Myanmar producers of indigenous textiles eager to export but lack infrastructure

As Myanmar’s economic and political reforms continue at a steady pace, its indigenous traditional textiles could become commercialised. Myanmar does not yet systematically export its traditional fabrics and there are no official associations to promote the industry.

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Published in Twist International, 2014

A Padaung tribeswoman weaving silk in Bagan, Mandalay.
A Padaung tribeswoman weaving silk in Bagan, Mandalay.

As Myanmar’s economic and political reforms continue at a steady pace, its indigenous traditional textiles could become commercialised. Myanmar does not yet systematically export its traditional fabrics and there are no official associations to promote the industry. It currently relies largely on tourists for small-scale revenues.

But that could change. Myanmar is unique in the region, because its most renowned ‘silks’ are actually not made from silkworm threads, but from lotus buds. The tourist hot spot of Inle Lake in Shan State is currently the only location in Myanmar where lotus fibre is extracted and used to create textiles on any significant scale. Its soft texture is similar to a mixture of standard silk and linen.

According to Khine Jiu Jiu Lynn, sales manager at Khit Sunn Yinn, a lotus, standard silk and cotton weaving centre at Innpawkohn village, Inle Lake, Shan State, a product made from lotus bud is seven times more expensive than regular silk due to its many qualities, which include being naturally stain resistant, waterproof, soft to the touch, breathable and wrinkle-free.

“A single stick of lotus bud costs Burmese Kyat MMK4,000 (USD4.05) and a single scarf requires…20 days’ work, which is why it costs around USD75 [retail],” she told Twist International.

While about 80% of scarf purchases are made by international tourists, Ms Lynn said the majority of lotus products are currently spun into robes for monks and sent to the cities of Yangon and Mandalay for commercial sale. Although lotus silk is rare and expensive, monks acquire the robes through donations in the Buddhist majority nation.

Myint Thein Htun, the owner of Khit Sunn Yinn, a fourth generation family-run business, said that he is keen to export his products and has the capacity with 120 skilled workers, but fears a lack of quality control could be a problem.

Workers’ feet are also used to operate looms, making it a highly labour intensive process.
Workers’ feet are also used to operate looms, making it a highly labour intensive process.

“We can’t export because our products because they’re hand-made. Customers want their textiles to be uniform, and we can’t guarantee that, particularly for the finishing and colours,” he said.

He pointed out small imperfections in scarves, explaining, “A weaver can only use their eyes to see whether a thread has broken. If we were using machines, the machine would automatically stop when a thread breaks. Also, hand-woven mistakes can’t be fixed. Likewise, because we hand-dye the colours, we can’t ensure the colours are uniform.”

Mr Htun added: “We could buy machines but this is a local industry and a lot of people would lose their jobs.”

For the time being, he said he is content to sell to tourists – visiting the beauty-spot Inle Lake in increasing numbers since political reforms began in 2011. His business gained international recognition by winning several awards at the ASEAN Silk Fabric and Fashion Design Contest ASEAN Silk Fabric and Fashion contest, staged in Bangkok in 2010. “No such awards exist in Myanmar,” he lamented.

Mr Htun added that a significant number of tourists refrain from purchasing indigenous silk products because, “They see scarves being sold on the streets of Thailand and Cambodia for an absolute fraction of the price that ours sell for – but what they don’t realise is that those products are made from polyester.”

An intricate Burmese loom used to create raw silk and lotus silk textiles.
An intricate Burmese loom used to create raw silk and lotus silk textiles.

U Kyaw Aye, general manager at Injynn Development Company, a Myanmar trading company selling garments, oil and gas and telecommunications and a former industry ministry technical planning officer said: “None of the traditional forms of textiles are mechanical,” so as regards bulk mass exports, “there’s not much to hope for because it’s so time-consuming and output is low. Unlike commercial textiles, Myanmar’s indigenous textiles are not made by the bale of 30 to 50 yards, but rather in short pieces.”

But he warned, if the industry were to mechanise, “the quality and texture wouldn’t be the same again.”

So the likelihood is that Myanmar fabrics will remain a scarce item, of potential use for luxury apparel brands and manufacturers. As yet that potential has yet to be realised, he said: “It’s unlike Thailand’s silk industry, which makes good money selling items such as neckties – Myanmar’s are more of a novelty item which a few tourists and businesspeople take out.”

Nevertheless, Mr Aye stressed the potential. Production costs in Myanmar are currently low compared to potential competitors in Thailand, India and China.

The owner of Khit Sunn Yin, Myint Thein Htun in Inle Lake, Myanmar.
The owner of Khit Sunn Yin, Myint Thein Htun in Inle Lake, Myanmar.

Furthermore, the diversity of products created in Myanmar is staggering: each of Myanmar’s 135 officially recognised ethnic groups has its own unique patterns and traditions, and powerful customs associated with various textile products.

In Chin State culture, for example, it is customary for a bride to weave a large blanket with homespun cotton and silk, dyed with herbs and woven in a back-strapped loom, maybe containing herbs and leaves. When one partner dies, the blanket is cut in half and wrapped around the body. The other half is stored until the other spouse passes away – it is believed that the blanket serves to unite the spirits in the afterlife.

As for standard silk from silkworms, much of the silk is grown in Mandalay, with key weaving centres in Rakhine state, based in the ancient capital of Mrauk U. Thandar Win works at a silk and cotton shop in downtown’s Yangon’s bustling Bogyoke Market, selling local handicrafts, gems and artwork. She told Twist International: “Burmese silk isn’t as shiny as Thai silk and much of Thailand’s silk products are made with machines. It’s the same in China. The Burmese regard the quality of Chinese silk as inferior to ours, which is why we never sell it, even though it’s cheaper.”

As for traditional cotton weaving, there are also regional craft industry centres such as Kachin state, as well as in Rakhine state.

Inle Lake in Shan State, Myanmar, is the only place in the world where lotus silk is used to make textiles.
Inle Lake in Shan State, Myanmar, is the only place in the world where lotus silk is used to make textiles.

The patterns of indigenous textiles, whether made from cotton, raw silk, pure raw silk and lotus bud silk, differ greatly from one region to the next. Mandalay is famous for criss-crossed designs, which are washed and dyed before spinning to create a softer fabric. Meanwhile, Inle Lake manufacturers are well known for ‘ikat’ dyeing techniques used to pattern textiles that uses a resist-dyeing process similar to tie-dye textiles, which was initially developed in Indonesia.

As Mr Htun explained, “Before 1932, Myanmar artisans just made plain stripes. My great-grandfather went to Thailand to learn how to make ‘ikat’ – the Thais had previously learnt it from the Indonesians. And it spread from that moment on.”

Nyan Lynn Aung, director of Fine 9, an advisory firm that connects foreign and domestic investors in Myanmar, (most often regarding garments), said he received his first inquiry about importing Myanmar’s indigenous silk products, from a buyer in New York, this month (February 2014).

A weaver using a loom to create lotus bud silk at Khit Sunn Yin in Inle Lake, Myanmar.
A weaver using a loom to create lotus bud silk at Khit Sunn Yin in Inle Lake, Myanmar.

“Myanmar’s indigenous textiles definitely have potential. Of course, like anything, it depends how you sell it and how it’s set up, but much like free-trade coffee beans, buying ‘Made in Myanmar’ indigenous textiles could be seen as very trendy and ethical,” he told Twist International. Mr Aung suggested that repurposing traditional textiles into bags and belts could become a boom industry.

However he added that “investment – as well as at least some technology – is needed for the sector to properly develop.”

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