believe that wearing something made from the lotus can help to absorb bad elements from the body and helps in fetching good luck. Lotus fabric is one of the most expensive fabrics in the world. According to a weaver family, “Lotus silk is simply matchless. Its qualities are many. Not only it’s natural stain resistance but it is also waterproof, soft to the touch, breathable and wrinkle-free”. Lotus root strands are woven together to make cloth, used to create the traditional longyi – a long skirt, worn by both men and women. Lotus root versions of the longyi are reserved for monks and for special occasions. “Originally woven into weather-proof shawls for prominent Buddhist monks, lotus stem fibres are now used by exclusive Italian fabric house, Loro Piana” said a traditional weaver family member in Yangon.
Inle Lake is the only region in the world where lotus silk is produced. Weavers extract the delicate fibres from the lotus stem and make thread out of it. It’s an incredibly labour-intensive process which results in an extremely rare, lustrous and exclusive fabric. Lotus weaving has been passed from one generation to the next since ancient times. Made on a traditional Thai-Burmese loom, local women laboriously weave 100- 200 small shuttles back and forth through a warp of over 1,500 threads. This creates a distinctive wave pattern – the Lun Taya Acheik with its patterns of horizontal wavy lines (Achiek) which is the most treasured and adorned design in silk for its own splendour and grace , attraction and artistic value . The “acheik” is also considered a royal design for both and women and it is said that the ancient designers were inspired by the waves and ripples of the Ayeyarwady River. ‘Acheik’ conveys the value of association and value of water. People in Myanmar use it on auspicious and festive occasions. As it has its unique identity and authenticity. Other specific designs are known by such names as Ribbon of Orchids, Princess’ Curl, Emerald Palace Spring, Floral Twined Royal Weave and Twisted Golden Rope, just to name a few. This longyi is only made in Mandalay where three girls sit at each loom working approximately 100 shuttles of different coloured silks through a warp of a basic colour. A two-meter piece takes approximately three months to weave, making it one of the most expensive and sought-after types of Burmese silk. Watching the entire process of lotus weaving and learning of the incredible workmanship that goes into each and every textile piece could be an overwhelming experience.
In the rural areas of Myanmar it is still the pride of the house to have a loom with a diligent daughter working at it. Young girls learn weaving from their mothers and grandmothers. They also learn how to make natural dye and create the most beautiful colours. Though chemical dyes are easily available, most weavers continue to practice traditional dyeing methods passed down through the generations. The lac (red), indigo (blue), and bark (yellow) are still used to produces natural dyes. Lotus silk is so soft, flexible and smooth that it can easily pass through a wedding ring without causing damage to the fabric. Imitation fabrics will crunch up but this will not. The owners of silk-weaving workshops employ young girls that have smooth fingers, not yet roughened by housework. In less accessible western Myanmar the Chin people weave with silk and cotton on back strap looms to create exceptional tunics, loincloths, skirts and shawls, often embellished with glass beads, cowrie shells and buttons. A fine collection of Chin and other ethnic textiles can be found in the sprawling Bogyoke Aung San Market in Yangon. “A single stick of lotus bud costs 4,000 Kyats ($2.95) and a single scarf requires…20 days’ work, which is why it costs around $75.” said a shop owner in Yangon, explaining the high cost of the silk products.