Fiber Watch: Lustrous Lotus Flower Fabric

lotus flower petals

Made from the fibrous stems of the lotus flower, this exclusive, waterproof material is created entirely by hand through a completely sustainable process. 

Lotus flowers are the symbol of divine purity in many Asian cultures, appearing in the hands of the sacred Buddha. The lotus flower has played a major part in Asian folklore, and is a particularly important icon in the homes of many weavers. The material created from the stems of the lotus flower is described as a cross between silk and linen, and was historically used to make robes for high-ranking Buddhist monks. This unique and soft material is breathable, wrinkle-free, naturally stain-resistant, and waterproof due to its aquatic origin.

lotus flowers on lake

The main harvest of lotus flowers for weaving occurs by the giant lake of Kamping Poy near Battambang, Camobdia. Lotus flowers have been farmed on this lake for several generations, mostly for the extraction and sale of the seeds or seedheads of the flower. The area surrounding the lake is the only one place in the world currently host to lotus fabric weaving. Recognized as an old Burmese tradition, lotus fabric weaving was brought to village of Kyaing-kan in 2009 by Awen Delavel, a French designer and founder of eco-fashion label Samatoa.  He has been working with local women in order to provide them with the skills to produce the fabric and create a local economy that they can rely and make wages on.

lotus fiber extraction

The pink and white flowers of the aquatic perennial spread through thousands of bodies of water in Cambodia, and are harvested during the rainy season from June to November. The stems of the lotus flowers are gathered by younger women in the mornings, who then use a shallow knife to bunch, cut and snap  5-6 stems at once, revealing 20-30 fine white filaments of fiber. These filaments are drawn out of the stem, hung to dry and then rolled into a single thread 100-yards in length. A meticulous and time-consuming process, around 25 thread makers are required to keep one weaver busy.

lotus fiber spinning

Weaving the fabric occurs through established craft cooperatives that take on weavers according to seasonal need. Although a weaver’s wages are low, partaking in an activity that is regarded as meritorious makes it an attractive option for many women. The lotus fiber threads are woven on a traditional Thai or Burmese frame loom which produces a narrow cloth at 24 inches wide.

lotus fabric weaving

The fabric is woven in 100-yard batches, and it takes about a month and a half to complete one batch. Its estimated that around 32,000 lotus stems are required to make just 1.09 yards of fabric and 120,000 stems are required for one outfit, making the textile extremely exclusive. After weaving, the fabric is dyed with natural dyes and every part of the precious material is utilized in some way. Leftover scraps of yarn are twisted into the wicks of pagoda lamps, and remnant pieces of fabric are made into sequin-studded robes for mini-Buddha statues.

lotus fabric

Currently sold through Samatoa’s website, lotus flower fabric is available in light red, green, yellow, chocolate, orange and light purple colors. Samatoa is recognized as an eco-friendly textile mill and design house, as it is providing Cambodian women with highly regarded textile crafting skills. Founder Awen Delavel has also set up The Lotus Center in Battambang, which provides a venue for the experimentation of research on lotus fibers and sub products. Although garments made from lotus fabric are not readily available on the current market, Italian company Loro Piana does plan to sell scarves and blazers made from the material at around $6,000 a piece. Although exclusive and obviously expensive – could lotus flower fibers provide an alternative to waterproof synthetics?

Images: cleong, Samatoa