A chaos of threads, an incomprehensible pattern formula, and a rudimentary piece of heaving, clunking machinery. When it comes to weaving, I might know more than the average person, but even for me, the workshop is still a place of infinite mystery. It never ceases to amaze me how a finished textile – so delicate in weight, so bespoke in detail, so neat in its composition – can emerge from the basic, mechanical process of intertwining two corresponding sets of thread. It’s a startlingly simple technique, yet there’s something about weaving that is essentially unknowable to anyone but the weaver. I have so much respect for the skilled artisans who work this kind of magic with shuttle and heddle.
Another thing I find fascinating is the similarities between the weaving workshops I’ve visited over the years. Whether you’re manipulating alpaca wool or eri silk, crafting a feather-light ikat scarf or a thick, rya-knotted carpet, the minutia of a productive studio is almost always the same, no matter where in the world you are. I could spend hours picking through baskets of colourful bobbins against a backdrop of tattered threads, listening to the familiar, comforting clink-clink of an upright loom. After visiting the lotus weavers of Inle Lake, I feel as though another dimension of fascinating detail has been added to weaving – raising questions I’d never thought to ask before.
As it turns out, hand weaving is a relatively recent development in Inle Lake’s In Paw Khon village, dating back only a century or so. The tradition of making cloth with lotus fibres, however, has a much longer history. Once widespread throughout Buddhist countries in Southeast Asia, the practice has today faded into relative obscurity, and Inle Lake is one of the only places on earth where you can still observe this ancient technique.
Drawn from the cut stems of the lotus plant, lotus fibres are fine, flexible, and incredibly soft. It’s said that the technique of spinning thread from the plant was first developed to fashion unique offerings to Buddhist abbots in the form of lotus robes, but nowadays, the fibres are chiefly used to weave scarves and shawls – making an entire garment out of lotus isn’t practical for a number of reasons, although bolts of fabric are sometimes ordered from Inle by Japanese clients. It may not be the most practical or utilitarian fibre, but lotus thread has important religious and cultural significance in Myanmar. In Buddhist teachings, the lotus flower is a potent symbol of one’s ability to overcome difficult circumstances and realise one’s potential, just as the lotus flower emerges from the muddy waters and unfolds its brilliant petals. The lotus is ubiquitous across Myanmar, and here on Inle Lake, it forms a fascinating part of the area’s textile traditions.
Like all of Inle’s notable attractions, the lotus weaving workshops are a well-established part of the tourist trail. Much like in Mandalay, there is a particular path laid out for visitors to Inle, and the best thing to do is choose a dugout boat, sit back in your deckchair, and float wherever your guide takes you. Located in the eastern reaches of the lake, In Paw Khon village is a floating settlement made up of tall stilted houses connected by narrow waterways. Our stop here fell towards the beginning of the day, about an hour after we set off from Nyaung Shwe. Once we rounded a few sweeping bends and entered into the village proper, I was surprised to see just how many weaving workshops there were in In Paw Khon. Our guide chose the Hand Weaving Centre, a double-storied studio inside a tumbledown stilted house perched over the glassy waters of the lake.
The workshop is set up in such a way that visitors can be guided through the weaving process chronologically – from raw plant to finished cloth. Each boat gets its own resident guide who will walk you through the workshop before chaperoning you to the gift shop.
Rolling the Thread
Dotted throughout the workshop are baskets of lotus stems – a dozen different hues of green and purple, each cut down into manageable pieces. Traditionally, these stems would have been collected from the waters around the village, but due to increased demand, much of the raw material is now imported from elsewhere in Myanmar. Seated on the floor just inside the workshop’s doorway and working at a low wooden table, a woman takes a piece of lotus stem and snaps it in half. Slowly and expertly, she draws the two pieces of stem apart and, like magic, a glistening spider web of threads appears in the interval space. She carefully teases the full length of thread out and lays it flat on the wooden table.
At first, the fibre seems impossibly fine; it’s thinner than a hair and almost imperceptible to the naked eye. As the process is repeated and more and more fibres are laid out on the table and rolled together, a thicker, sturdier thread begins to materialise. Once a sufficient number of fibres have been extracted and rolled to reach the desired thickness, the thread is wound onto a spool. The process continues, with each new length of thread soldered onto the last with a quick roll of the palm. Once the thread is wound onto the spool, its properties can be fully appreciated. Left undyed, the porous fibre has an earthy tone, almost exactly the colour of Inle Lake. Slightly mottled and with natural variations in texture, the lotus thread closely resembles hemp, but it’s much, much softer to the touch.
This workshop extracts an average of 20 metres of fibre per day, meaning one kilogram of thread takes about two months to produce.
Weaving the Fibres
Women here work with a range of natural fibres: lotus thread, cotton, raw silk, and washed silk. Some weave traditional Shan scarves (brightly coloured cotton arranged in a cross-hatch pattern), while others perfect simple designs native to the Inle area. Some women work with a mixture of lotus and silk, combining the two fibres to achieve a beautiful textural contrast between warp and weft. Both mechanised and hand-thrown shuttles are used, depending on the width of the fabric being woven.
The Finished Product
he second part of the workshop is a devoted salesroom, packed to the hilt with hand-loomed cloth and garments fashioned out of various fibres. A decent-sized swatch of pure lotus cloth can set you back US$400 or more – not surprising given the time and labour-intensive process of first extracting, then dyeing, then weaving the threads. I personally prefer the scarves and shawls that mix lotus and silk; tightly woven, smooth silk ribboned with lotus detailing highlights the difference between the two fibres.
Watching lotus weaving on Inle Lake was one of the highlights of my time in Myanmar. Have you ever visited the workshops here? What did you think of the process? If you’re interested in learning more, I recommend reading travel photographer Julie Hall‘s account of her time on Inle Lake.