Lotus silk in fight for survival as cost becomes King
The year 2020 will go down in history for a host of reasons, one being that the COVID-19 pandemic shut borders that had long been open wide for trade.
Vietnam’s garment and textile exports fell to VND35 billion (US$1.5 billion) last year from VND39 billion in 2019. The sector as a whole, though, still managed to post a profit amid all the doom and gloom — significant in an industry that employs 2.8 million Vietnamese.
“2021 may be no brighter,” Le Tien Truong, chairman of the Vietnam National Textile and Garment Group (Vinatex), told Sunday Vietnam News ahead of the group’s year-end conference in Hue.
“Overall global demand for garment and textile products will decline from an estimated $740 billion to $600 billion. Fashion companies will see profit fall by 93 per cent,” Truong said.
“Under such trends, the ‘best case’ scenario is for overall revenues to reach 2019 levels by the third quarter of 2022, while the ‘worst-case’ is that level being reached by the last quarter of 2023."
“More broadly, Vietnam’s garment and textile sector expects to grow between 8 and 11 per cent this year and meet the targeted VND39 billion in exports, which is back to the 2019 figure, if the world is not placed on lockdown.”
He went on to say that "the current fashion trend is in favour of casual outfits at a lower or cheaper price."
"If you are a garment company that doesn’t export or doesn’t make casual wear for a massive customer base, your future will be one of survival."
Aspire to thrive
Amid the cancellation of a host of fashion shows and with fashion houses closing down and modelling contracts disappearing, one Hanoi-based designer decided to spend three months and quite a sum of money on a new collection using high-quality fabric made from lotus stems.
The first fashion designer to use lotus silk in a collection, Vu Viet Ha, who has made his signature ao daifor prominent artists and diplomats in Vietnam, such as singers Tung Duong and Kyo York, among others, felt he must do his best to bring out the beauty and luxury of the fabric.
“I fell in love with this special, delicate material when I went to Phung Xa Village in the craft-rich land of an outlying district, west of Hanoi,” Ha told Sunday Vietnam News.
“I use silk and raw cotton to highlight the special features of the lotus fabric.”
Fabric experts say silk is very refined, soft and smooth, whereas lotus fabric can be rough and not as comfortable.
But Ha said he’s so fascinated by the exquisite fabric that he decided to launch a special collection to take lotus silk to the next level.
Lotus silk has been crafted in Vietnam for the last 10 years.
“Its standout feature is it can stretch, and while the surface looks slightly rough it feels soft and retains a light scent of lotus,” he said.
“The downside is that it also stretches when hung on an embroidery frame, twisting the design.”
So he came up with a solution to provide more silk lining for the gowns he makes. For some designs, he must use three or even four layers of silk lining.
Most expensive fabric
The lotus (Nelumbo Nucifera) also known as Indian lotus, sacred lotus, or Egyptian bean, is the national flower of both Vietnam and India.
The images of lotus flowers, leaves and buds are found in pagodas and temples all around Vietnam.
The lotus represents the purity of a sacred soul, which cannot be spoiled by its surroundings. It is also used to teach young children and even adults to overcome challenges in life while maintaining their dignity.
It truly is the much-loved national flower of Vietnam, from the Plain of Reeds in the Mekong Delta, where miles and miles of lotus grow in marshlands, to small ponds nestled among rice fields that offer both beauty and a full harvest.
In the heart of Hanoi, the hundred-petal lotuses grown on family-owned segments of West Lake create a beautiful summer landscape. These families also provide lotus flowers that make the best and most precious lotus-scented tea in the city.
Historical documents reveal that lotus silk was at one time only grown at Inle Lake in Myanmar and Siem Reap in Cambodia, where it was used to make special robes for Buddha statues, called lotus robes.
Now a traditional silk weaver from Hanoi, Phan Thi Thuan was the first craftswoman to make lotus silk in Vietnam, adding herself to a small list of lotus silk makers around the world.
Most of the process is done by hand, from picking the stems to pulling out the thin fibre.
In order to have a metre of lotus silk, an artisan must use more than 11,000 lotus stems while craftswomen require hundreds of hours at work. One square metre costs VND30 million (US$1,300), or the equal of a garment worker’s salary for three months.
The natural colour of lotus silk is a shade of ivory. Madame Thuan also uses natural leaves to dye it, but each time the final batch exudes a slightly different colour, which means you can’t have two batches with the same colour dye.
“It drives me crazy,” said the owner of an embroidery house that provides embroidered scarfs, traditional long robes, ao dai(Vietnam’s national dress), and other hand-made items. “Sometimes I have to wait for months to have two metres of lotus silk to make a scarf!”
But Ha doesn’t see an issue. “My customers are familiar with the fabric, so they actually prefer that it is always unique in colour,” he said. “They don’t mind if the two flaps of their ao daiare slightly different shades, as this proves the exquisiteness of their unique style.”
Bridging the past and future
“I’ve been wondering how to best preserve Vietnam’s weaving tradition,” Ha said. “I believe I am the ‘fabric knot’ that connects the past and the future of fashion.
“I spent all of my savings on this collection, making robes for a mother and her eight-year-old daughter with all my heart and soul.
“I believe that the finest quality of this fabric — the luxurious use of natural resources — is a treasure in our heritage of growing and cultivating lotus and teaching our children about overcoming challenges in life while keeping their own values.”
Ha has been fascinated by the style of long robes Vietnamese women wore in the 1930s. Redesigned and created by painter Le Mur in Hanoi, a trend began that continues to this day.
The utmost care has been taken in creating the collection and he sews all of the important details by hand.
“I attached the buttons to the robe, giving it the attention needed,” he recalled. “I fell asleep while working on it many times, but when it was completed, I felt my mission had been accomplished.”
Van Phuc silk village is renowned for its traditional silk trade and high quality products, making it one of the most visited craft villages in Vietnam.