Lotus flower stem threads are being woven to create a textile so expensive only the very rich can afford it. Miranda Glasser reports
A new eco-friendly fabric hand made from lotus flower stems has been developed by textile pioneer and Samatoa founder Awen Delaval. Production has already started on clothes to cater to an international niche market for very rich customers.
French-born Delaval, who has run Siem Reap’s fair trade silk manufacturer Samatoa for ten years, had heard about monks in Myanmar wearing special robes made of the lotus flower thread.
“Some very high level monks used to wear lotus clothes once a year for special celebrations,” he says. “They’ve done it for a very long time. They make very few clothes from lotus fibre raw material. It’s not a commercialised product, but it’s been around a long time.” Delaval and his team embarked on a research trip to Kamping Pouy, a large reservoir just outside Battambang, and discovered it was abundant with lotus flowers. It was also an area of extreme poverty.
“For my mind, I came to Cambodia to create a fair trade project and it was obvious to me there was very nice fibre in this lake, with very poor people around it and I wanted to make that link. These people have been living with lotus and selling the seeds for 25 years.”
Drawing on his years of experience working with natural fibres and developing weaving techniques, Delaval decided to try and create a textile that would give jobs and extra revenue to the people of Kamping Pouy. Over twenty people are now employed making lotus fabric.
It took over a year of trial and error to discover how to create the perfect thread, then another year to hone the weaving techniques to produce a high-quality fabric on a par with silk.
“We had to find a technique in order to make a continuous thread without irregularities, where you can’t see the join,” says Delaval.
“After that the second difficulty was weaving it, because the thread is a lot weaker than silk. The yarn was always breaking, being damaged by the teeth of the loom. So it was very difficult to get a fabric that we could commercialise, particularly as we realised it would take a long time to produce one metre of fabric.
“It requires around 6,000 lotus stems to produce one metre. We knew if we succeeded it would be a really exclusive and expensive product.”
The thread is hand-pulled from the lotus stems, twisted to make it stronger and then woven on a traditional frame loom. Delaval discovered some natural products such as lemongrass could be combined with the lotus to strengthen the fibre.
He also recently discovered, purely by chance, that keeping the threads at a cool temperature would improve the weaving and consequently the quality of the fabric.
“Because the lotus is an aquatic plant, we only had one day to cut the stem and make the thread,” he says. “Afterwards we realised there was an easier way.”
Working late one night to get an order finished on a particularly cool and humid evening, the weavers noticed the thread was soft and flexible, not drying up and snapping as it usually would.
Delaval then realised this was thanks to the weather, and started to put ice underneath the loom to keep it cool.
“We saw that it improved the quality of the fabric, and now we are installing a system of water spray to spray vapour in order to keep the thread always flexible, and cold enough. It proves that the fibre is still alive, until the end,” he smiles.
“That’s what I like about natural fibre.” The end result is a soft, breathable, linen-like fabric, naturally neutral in tone, which is quick-drying and repels stains.
“The lotus itself is waterproof and stain resistant,” says Delaval. “When you drop water on the lotus leaves you can see that the water collects the dust – it is self-cleaning because of the texture. It’s a unique property. When we weave it, it’s not totally waterproof. But when you stain it, it’s very easy to wash and it dries very easily.”
Luxury brand stockists in the US and Hong Kong are already queuing to sell lotus-flower jackets which will go for between $3,000 to $4,500, making it something of a niche market.
“We have a very high demand for lotus fabric because it’s really new,” says Delaval. “All our production is booked until June 2014. We have a partnership with luxury brands in the US and Hong Kong – they will open a concept store in November. We will mainly make jackets first, and after we will develop other products.”
He adds, “It’s a niche market for very rich customers. Because the process is very long, and everything is done by hand, it takes more than one month to produce enough fabric to make one jacket. It is also due to the quantity of lotus, the high skills of weaving. I hope in the future it will be more affordable, but it will take time.”
Delaval is also developing a new ‘specific’ brand: eco-fibres such as silk but also new fabrics made from banana leaf, pineapple leaf, and kapok which is a cotton-like fabric.
“Our objective is to try to develop a really large range of natural fibre locally from Cambodia,” he says. “Each time, we work with the handmade process, and we don’t use any chemicals. When we produce lotus, for example, we collect the stems with a boat, by hand.
“After that we make the thread directly on the lake, and then we transport it to Siem Reap where we weave the fabric. We don’t use any electricity in the process, any petrol apart from the transportation of the bobbin, and we don’t use any water. It is probably, I’m quite sure, the most ecological fabric in the world.”