Burma | The Lotus Weavers of Inle Lake

Meet the women in Inle Lake, Myanmar, who are weaving luxury soft cloth from plant stems

Inle Lake in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is a huge freshwater lake surrounded by mountains around 500 kilometres north of Yangon.

The lake is massive (over 20 kilometres long and 10 kilometres wide) but fairly shallow. So much of it is covered in reeds that it can be quite hard to tell where the land ends and the water begins.

So much of the lake is covered by reeds, it can be hard to tell where the land ends and the water begins.

Many of the locals who call this watery world home actually live out on the lake itself, in houses built on stilts. Boats have replaced cars as their primary method of transport. Their roads are rivers cut through the reeds.

A ‘street’ in one of the villages in Inle Lake.

Richer families will have a boat with a motor, but many people use paddles to get around. The Intha, the largest ethnic group who live on the lake, often use the traditional “foot paddling” method, wrapping their leg around the oar and using a circular motion to move it back and forwards.

Some of the boats on Inle Lake are motorised
But many are still paddled by hand - or by foot.
A woman does her washing on her front porch. Many locals actually live out on the lake on houses on stilts.

Most of the people around Inle Lake make their living as subsistence farmers, but in recent years increasing numbers of tourists have come to the region. After 50 years of brutal military dictatorship, Myanmar held its first free and fair elections in November 2015, and with the lifting of sanctions, the country is opening up to visitors. Inle Lake and its stunning surroundings are firmly on most travellers’ maps.

A Burmese woman working on a traditional hand loom.

As well as hotels, restaurants and guiding services, one of the ways the locals are capitalising on the influx of visitors is by exhibiting their traditional handicrafts. Around 100 years ago the women of Inle Lake began weaving patterned textiles out of the lotus flowers which grow on the lake. The Khit Sun Yin hand weaving centre has thrown its doors open to tourists to let them watch this fascinating process.

The lotus, famed for its bright flowers.
A lotus flower growing in Inle Lake
Lotus fibres are extracted from the stems by hand, using a knife.
The fibres are then spun into threads on spinning wheels made from old bicycle parts

Revered as a symbol of purity the lotus famously produces an incredibly bright bloom despite growing out of murky mud underwater. What’s perhaps less well-known is that the stems are made up of a mixture of fibres, which when woven together produce incredibly high quality cloth.

The Kit Sunn Yin weaving workshop.

Each scarf these women make, using traditional methods and old hand looms, contains over 3,000 lotus stem fibres. These are extracted from by hand using a knife, rolled together and then spun into thread on spinning wheels made from old bicycle bits. The workers turn the pedals by hand. Various dyes are used to colour the thread, which is hung out over the lake to dry.

A hand spinning wheel – and a few old bicycles waiting to be recycled

The lotus thread is then woven into cloth on hand looms – technology which hasn’t been used in the UK for over 200 years! The distinctive clack of the shuttles can be ringing out across the lake as you approach the workshop.

A woman working on an old-fashioned hand loom.
One of the workers operates a hand-spinning wheel.
A woman weaving cloth in Khit Sunn Yinn.
One of the weavers looks up from her work.

While the weavers at Khit Sunn Yin also weave other cloth, including silk and cotton. Occasionally silk and lotus thread are mixed. But it’s the pure lotus that is the most expensive, with scarves selling for hundreds of dollars.

Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in Asia, but with lotus cloth increasingly becoming a desirable luxury, this cottage industry has the potential to help lift the people of Inle Lake out of poverty.

An elderly woman in the workshop.
Cloth on the loom.
And in the shop.
One of the scarves produced at Khit Sunn Yin.
A fleet of boats waits like cars in the carpark to take the weavers home at the end of the working day.
A motorised boat transports cargo across the lake.

To read the rest of Mpora’s Style Issue head here

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