Business is blooming for lotus fabric producer Samatoa. Marissa Carruthers discovers how the humble flower is being transformed into one of the world’s most expensive materials. Photography by Charles Fox.
A sea of pretty pink flowers decorates an expanse of water. The sound of looms echoes around a wooden platform, where women huddle over stacks of stems as they work away to create one of the world’s most expensive fabrics.
“Thanks to the lotus, we are connecting some of the richest people in the world with some of the poorest people,” says Frenchman Awen Delaval, pointing at a farmer wading through knee-deep water, plucking out ripe plants along the way.
On a reservoir on the road to Phnom Krom, Siem Reap, sits this stunning, six-hectare blanket of more than 600,000 pink and white lotus plants. Despite the flowers being a familiar sight in Cambodia, unbeknown to many is that fact that they can be used to make material.
When Delavel, who relocated to Cambodia from Brittany 11 years ago, was told in 2009 about robes made from lotus fibres worn by Burmese monks during an annual celebration, the designer of eco-friendly fashion decided to investigate further.
He set up a laboratory at his Siem Reap home and hit the Kingdom’s roads in search of the perfect lotus to create the unique fabric. As soon as he set eyes on a spectacular 15-hectare lotus lake at Kamping Poy, near Battambang, he knew he had to set up shop.
“My main objective was always to provide something sustainable for the local environment,” he says. “This is why I wanted to work in Battambang, because some of the people who live around the lake are the poorest in Cambodia.”
Delaval’s next step was to recruit two Cambodian weavers, who spent almost two years collecting the fine fibres found inside the flower’s thick stem and transforming them into soft threads that can be woven into a material that, in terms of touch, sits somewhere between silk and linen.
“At first we used a traditional Cambodian loom but because the fibre is so fragile, it just snapped,” he recalls of thousands of unsuccessful trials. “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.”
However, their patience paid off and now Delaval champions the Cambodian material across the world, selling jackets for more than $2,500 and dresses worth much more in Hong Kong, America, Europe and Singapore.
“The lotus in Cambodia is probably the most beautiful in the world,” he says. “And it creates one of the most exclusive fabrics in the world.”
Selling at more than $350 per metre of fabric wholesale also makes it one of the most expensive materials in the world. The pain-staking, slow and meticulous process involved in creating the thread justifies the price, Delaval explains.
Four times a day, stem collectors hit the lakes to collect ripe plants, which are replanted every three years. The stems are cut from the flower heads and then washed before being carefully snapped to reveal about 30 delicate fibres contained inside.
Skilled workers place the fibres on a damp table and gently roll them into a tight, single thread. A further 11 layers are then twisted together. Then there’s the complicated process of connecting the short lengths of thread together to form one long, strong fibre which can be woven on the adapted loom. Fabric is then coloured using natural dyes such as eucalyptus, water lily and bougainvillea.
In one day, a weaver can produce around 200 metres of thread. But it can take a month to produce the 3,000 metres needed to make just one metre of fabric. “Making the thread takes 90 percent of the time,” weaver Srey Toch says. “It takes two months to make the fabric and it can be tailored in a couple of days.”
The result is well worth the wait and comes in the form of a soft, breathable fabric. Other benefits are that it is water and stain resistant, wrinkle-free and quick drying. Its exclusivity has led to Samatoa taking orders right up until mid-2015.
“We’re a very small company and the problem is producing the volume people require with the resources we have,” he says. “Everything has to be done by hand and one metre of fabric uses 17,000 flowers so you also need to grow a large volume of plants.”
This, coupled with providing employment and skills, is something Delaval is well on his way to achieving. The Battambang farm now employs 40 people, with a further 10 working at the Siem Reap farm and visitor centre, which opened in November. A third Phnom Penh farm is also being planned to help him hit his target of employing 500 people in the next five years.
And with the lotus, nothing goes to waste. Petals are dried to make infusion tea, soaps and oils, and seeds are transformed into jewellery. “The lotus flower truly is the most amazing flower in the world,” Delaval says.
For more information, visit samatoa.com. The Siem Reap visitor centre is open daily from 10am to 6pm