The Lotus flower, or Nelumbo nucifera, has long been a revered plant in Asia, where it serves as a divine symbol for both Buddhists and Hindus. (The name "Padma," like the moniker for Top Chef hostess Padma Lakshmi, actually means "lotus.") Revered for its unsullied beauty rising out of the mud, lotus flowers are also popular for water gardens and can be grown from seed.
The plant's fibers can, amazingly, also be used to create cloth—a very rare and labor-intensive cloth. The plants' stems are sliced off, before workers gently pull out long strands of fiber—about 20 to 30 filaments—out of the stem, the strands looking like silky spiderwebs.
The threads are then washed, dried, and then hand-woven on looms. For a yard of fabric, it takes filaments from about 32,000 lotus stems, and each 100-yard batch of fabric takes about a month and a half to complete.
The development of the lotus-root fabric is only woven in one spot, Kyaing Kan village, at the southern tip of Inle Lake in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Textile historian Sylvia Fraser-Lu wrote that the development of lotus-root fabric began around 1910 when a woman, Daw Sa Oo, wanted to create a set of robes for a nearby monastary's abbot from the lotus plant. She succeeded, and she and her friends began to weave one or two sets of robes per year, given as gifts to local monks.
In the 1980s, local craft cooperatives, managed by women, began to spring up in the area, with many devout local women weaving the fibers gathered by younger women in the community, during the harvesting season, from June to November, when the level of the lake is the highest. The production of the fabric remained small.
Thread and fabric woven from the lotus root plant. Photo: Loro Piana
A decade later, in the 1990s, Japanese couture designers wanted to acquire more fabric for their designs, but the local community was divided about whether the fabric, which was previously an exclusively religious fabric, should be commercialized. Some entrepreneurs set up workshops to create fabric for the foreign market, but as demand from Japan was low, lotus-fiber cloth remained a rare, handmade textile.
Lotus fabric jacket from Loro Piana.
But in 2009, the head of luxury Italian brand Loro Piana, one Pier Luigi Loro Piana, discovered the fabric after receiving a length of it from a Japanese friend. Impressed by the fabric's breathable and wrinkle-free qualities, Pina traveled to Myanmar to learn more about the fabric and offered to buy the entire line of production—about 55 yards per month—for his company. Loro Piana has made the fabric into jackets, which cost about $5,600 per jacket. The jackets are not available for sale in the United States, due to sanctions on imports from Myanmar, though it is possible that the manufacturing of the jackets in Italy changes the status of its country of origin. Nevertheless, Loro Piana is marketing lotus fiber fabric as a new luxury textile—sort of a summer cashmere for the man who has everything.
Claire Lui is the online editor for GardenDesign.com.