Lotus Silk: A Sacred Luxury

Lotus, the national flower of India is more than just its beauty. A flower of religious and cultural importance, blooms out of mud. This symbol of purity and knowledge serves many purposes. The pastel petals, the large green leaves and the brownish stems are of high value. The lotus stems, apart from being nutritious are much appreciated for its fibers. Delicate, thin strands of fibers are extracted from the lotus stem and woven into fabric with silk-like properties and are thus called “Lotus Silk”.


Image-1: Lotus silk fabric

How did extracting Lotus Silk come into practice?

Extracting fibres from lotus stems have been in practice since 1910. Later during the 90's designers of Japan setup workshops to create a foreign market for their fabric. But due to low demand in Japan, lotus fibre fabric remained a rare and handmade textile.

Lotus silk is extracted and woven in Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and even some parts of Manipur. Lotus silk is one of the most expensive and rarest fabrics in the world.

What makes Lotus Silk such a luxury?

One of the major reasons is that the entire process of manufacturing Lotus fiber is completely manual. This natural fiber is only extracted by a few skilled craftspeople across the world. It is a highly time-consuming process. Moreover, the quantity of fabric produced is also limited.

Also did you know, extracting enough lotus silk for one scarf can take two months, and the final product can cost 10 times as much as regular silk!

Process of Lotus Silk Manufacturing:

Step 1: Lotus Harvesting

Lotus of different shades and colours are spread across thousand of water bodies and are harvested during the rainy season of June – November. The threads need to be processed within 24 hours while they're still wet; otherwise, they'll break. So, harvesting has to be done each day.


Image-2: Lotus harvesting | Image source: www.youtube.com

Step 2: Lotus Fiber Extraction:

The stems of the lotus flowers are gathered by younger women in the mornings. Stems of the lotus plants are collected, cut, snapped, and twisted to expose its fibres. These stems are cut with shallow knife and 5-6 stems are snapped at one time, which reveals 20-30 fine white filaments of fiber. These filaments are drawn out of the stem, hung to dry and then rolled into single thread of 100-yards in length. It is very painstaking and time-consuming process. To keep one weaver busy; around 25 thread makers are required.


Image-3: Lotus fibre extraction | Image source: www.thetextileatlas.com

Step 3: Preparing the Lotus Yarn

Fibres extracted from the stem are spun into yarn. Extracted fibres are placed in the skeins on a bamboo spinning frame to prepare yarns and transfer the thread into winders for warping. Threads are made; up to 40 meters long to avoid entanglement. The threads are then taken from the warping posts, and are coiled into huge plastic bags. Yarns for the weft are wound into bamboo bobbins. 

Image-4: Lotus yarn preparation | image source: www.thetextileatlas.com

Step 4: Weaving of Lotus fabric

Fabrics are woven in the traditional looms. The woven fabric has a width of approximately 24 inches. During the process of weaving, threads are frequently moistened with water, as lotus fibres need to be kept cool. The fabric is woven in 100-yard batches, and it takes about a month and a half to complete one batch. It’s 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 leftover pieces of fabric are made into sequin-studded robes for mini-Buddha statues.


Image-5: Lotus fabric weaving | image source: www.zenvoyage.com

Step 5: Dyeing of Lotus Fabric, Fibre and Yarns

Only Natural dyes are used on lotus fiber. Natural dyes are made from the bark of a tree, flower petals, leaves, and fruits. Yarns are dyed in skein forms in different dye baths. After dyeing, fabric and skeins are dried outside in sunlight.

Image-6: Dyeing of lotus yarns | image source: Pinterest

The Lotus fabric is the first natural microfiber and probably the most ecological fabric in the world. The plain-woven pure Lotus fabric is recommended for jackets, one piece and dresses, as it is hard wearing and soft. The airy pure Lotus fabric is recommended for scarves, as it is especially breathable and light. Because of the time-consuming nature of the thread-making process, pure lotus cloth is rare and expensive, retailing at up to 400 USD per piece. For this reason, it is often mixed with cotton or silk.

Properties of Lotus Fiber:

  1. It is a cellulosic fiber and finest aquatic fiber. (Waterproof fiber)
  2. It is cool, stiff, breathable and comfortable fiber.
  3. It has good elasticity.
  4. It is Crease resistant fiber.
  5. It absorbs moisture but dries fast.
  6. Fabric produced with this fiber has outstanding properties.
  7. It doesn’t contain any chemical or toxic products so it produces ecological fabric.
  8. The manufacturing process doesn’t require any gas, petrol, electricity or additional water.
  9. The lotus flower is a phyto sanitary plant that cleans the water in which it grows and preserves the ecosystem while protecting fish and insects.
  10. The whole process takes place within the framework of sustainable development.

Disadvantages of Lotus Fiber:

  1. Raw material collection to yarn spinning and weaving is completely handmade so the process is time consuming and expensive.
  2. The lotus fabric must be woven within 24hours to prevent the deterioration of fiber.

Lotus Fiber Extraction in India:

In India, Lotus Silk Fiber is extracted in certain parts of Manipur. The practice of Lotus fiber extracting has been popularized in the Bishnupur district of Manipur by a 27-year-old girl, Bijiyashanti Tongbram. A few kilometres from her home is Loktak lake, which is the largest freshwater lake in the Northeast region. This lake is famous for its numerous small islands known as phumdis and the thousands of lotuses blooming in it. Since learning the technique to extract the fibre and spin the thread, Bijiyashanti has opened her own enterprise named ‘Sanajing Sana Thambal’ and decided to teach this method to other women in her village. She spent months watching videos online and reading about the method of collecting the lotus stems, cleaning them, and extracting fibre.

To start producing garments at a faster pace, she thought about teaching the method to other women in her area, and employing the local community.

Bijayshanti said, “ In 2019, when I spread the word around my village, seven women joined me and I taught them how to extract the fibre and do the weaving. Then, the word spread to other nearby villages and a total of 15 women were trained. Their ages range from 22 to 50. By January 2020, I trained 40 people and 20 of them continue to make the thread. 7 of them work from my home-unit and the others have their wooden tables and spinning wheels to extract the fibre. I buy back the fibre from them and stitch neckties, scarves and also plan to make face masks. To make the garments we use a traditional bamboo-based loom”.

Bijiyashanti hopes to soon open an online store with the products she is now beginning to make and sell, and even export her products.

Taking Lotus Fiber Global

Samatoa, an eco-friendly design and textile mill which pioneers in fair trading in Cambodia, is working with Cambodian women to improve their living conditions by providing them quality training in making the lotus fabric. They make use of sustainable ways and promote the natural textiles of the country. They aim to take this fabric on a global platform.

Conclusion

Lotus Fiber is traditionally woven in Cambodia and is relatively unknown. It is an exceptionally eco-friendly fabric. It is an upcoming natural fiber and can be used in its pure as well as blended form. Functional clothing like Ayurvastra can also be prepared using it due to Lotus’ exceptional medicinal value. A fiber with so many beneficial properties and absolutely sustainable can be of great value if popularized.


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