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EFF SOURCE Fashion business success without compromise

13 March 2013

Lotus flower fabric: A new alternative to waterproof synthetics?

Contributor Andrea Krystine

loro piana

Andrea Krystine, SOURCE contributor and owner of Ecologique Fashion, explores the lotus flower fabric and how it could be a new alternative to waterproof synthetics. Image: brand and supplier, Loro Piana

The lotus, also known as the aquatic perennial “Nelumbo nucifera”, has long been a symbol of divine purity in Asian culture. Associated with spiritual awakeness in Buddhism, the lotus represents rising and floating about the muddy waters of “attachment” and “desire” – an allegory for spiritual enlightenment.

Throughout history the lotus has become a predominant symbol of harmony, but now this beautiful plant might provide a harmonious alternative to waterproof synthetics and mass-produced cottons.

In Siem Reap, Cambodia some of the poorest people survive by harvesting the grains of this sacred plant and selling them in local markets. The extracted lotus seeds are typically used in making snacks, pastes, desserts and even medicines to restore health.

The dried seed heads are also popular in flower arranging and are sold throughout the world for decorative purposes. Because of the wide uses of the flower, the lotus is generally picked from its stem, leaving the stems to create a big waste in the lakes.

Best described as a cross between silk and linen, lotus flower fabric is naturally stain resistant, waterproof, and soft to the touch.

Questioning the lotus flower harvesting process, Awen Delavel, French fabric designer and founder of Samatoa an innovative ethical fashion brand, took a closer look at the discarded stems. When examining the stems more thoroughly, he found long fibre filaments inside that created a soft, delicate thread.

He immediately began the research and development towards creating a fabric that could better the lives of Cambodians making less than one dollar a day.

With his 10 years experience as head of a textile cooperative, Delavel was able to develop what is now The Lotus Center in Battamabang – “a unique experimentation studio for research on lotus fibres and sub products”. At first it took a few months of experimentation in order to get the process and costing of the lotus fabric right; it was initially $200 USD for their first litre of fabric, and as productivity and fabric quality grew, the price was efficiently decreased.

Best described as a cross between silk and linen, lotus flower fabric is naturally stain resistant, waterproof, and soft to the touch. This breathable, wrinkle-free fabric was once used to make robes for high-ranking Buddhist monks.

Creating the lotus fabric itself is a handmade artisanal process that requires time and thoughtfulness as it takes approximately 32,000 lotus stems to make just 1.09 yards of fabric; approximately 120,000 for a costume. Beginning with lotus harvesting on Lotus Lake of Kamping Puy near Battambang, stems are cut and gathered by the younger women in the morning and removed of their stubbly nubs.

Within three days of cutting, the stems are bunched, sliced, and snapped apart to expose 20-30 fine white fibres that are then pulled and hung to dry. Once dried, the filaments are laid on a spinning frame, followed by winders for a warping process, and then wound on bamboo bobbins.

It generally takes about 25 women making thread to produce enough yarn to accommodate one weaver. Keeping them moistened, the yarns are handwoven on looms into 100 yard (90 metre) batches. This process takes approximately one month and a half to complete and also integrates a no waste element as all parts of the lotus are utilised- using leftovers to make lotus teas, infusions, and flour.

Pier Luigi Loro Piana, CEO and Deputy Chairman of Loro Piana Group, caught onto lotus flower fabric when a friend from Japan handed him a swath of the fabric in 2009. Since then he has been working in Myanmar, formerly Burma, to create a new, higher-end luxury textile made from lotus flower stems.

Image credit: http://hastenteufel.name/blog/tag/myanmar/

Due to the United States sanctions on imports from Myanmar, Loro Piana is working to make his lotus fabric products sellable to the U.S. market by manufacturing his jackets in Italy- thus changing the country of origin. Although trade is not barred by the EU, Loro Piana is hoping the U.S. will grant lotus flower cloth from Myanmar exempt from sanctions.

Despite these set backs, Loro Piana has been successful in trademarking the “Loro Piana lotus flower fabric” name and plans to sell lotus fabric scarves and blazers that will run about $5,600 USD.

Lotus flower fabric is currently available for sale through Samatoa, an eco-friendly design and textile mill – pioneers of fair trading in Cambodia.

Samatoa works with Cambodian women to improve their living conditions by providing them quality training and long-term professional insertion. In addition, their sustainable design studio is comprised of highly skilled experts in patternmaking, grading, prototype, dressmaking, low impact dying, embroidery, and printing. The organisation was also recently honoured with the ‘Award of Excellence UNESCO’ in 2012 for their new “‘lotus and silk fabric.’

Lotus flower fabric comes in light red, green, yellow, chocolate, orange, and light purple with a 4 yarn count and 80g weight and can be purchased from the Samatoa or Lotus Flower Fabric websites.

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