Inle Lake is a uniquely Myanmar attraction that is very popular with tourists. It is famous for its floating gardens, fishermen who row their canoes with one leg (Intha), and wooden houses on stilts.
Surrounded by the Shan Hills, the large freshwater lake is situated in southern Shan State, about 650 km from Yangon.
Most of the people who live around Inle Lake make their living as farmers, hotels, restaurateurs, and tour guide operators. Another trade that has benefited from the tourist industry is lotus weaving.
More than 100 years ago, local women began weaving textiles using fabric made from the lotus flowers that grow on the lake.
There are many villages around the lake but the lotus weaving industry is centered on Kyaing Khan and In Paw Khone villages.
A boat tour lead me to the Khit Sunn Yin Lotus, Silk and Cotton Hand-Weaving Centre at In Paw Khon village. It was the first time I had gotten a close-up look at how the lotus pieces are hand-woven.
The center displays each stage of the lotus-weaving process. An employee will guide you through the process from beginning to end, and it is amazing.
At the entrance, you will see an old woman seated at a small wooden table cutting lotus stems into small pieces and extracting their fibers by hand using a knife.
Then, the fibers are moistened and rolled together to form threads. The process is repeated again and again to produce the long, fine threads used in lotus weaving.
That stage is the first and most important part of the lotus silk-making process, and workers need to be patient. So, most of the staff are older because young people are too restless, an employee at the center said.
In the second stage, another older woman is spinning and weaving the raw, pure lotus silk into spools by using a hand-turned wheel.
The lotus threads are a creamy color; the weavers dye them using jackfruit, bark, seeds, lotus leaves and other natural materials to get colored fabric.
Then, the lotus threads are turned into products using the old hand looms; this is the final stage of the lotus silk weaving process.
The whole process is very labor intensive; no wonder the finest lotus products are among the most expensive textile products in the world.
Using lotus stems produces incredibly high quality clothing, and I have so much respect for the skilled artisans who can weave this kind of magic.
One small neck scarf requires about 4,000 lotus stems, takes a day to make (if the worker is quick) and sells for hundreds of dollars. A full set of monk’s robes requires about 220,000 lotus stems, and takes about 60 weavers more than 10 days to complete.
The staff said that wearing lotus products keeps one cool in summer and warm in winter. The fabric is soft, lightweight and yet so delicate; you can see every detail and the composition exquisite.
The center not only demonstrates the lotus silk weaving process, but also shows how clothes are woven from other fabrics including silk and cotton.
The final stop on the tour is the shop. Here you can find all kinds of finished products at a range of prices. The products made from pure lotus are the most expensive.
There are various species of lotus, but only the Padonma Kyar can be used to make these woven products. The lotuses must be grown in muddy waters and can only be harvested during the wet season.
The lotus weaving process never fails to amaze me and I strongly recommend a trip to a workshop like Khit Sunn Yin whenever you are visiting Inle Lake.