Besides its distinctive culture and beauty, Inle Lake is also famous for a rare and remarkable craft: Lotus weaving. It’s exactly what it sounds like, weaving scarves, shawls, longyis (traditional sarong-like garments), and other clothing using lotus fibers as thread.
The particular type of lotus that grows in Inle Lake produces thin, soft strings when cut and pulled, something that locals discovered about 100 years ago (so it’s actually a relatively recent craft). Lotus stalks are harvested by the thousands in the rainy season and then stored.
To extract the lotus fibers, craftsmen slice the stalks perpendicularly on both sides without cutting all the way through, then pull the two pieces apart. As they do this, silky strands, like hundreds of spider web strings, appear. The craftsmen roll the new strands into the end of the thread that they are working on, and then pull away the remaining pieces of lotus. In this way, segment by segment, a single piece of lotus thread grows slowly longer.
This thread is then taken to the loom, where it is handwoven. Lotus fabric can be woven with silk or dyed solid colors, but for the most part it isn’t heavily treated. Even then, it’s costly stuff — a single 10in x 3ft shawl can be a product of up to 4,000 – 5,000 lotus stalks.
Dad picked up a lotus scarf for a gift, which he showed off with its (potential) maker.
In an extremely rare moment of crazed consumerism, I decided that I must have one too, no matter the price. They were just too fascinating and rare to pass up — when it comes to handmade, all bets are off. $90? No problem. I don’t even wear scarves. Thank goodness I only get these dangerous impulses maybe once every 2 years.
Of course I picked red, which clashes terribly with every other red garment I own (roughly 60% of my closet). But no regrets whatsoever!
The same facility was also home to silk weaving, which, though not as exotic or exciting, also had a pretty amazing process of its own. The silk is imported from nearby China, but all of the treatment and weaving is done in-house.
First, the silk is dyed to a base color in a huge pot with natural pigments. Because the combination of colored powders varies from pot to pot, no two batches of silk are exactly the same color.
Then, the silk strands are rolled onto spools and brought to this beautiful contraption, where they are pulled out and positioned roughly as they would be in the scarf.
The taunt strands are then collected and separated into batches, on which the scarf pattern is marked. Using strings coated with wax (which will repel dye) to cover areas that will be in different colors, the craftsmen can create intricate patterns and designs.
Lastly, the dyed strings are disassembled, kept in order, and brought to the loom. You can’t tell from the picture, but each individual strand is pre-dyed with the pattern, and the weaver checks to make sure that it lines up with the previous strand before securing it in place. Because of this method, the pattern can look sketched and jagged instead of being perfectly smooth, but it’s painstakingly achieved and part of the charm.
I’ve been to a lot of weaving facilities around the world, but I have the most lasting impression of this one at Inle Lake. Or perhaps this is just the most recent impression…in any case, it’s the first time I’ve bought something from a handcraft gift shop in quite a while. They were so beautiful, I wish I could afford more — actually, maybe a better wish would be to actually wear the one I’ve got.