Lotus silk is one of the rarest fabrics in the world, produced only in small scale across Cambodia, Myanmar, and, more recently, Vietnam. This natural fiber is only extracted by a few skilled craftspeople across the world. But making this silk isn’t easy. Extracting enough lotus silk for one scarf can take two months, and the final product can cost 10 times as much as regular silk. So just how is it made, and what makes it so expensive?
Phan Thi Thuan’s family have been making silk for generations, growing and harvesting the threads from silkworms themselves to create luxury garments. But making lotus silk is different. Silk usually comes from silkworms. They’re kept on wide trays and need to be fed almost 24 hours a day with mulberry leaves. The caterpillars delicately spin threads to create their cocoons, and it can take hundreds of silkworms to make a kilo of silk. But while the insects require careful looking after, they do most of the hard work themselves. The key difference between the bright yellow silk and the paler lotus version is that every single strand of lotus silk must be extracted by hand.
Each thread of lotus silk starts with the stem of the lotus flower. The lotus is Vietnam’s national flower and a plant that’s grown across the country. While this fabric has been made for years in Myanmar, Phan Thi Thuan only started experimenting with this fiber in 2017. Once the stem is selected and picked by hand, the silk inside can be extracted. Each stem contains a minuscule amount of thin, sticky fibers, which must be rolled together and dried. The threads need to be processed within 24 hours while they’re still wet; otherwise, they’ll break. And so harvesting has to be done each day. And the lotus plants are only available to harvest between April and October. Once you’ve gone through the hard work of extracting these fibers, they’re incredibly delicate, too.
Once dry, these threads are carefully weighed down and delicately hand-spooled. Then they’re put into the loom. These fibers are fragile, but once woven, can be as durable as traditional silk. Phan has a team of 20 workers creating these fibers each day, allowing them to produce 10 to 20 scarves each month. But when a 25-centimeter scarf can sell for just over $200, the hard work is worth it. The final product is unlike any other fiber. It’s soft like silk, breathable like linen, and slightly elastic. These luxurious traits have made it popular with tourists searching for rare souvenirs. It’s also recently been picked up by international fashion brands searching for new luxury fiber.
But its scale has been limited, as there are still few trained in the making of these silk threads. But despite the work involved, Phan Thi Thuan is hoping that this skill could one day grow to become a larger industry.