Myanmar (Burma) is a large country filled with different ethnic minorities; each with their own traditions and crafts. Weaving was not the focus of our visit there in 2013 but we did seek out opportunities to see local weaving in the different areas that we visited.
Near Mandalay, the village of Amarapura, which had once been the capital of Burma is best known for the iconic landmark U Bein Bridge. But it also has a long tradition of silk weaving. Unfortunately, we were not able to visit any of the simple family style workshops but we did pay a visit to the Thein Nyo Weaving Workshop shown in the video below.
To be honest, while we saw some exquisite hand work being done, this place had more of a “factory” than workshop feel. Part of that was that the room had a concrete floor and solid walls with few windows and lacked the “charming atmosphere” we see in so many local weaver workshops. This was also the first place we had seen (and heard) what we think was a spring powered shuttle that flew across the loom (without the weaver having to throw it) and landed on the opposite side with a loud “clack”. This innovation speeds up the process and allows weavers to produce significantly more textiles than those who throw the shuttle. Additionally, the rhythm of the “clacks” made on simple patterns sounded almost machine like.
One additional feature to the room that caught our eye was a giant warp being loaded with very colorful threads. We have never seen anything like this in any of our visits to hand weaving workshops. The product of such a warp would be enormous.
We ended our visit to Thein Nyo with a stop at the showroom. As a gross generalization, we found the prices to be higher than many other workshops but the quality of some pieces to be very high.
One of the more unique weaving styles we have ever seen was found in the area of Inle Lake known as Oo Paya. At the Khit Sunn Yin weaving center weavers create textiles with 3 different threads: lotus stem fiber, cotton and silk.
We have visited cotton and silk weavers all over the world and seen hemp used in many Asian locales but to our knowledge, Inle Lake is the only place where textiles made from lotus stem fibers are woven. Interestingly, lotus fiber weaving is not an ancient tradition but something that first came roughly 100 years ago.
The story goes that a young women who was especially devoted to her monk wanted to give him a unique gift to demonstrate her dedication. In pulling lotus flowers from the lake for display in local temples and pagodas, she noticed that when she broke off the stem from the flower, long thin fibers often pulled free. Since the lotus flower carries a special symbolism in Buddhism, she felt a garment made from the plant would carry a special blessing.
After some experimentation, she figured out a way to roll individual thin fibers into a longer and stronger thread that could then be used for making textiles. The legend is that she needed over 100,000 stems to collect enough fiber to made that first robe for her monk.
As shown in the above photos, lotus stem thread (on the left) is heavier and coarser than cotton or silk (on the right) and is naturally an off-white color but it can be dyed to any color. While the materials (lotus stems) are free for the picking all over the lake, the labor intensive nature of the preparation of the thread and the uniqueness of the product results in a relatively high price for the finished woven product.
Upon arrival at the weaving center we climbed to an upper level and entered the workshop. As shown on the video above we experienced a hands-on demonstration of how the lotus fibers are pulled from stems and rolled into a thread.
We then walked around the different floors of the center and watched beautiful ladies creating beautiful textiles. One floor is primarily devoted to cotton weaving and another to silk weaving. We saw warps of silk being prepared for Ikat (aka Mukmee) designs.
While in the Inle Lake area, we visited several of the local markets and all have significant space devoted to products of local weaving. What we saw at some of the smaller markets tended to be designs only for the local ethnic minority group that lived in that village but at the larger market in Nyaungshwe, patterns from all of the area tribes can be found.
We were in Yangon for such a limited amount of time that we did not have the chance to visit any weaving villages in that part of the country but we did make several visits to to Scott Market where textiels from all over the country can be found. Included in what we bought there were some very interesting textiles from Nagaland, a region that includes a border area between Myanmar and India.