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  • Writer's pictureKaren Selk

Lucky Strikes and Jack Daniels got us into Burma – Part 2

Part 1 of this Asian Journal was published by your negligent blogger on April 4, 2019. The much appreciated Asian Journal, essays were published in the Treenway newsletter from 1989 to 2011. Today I continue with Part 2 of Burma where we travelled for the first time in May 1986 in search of silk, dyes and textiles.

We found Burma to be rich in textile history. Its traditions lay primarily in cotton fibre and fabric. Silk dyeing and weaving were brought to Burma via war captives from the Assam region of India over 200 years ago. Sericulture (cultivating silkworms) is unknown in Burma because of the Buddhist influence. It is against their beliefs to kill the changing pupae inside the cocoon to extract the silk. The silk they use comes from China, Japan or India. However, the patterns woven into the silk fabrics are very ancient traditional Burmese designs.

Burma and Mandalay in particular, is renowned for silk fabric called “acheik”, cloth of 100 bobbins. It is a tapestry technique, but woven as yardage for longyis (wrap skirts) to be worn for special occasions. It is woven by girls and young women ranging from 12 and older. Having been colonized by the British, education is important and children go to school. They help the family financially by working for a few hours after school. Girls begin to learn the craft of weaving by winding spools and bobbins from hanks of dyed silk at age six or seven. The dyed hanks are first wound onto spools and then onto bobbins to facilitate even tension and removal of snags in the silk weft yarn. Eventually the girls graduate to a loom, with two or three girls weaving side-by-side at one loom. The silk tapestry yardage is woven on a floor loom using 100-300 bobbins across the width of the fabric.

The art of silk dyeing is a man’s job in Burma. Two men work together outside, under cover from the sun when possible. The dyeing is usually done very early in the morning before it gets too hot to work outdoors. They use both hot water acid and cold water fibre reactive dyes, depending on the colour they want. In the past, they purchased their dyes from England and could count on consistent results. Now they are using dyes from China and the quality is not the same. In 1928, the only natural dyes in use were annatto seeds and shan tea which produced beautiful orange and coffee colours respectively. In earlier times, such common dyes as lac, indigo, madder root, cutch papaya, saffron and other indigenous fruits and barks were used. Both expense and time have relegated the use and knowledge of natural dyes to the archives.

Tin, our Mandalay guide, became a very dear friend and kept us busy day and night taking us to visit craft people making paper, gold leaf, puppets, and beautiful objects carved from wood. Tin made our trip to Mandalay very special with rich information about the culture, people, land and textiles.

We travelled up to Taunggi by bus. The elevation gave us some relief from the heat and it had the closest tourist accommodation to our next area of investigation. We hired a truck for the two hour drive down the mountains to Lake Inle. We were on the hunt for silk ikat weaving still being produced on traditional backstrap looms. This tradition was said to be elusive, but alive and well in Inpawkone Village in Lake Inle. Along the way we passed carts drawn by oxen and water buffalo. They were filled with tomatoes on their way to the weekly market. The countryside was open and bountiful, planted with vegetables and rice. The greatest disappointment of our trip lay just ahead. At the lakes edge, where we hired a boat, we were denied access to Inpawkone village. There was too much communist activity recently. Although our Tourist Burma agent tried heroically, she was not able to secure our visit. None-the-less, we went to see the other approved villages whose buildings are all on stilts right in the shallow lake. We boarded a long-prowed motor boat and skimmed through the reeds into open water. One of the villages was a weaving centre for shan bags. The fibre was dyed shades of blue, black and red in the same village, and then the completed bags were shipped to Taunggi and beyond. The bags appeared to be a mix of wool and cotton, and I suspect some synthetic fibres are now being used.

The lake dwelling people have an active “water life.” Fishing, transport, shopping and visiting all take place on the lake. Fishermen have a unique style of rowing with their leg wrapped around an oar, free both hands, while standing up on the flat bottomed boat. Villagers raise many vegetables in huge floating beds in the shallow lake. The beds are held in place by long bamboo poles. It is a calm, exceptional lifestyle. We were caught in the monsoons in the afternoon and took refuge in one of the houses on stilts. It had a shop with a number of textiles for sale and a group of three active weavers making shan bags. Although we did not make it to Inpawkone, we were able to buy a silk longyis woven with pink, yellow and green, colours often seen together in Burma. The following day we stopped at a bakery selling marble cake with stripes of pink, yellow and green.

We arrived back in Rangoon with only half a day for some mad shopping to purchase some of the most extraordinary crafts either of us had seen anywhere. We ended our whirl-wind seven day tour full of wonderful silk information, funny and heartwarming memories, bags chock-full of puppets, lacquer ware and textiles. We left Burma, different people after spending only a short period of time in this incredible land with its petite and prodigious people.


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