Original Post: Aug 26, 2015
Geos, Not Florals. As a pattern designer, I fall hard into the category of a geometrics. Many designers are known for their floral or conversational (pictorial, often whimsical) designs. Some are more traditionally rooted in nature, while others lean toward historical motifs. Over the years, I have been known to produce various types of pattern 'styles' when asked, but to be brutally honest and true to my design nature, geos are where I am most prolific and at home.
The lotus flower however, does show up in my work on occasion. In my current collection the pattern 'Champa' (above), is made up of three lotuses joined at a center point. It was inspired by the lotus in India and created during my yoga teacher training a few years back. Another pattern slated to be produced later this year, was inspired by growing up around Egypt's long history with the lotus. I find this flower to be the most exquisite creature, emerging from the murky waters and mud to bloom into it's perfect self. And because of that, the lotus is one my favorite flowers. Not just because of its beauty, but because its basic function teaches us a thing or two about ourselves and life in general.
My original intention was to write a blog entry that dove into the cultural aspects of the lotus and using them as design for textiles. However, I came across something far more interesting and less known: textiles actually made from the lotus plant itself.
Cultural + Mythological. The Lotus. Have you ever watched one bloom on top of the water into complete perfection? Only to retreat back down into the muddy water at night fall? The eloquence of this flower has left its symbolic mark around the world, and across the ages and I can see why. In South Asia, the lotus has always been considered sacred through out their religious history. For Buddhists, the lotus represents our ability to rise above our conditions or situation in order to reach our full potential. Ancient Egypt, associated the lotus with rebirth, symbolizing the sun and creation.
Lotus Textiles: The Art Form. It is more commonly known for lotus flowers to be used for religious rituals and the dried seed pods sold for floral decorations. The seeds are collected for such things as food, desserts and medicines. The leaves are known to be wrappers for holding food. But the stems, where the lotus fibers are located, are usually left behind creating excessive waste in the lakes were most lotus plants grow.
At one time, the art of lotus fabric weaving was a highly esteemed craft, well known and created across South East Asia. Unfortunately, this ancient form of weaving began to phase out and was soon forgotten. Only a few villages in Burma have continued the craft and preserved it's heritage. The fair trade company Samatoa, run by Awen Delaval (a key player in the Fair-Trade promotion association), has been working with people around the Lake Kamping Poy area near Battambang, Cambodia to revive this ancient art form and bring employment to its region. What was once worn as sacred robes by high ranking monks is now sparking interest in high-end fashion.
The Process: It is the stems of the deep pink flowers that have the best fibers for weaving and should be harvested when the flowers are in full bloom. The stems are then spliced open so the cream coloured lotus fibers can be extracted and laid across a small wooden table. Once the strands are laid into place, they are twisted and hand rolled into yarns that are washed, dried and wound into skeins to be woven into yardage. It is said that it takes about 25 women making thread to produce enough yarn for one weaver. Keeping the yarns moistened (they did come from the water after all!) they are handwoven on looms in 100 yrd bolts. The whole process, from beginning to end takes about a month and a half and there is no waste. All parts of the lotus are used. Left overs are made into lotus teas, infusions and flours.
It would be extremely costly to convert these traditional techniques into modern mass production. Since there is no real way to modify, simplify or speed up production, the process is a laborious one, making lotus hard to come by and one of the most expensive textiles in the world.
Qualities of Lotus Fabric: It is said that the fabric from the lotus plant is like a high bred cross between raw silk and linen. Like linen, it has a slubbed texture with a soft hand. It breathes like linen, tends to be stain resistant and for those with sensitive skin, it is hypo-allergenic. Unlike linen however, it does not wrinkle much and with the plant originating in water, lotus fabric is waterproof! It comes in many different colours: yellow, green, a soft red, chocolate, orange and light purple with a 4 yarn count. Every scrap of this fabric is precious so every scrap is utilized in some way. Scraps of yarns are twisted into wicks for pagoda lamps. Since the 'lotus wicks' are from plants growing in water, they are thought to 'cool the flames of worries' of those who burn the lamp. Scraps of the fabric are often made into mini-robes for small Buddha figures, decorated with sequins and beads. I would love to have a tiny scrap of that fabric just to see what it feels and looks like.
Here are two wonderful videos from the company Samatoa which documents the full (and fascinating) process of lotus fabric production. From harvest to the final product. Take a few mins to have a look.