Smile and Pyae Maung are one of Myanmar’s most adored couples. She is a famous actress who hails from a film production family, and he is a scratch golfer who played for the Myanmar National Golf Team. Their careers evolved from the arts and sports to the telecom industry in 2006 with what started as a calling card business based in London. Under the names of Smile Empire and Smile Online Cinema, their businesses have evolved to the realms of digital content partnerships, mobile payment apps, entertainment, gaming, and hospitality.
Now, the pair have become sort of de facto ambassadors for their motherland. The couple are spending more time in Los Angeles with their two teenage daughters with the dream to create cross-cultural dialogue between South East Asia and the West.
“We hope to bring our culture to our adopted home of 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 Shwedagon pagoda and Kyaiktiyo temples.”
“Many people have never heard of Myanmar,” adds Pyae. “We’re proud of our diverse Southeast Asian country. We have a long history of artisanship and cultural traditions we are eager to share.”
Ever the emissaries, it was through them I’d learned of Myanmar’s prized artisanal textile, lotus silk. This silk—which is amongst the most rare in the world due to the short harvesting period for the raw materials, the skilled craftsmanship it requires to create it, and the sheer time it takes to weave it—is painstakingly created by hand and takes upward of two months to create one scarf. Because it is extracted and made completely manually the price of lotus silk is more than 10 times the amount of traditional silk making it one one of the most rare, and expensive, textiles in the world.
The Maung’s passion for promoting this fabric couldn’t come at a more opportune time as the world contends with ethical issues around textile and garment production that ranges from labor to pollution to non-biodegradable waste. Because lotus silk is spun from the moist strands of fiber within the stem of the lotus plant and is made completely without machinery, this type of silk is not only all-natural and vegan, it is also biodegradable.
“The production method may be labor-intensive but in many ways it’s sustainable because it’s natural, hand-made from start to finish and can be put back into the earth without causing damage,” says Pyae.
While lotus silk hails from Myanmar, it has been replicated in Vietnam and to a lesser degree in India where the the lotus plant grows. The process of making this fabric begins with the harvesting of the stems which only takes place during the rainy season which lasts from mid May to late October. The harvesting must take place daily because the threads, which are gently pulled from the interiors of the lotus stems, must be processed while still wet which is a period of 24 hours. Each of these stems contains only a tiny amount of the fiber, which is thin and sticky, and must be gently rolled together to create a strand of thread which is then left to dry. This extraction process is the most time-consuming part of the creation of this silk.
It takes about 200-250 stems to create the thread alone, and this is by the hands of a fast and skillful worker, at that. Once the threads have dried they are wrapped around a spool (again, by hand) before being fed into the loom for weaving.
If the end goal for the weaver is to create a 24” x 68” piece of fabric, then it takes about 9200 lotus stems to do so. An artisan studio–one with a small team that specializes in making this textile–may output about 20 scarves per month. The result is a fabric which has the softness of silk with a highly elastic quality, and yet breathes like linen.
“The Lotus fabric is natural breathable, gentle to the touch, naturally stain-resistant, waterproof, and wrinkle-free,” enthuses Smile.
Luxury brands have tried to utilize lotus silk into their collections such as the high-end Italian house known for exquisite textiles, Loro Piana. After the house’s founder, Pier Luigi Loro Piana, was gifted lotus silk which he made into a sport coat for himself, he fell so in love with the fabric that he replicated it using Lotus Silk and introduced it into the collection with a retail price of $5,600. By any standard, that is an expensive jacket. Now, imagine that price tag over ten years ago when Loro Piana first released it. They continue to create clothes which use Lotus silk to this day.
There’s not been much movement of Lotus silk into the high-fashion sphere because of the challenge of sourcing the material at scale—it simply takes too long to produce the fabric. Although it’s this unavailability which makes it so covetable and allows it to remain as one of the most expensive textiles in the world.
“The Lotus blossom holds tremendous significance in our culture for many reasons such as purity, rebirth, and ascension,” explains Pyae. “More personally for me, it is part of my wife’s and my story, our romance. In the beginning of our courtship, I brought my wife 7 Lotus flowers at 7 am in the morning, and that was the turning point for us. We became a couple after that.”