Flower Power

A new micro-Industry is creating a high-end eco-friendly fabric from Lotus blossoms.
A new micro-Industry is creating a high-end eco-friendly fabric from Lotus blossoms.

A new micro-industry creates a high-end eco-friendly fabric from Lotus blossoms.

Cambodia has a strong silk weaving history. Now, thanks to the country’s creativity, the humble lotus is making waves across the world’s fashion capitals. BY MARISSA CARRUTHERS

A thin wooden boat slices through a lake of pink. A man with a checked krama wrapped around his head uses a long wooden pole to meander to the centre of the water, where he will spend the next hour picking the plumpest of lotus plants from the lake they cover on the outskirts of Battambang – a task that is carried out four times a day.

The lotus farmers, who collect an average of one tonne a week, are the first step in a cycle that sees the sacred flower transformed into one of the world’s most expensive, exclusive and eco-friendly fabrics. “The lotus flower truly is an amazing specimen,” says Frenchman Awen Delaval, the mastermind behind the venture.

Delaval moved to Cambodia from Brittany 11 years ago to launch eco-friendly fashion label and textile company, Samatoa. Keen to expand his business beyond the award-winning silk Samatoa is renowned for, while continuing to provide employment to some of Cambodia’s most poverty-stricken, he set about looking for a new project. And it was during a trip to Myanmar that it came to him.

“I heard about monks who wear special, ceremonial robes once a year made from lotus fibres,” he says. “I knew immediately this was what I wanted to do.” In 2009, he launched his quest to create the exquisite material and hit the kingdom’s roads in search of lotus lakes ripe for the picking. When he stumbled across a spectacular 15-hectare spot at Kamping Poy, near Battambang, that was full of some of the finest lotus flowers, he knew he was onto a winner.

“The lotus in Cambodia is probably the most beautiful in the world, and it creates one of the most exclusive materials,” Delaval says, explaining that the country’s plants bear bigger flowers and stems because of the depth of the lakes, which stretch from two to seven metres. The result is a more delicate and pure cream-coloured thread than the Burmese monks’ alternative.

The next step was recruiting two of Cambodia’s top weavers, skilled in the ancient art of hand-weaving. The next two pain-staking years were spent experimenting to find the perfect technique to turn the lotus into luxury thread. They collected the fine fibres from inside the thick stem, transforming them into the delicate thread used to weave the material at a lotus laboratory set up in Delaval’s Siem Reap home.

“At first we used a traditional Cambodian loom, but because the fibre is so fragile, it just snapped,” he says, recalling the thousands of unsuccessful trials involved in perfecting the meticulous process. “We had to adapt and change about 30 pieces of the loom in order to create a long, strong, continuous and rigid thread of the highest quality.”

Patience paid off, and now Delaval champions the Cambodian material across the world, where it sells at more than $350 per metre wholesale, with jackets costing more than $2,500. The material is also manufactured to sell as stunning men and women’s pieces in designer stores in cities such as Hong Kong, New York and Singapore.

It is the length of the process that justifies the cost, says Delaval, adding one spinner produces about 250 metres of thread per day. One dinner jacket requires four metres of fabric, or 1,200 metres of fibre, which means two months’ work for a spinner. Before being woven, the yarn is twisted to boost its strength and then wound around a skein several times. Preparation of the loom takes a further 15 days, with 50 metres of fabric roll taking two months to weave.

The result is a soft, breathable material that is similar to a hybrid of silk and linen. It is also water and stain resistant, wrinkle-free and quick drying. Add to this that no electricity or chemicals are used – with fabrics coloured using natural dyes from lac (a scarlet resin that grows on some plants), eucalyptus, water lily and bougainvillea – and Delaval claims that the lotus fabric is also one of the most eco-friendly in the world.

However, demand remains high and resources are low, with one metre taking about 17,000 flowers to create. With another lotus lake currently in use in Siem Reap, Delaval is looking to expand across the country after securing investment to boost production.

“My main objective was always to provide something sustainable for the local environment,” says Delaval. “This is why initially I wanted to work in Battambang because some of the people who live around the lake are the poorest in Cambodia. It’s incredible because, thanks to the lotus, we’re connecting the richest people in the world with some of the poorest.”