Smile and Pyae Maung are one of the most loved couples in Myanmar. She is a famous actress who hails from a film producing family, a scratch golfer who played for the Myanmar National Golf Team. Their career evolved from arts and sports to the telecom industry in 2006 with what started as a London-based calling card company. Under the names Smile Empire and Smile Online Cinema, their business has evolved into the areas of digital content partnerships, mobile payment applications, entertainment, games and hospitality.
Now, the couple has become a kind of de facto ambassadors for their motherland. The couple spend more time in Los Angeles with their two teenage daughters as they dream of establishing an intercultural dialogue between Southeast Asia and the West.
“We hope to take our culture back to our adopted home in the United States by drawing on our traditions of architecture, textiles, cuisine, and even homeopathy,” says Smile. “We plan to build a Buddhist monastery, which will be open to everyone, in the Los Angeles area, and build replicas of the Shwedagon Pagoda and Kyaktyu.”
“A lot of people haven’t heard of Myanmar before,” Bey says. “We are proud of our diverse country in Southeast Asia. We have a long history of craftsmanship and cultural traditions that we are eager to share.”
Ever the envoys, through them I had learned of Myanmar’s precious handicraft textile, lotus silk. This silk is considered one of the world’s rarest types of silk due to the short harvest time of the raw materials, the skilled craftsmanship it takes to make, and the huge time it takes to weave it – painstakingly hand-created and rising. Two months to make one scarf. As it is extracted and made by hand, the price of lotus silk is more than 10 times the amount of traditional silk making it one of the rarest and most expensive textiles in the world.
Mong’s passion for promoting this textile could not have come at a more opportune time as the world grapples with ethical issues related to textile and apparel production that range from labor to pollution to non-biodegradable waste. Since lotus silk is spun from wet fiber strands inside the stem of the lotus plant and is made entirely without machines, this type of silk is not only natural and botanical, but also biodegradable.
“The production method may be labor-intensive but in many ways sustainable because it is natural, handcrafted from start to finish and can be returned to the earth without causing damage,” says Beay.
While lotus silk hails from Myanmar, it has been replicated in Vietnam and to a lesser extent in India where the lotus plant grows. The process of making this weaving begins with picking the stems which is done only during the rainy season, which lasts from mid-May to late October. Harvesting should be done daily because the threads gently pulled from the inner parts of the lotus stems must be treated while they are still wet which is 24 hours. Each of these stems contains only a small amount of fibers, which are thin and sticky, and must be rolled together gently to create a strand of thread and then left to dry. This extraction process is the most time consuming part of making this silk.
It takes 200-250 stems to create the thread on its own, done by a fast, skilled worker, at the time. Once the threads are dry they are wrapped around a bobbin (again by hand) before being fed into the loom for weaving.
If the ultimate goal of weaving is to make a 24″ x 68″ piece of fabric, it would take about 9,200 lotus stems to do so. A craft studio, which has a small team that specializes in making this fabric, may produce about 20 scarfs per month. The result is a fabric that has the softness of silk with a high-elastic quality, yet breathes like linen.
“Lotus fabric is naturally breathable, pleasant to the touch, naturally stain-resistant, water-resistant, and wrinkle-free,” enthuses Smile.
Luxury brands have tried to use lotus silk in their collections such as the upscale Italian house known for its exquisite textiles, Loro Piana. After the founder of the house, Pier Luigi Loro Piana, he was talented The Lotus Silk, which he made as a sports coat for himself, fell in love with the fabric so much that he replicated it with Lotus Silk and presented it to the collection at a retail price of $5,600. By all accounts, this is an expensive jacket. Now, imagine that price over ten years ago when Loro Piana first released it. They continue to make clothes using lotus silk to this day.
There hasn’t been much of a lotus silk movement in haute couture due to the challenge of sourcing the material on a large scale – the fabric takes too long to produce. Although its lack of availability is what makes it so desirable and allows it to remain as one of the most expensive textiles in the world.
“The lotus flower holds immense importance in our culture for many reasons such as purity, rebirth, and ascension,” explains Beye. “More personal to me, it’s part of my wife’s story and my story, our romance. At the beginning of our adventure, I brought my wife 7 lotus flowers at 7 in the morning, and that was a turning point for us. We became a couple after that.”