A French designer in Cambodia has produced ecological face masks from lotus fibre to supply local and international markets with an eye on preserving ancestral techniques and supporting Cambodian women in rural communities.

During a trip to Asia, Awen Delaval, an eco-friendly fashion designer, was moved by the way the rural Cambodian community lived.

Lotus flowers have been harvested in Cambodia for generations. The flowers are considered holy and multi-beneficial. From its root, petal, and seed, the flowers have been used in medicine, cuisine, cosmetics, and desserts.

But lotus stems are not considered valuable and most frequently called waste.

Delaval hit on the idea of developing a natural fabric and reviving the lotus fibre textile in Cambodia after seeing discarded lotus stems everywhere after being used for religious rituals.

Turning unwanted lotus stems into organic fabric not only contributes to a positive community economy, but also promotes social, cultural and environmental awareness.

Through his research, the art of creating lotus fabric was practised thousands of years ago. Documentaries mention that the inhabitants of Inle Lake’s floating villages in Myanmar continue the ancestral craft.

“We now harvest the stems and weave our lotus fabric from them. And, we have made high-quality fabric, clothing, handbags, and scarves.

“Lotus fabric has unique properties. It is naturally soft, light, especially breathable, and almost wrinkle-free.

“It is also an eco-friendly fabric containing no chemicals or toxic products. It’s probably the most ecological fabric in the world. We transform waste into a quality textile that does not use any polluting energy in the process,” Delaval says.

He believes a social enterprise that utilises lotus stems could support the most vulnerable women in rural areas.

“With a mandate to provide sustainable products for the environment, I fund and manage the eco-textile company Samatoa. Since its founding in 2003 the company has expanded to offer full lines of high-end quality fabrics, clothing, handbags and scarves,” he says.

In 2009 Delaval set up a laboratory in Siem Reap province in search of the perfect lotus to create the unique fabric whose raw material came from Battambang province.

French eco-friendly fashion designer Awen Delaval. Photo supplied

Kamping Pouy Basin has become a main source of lotus for Samatoa. It is located between two mountains – Phnom Ku and Phnom Kamping Pouy – in Battambang province.

“Setting my eyes on a spectacular 10,000ha lotus lake at Kamping Pouy Bassin, I knew I had found my nirvana. The lotus appears as the cornerstone of my project when I am surrounded by historic spirituality.

“Lotus offers symbolism, the nobility of the soul, beauty and purity. For Samatoa, the lotus represents the culmination of the company’s ultimate quest for excellence,” he says.

In an interview with The Post, Delaval recited a popular Asian saying that, “a pond without lotus is like a home without women”.

Therefore, Samatoa was established to empower vulnerable woman from small villages to be financially independent and able to support their families with a decent job.

In 2016, he tested the lotus fibre for the first time at the prestigious French Institute Of Textile and Apparel (IFTH), a laboratory.

“Since 2016, we had all the knowledge about the exceptional properties of lotus fibre in general and when my family, friends and clients needed protective face masks, I already knew that the lotus microfibre was the best solution,” Delaval says.

He says the lotus fibre was one of the first natural microfibres in the world and he claims it is better than any synthetic microfibre.

“Properties of lotus fibre are superior to any other material known for fabric, in terms of filtration, breathability and comfort. It is a uniquely soft and breathable fabric and we developed the prototypes of our new collection to respect the heath of the people who will wear the face mask,” says Delaval.

To produce the lotus face mask, Delaval has studied and followed the different recommendations from the Association Française de Normalisation (Afnore) standards in France and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US to create our pattern and sew it together to make the final lotus face mask.

From the harvest of the lotus stems to the finished lotus face mask requires a lot of effort and patience.

It takes a farmer four hours to collect 100kg of lotus stems. Then a woman manually washes 100kg of stems with an iron brush. When the stems are cleaned, lotus fibre is extracted from them and deposited on a meter-long table to produce pure lotus fibres.

Samatoa lotus fibre face masks come in varying designs. Photo supplied

Delaval says each mob of lotus fibre is 20cm by 100cm. It will be divided into five sections to be used for five individual face masks.

A worker who spends an hour to create a mob for five face masks can earn around $0.50 per mob. If a worker did the job together with her family members, they will be able to earn around $20 per day.

“A woman can produce from 40-80g of fibres per day and make roughly 40 to 80 face masks, while a tailor can sew approximately 40 face masks in one day.

“Samatoa produces the ‘classic’ lotus face mask which uses two layers of high-quality organic cotton and one layer of pure lotus microfibre which retails for between $7-$12 each,” he says.

From washing the stems, extracting the fibre to mob, cutting fabrics, dressmaking and packaging, Samatoa started to produce 50 masks per day. Now the social enterprise produces around 200 daily.

“We need to produce 25,000 face masks per week to answer the needs of our clients in the US and France mainly. Many other wholesalers have asked to represent us in many other countries. If we do well to answer the needs in France and the US, we will be present in the UK and Spain as well,” he says.

However, the main challenge now is the shortage of recognised certification and material supply.

“The lack of recognition will lead to limited market expansion plans.

The production needs to expand its capacity. For that, we have partnered with AAC (Artisans Association of Cambodia) to tap into their strength. Growing production capacity from 200 to 3,000 masks per day needs extra labour,” Delaval says.

He says the team consisting of AAC director Sinoeun, Nimul from Rajana, supervisor Channa from Prey Veng and Patrice from Battambang have all travelled across the country to train farmers selecting the best stems, and equip and train unemployed women to create the lotus mobs.

Customers can purchase lotus face mask in Phnom Penh by calling 012465686. In Siem Reap province, it can be purchased from Croq Me Restaurant or by calling 017572071.

Residents in France, the US, and Australia can buy the lotus face masks from Lotus Paradis Brand, Zelia, Trace Brand, and Neue Brand.

Samatoa is located on road 63, Phnom Krom, Siem Reap province. For more information, log on to website: www. samatoa.com or call 092 529 001.