24 Jul Exploring the Textile Trail in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has held a fascination for many people with its tea estates producing exquisite tea flavors. The national parks have a variety of animals and birds that holds the interest of many intrepid safari goers. The west coast beaches are famous in the surfing community for the quality of the surf. Captivating the Gem collectors is the outstanding range and quality of the gemstones found in Ratna. Marco Polo wrote that Sri Lanka had the best gemstones in the world, sapphires, topazes, amethysts and other gems.
Little known for its walks Sri Lanka has a varied landscape ,with walks named ” Worlds End ” which fuels and inspires the imagination of the intrepid day trekkers.
I have found personally that the generosity and kindness of the Sri Lankan people is outstanding.
For myself, the textile Industry has been my interest and I was lucky in 2018 to travel a small section with this journey of discovery in mind.
Negombo the beginning
I awoke to the rhythmic sound of the sea breaking upon the shore. My plane touched down in the wee hours of the morning into Sri Lanka and now I was happily relaxing in my room at the Ice bear Guest House in Negombo. Today was to be one of relaxation, exploration and enjoyment of the sumptuous food served at the guest house. The township of Negombo is some what recognised for its numerous churches and strong catholic leaning. I lost count of the number of churches we passed as we meandered through the back streets.
Negombo Fishing Port
My drivers stories of rival gang fisticuffs and other dark deeds in the fishing port community had me viewing the area with fascinated eyes. He made it appear dark and sinister which was hard to believe in the warmth and sultry heat of a tropical day.
The Dutch Canals by boat
The solo boat trip on the dutch canals was a high light for me. It gave an insight into village life, its landscape of verdant trees , spectacular bird and animal life.
The British project of the construction of the Dutch canals commenced in 1802 and was completed in the year of 1804. The reason behind the construction was to drain salt water from the Muthurajawela wetlands.
The 14.5 kilometers canal became an important route for transportation of people and goods from Puttalam through Negombo to Colombo.
My Canal Journey
The feather hues of the purple herons was spell binding to view and the monitor lizards swiftness in navigating the canals kept you captivated.
In my research on the Dutch canals I was very happy with the discovery of this boatman. The reason being, his superior knowledge of bird life on the canals and of the waterways. This knowledge he is passing on to his young grandson, the next generation of boatmen.
The comings and goings of village life was fascinating as the boat quietly navigated the canals.
As dusk descended we finished our boat ride. The boatman and his grandson saw me back to the Ice bear Guest House.
We unfortunately became stuck in down town Negombo in a traffic jam, it was peak hour.
We made a decision to pay the tuk tuk driver his fee and enjoyed the walk of a few kilometers to the guesthouse.
It was heartfelt the boatman’s chivalry of returning with me to the guesthouse entrance. I felt some sadness as I watched him and his grandson disappear down the road into the descending tropical dusk.
The next day began and I spent it in the search and enjoyment of gathering textiles and making new contacts.
Sri Lankans are known for their skillful embroidery, flamboyant designs and colour combinations.
I bought from the weavers colourful cushion covers and modern designed table runners.
South Coast hidden gems
Jally my driver and I headed south down the coast to track down a batik artist. In the process of finding the artists studio in the back blocks of nowhere we become bogged and partially lost.
I first came across Batik as a child living in Fiji. My favorite skirt was a blockprinted Batik. I loved the rich mish mash of earthy colours.
Batik is a “resist” process for making designs on fabric. The artist uses wax to prevent dye from penetrating the cloth, leaving “blank” areas in the dyed fabric.
An interesting fact regarding the wax resist / dye process is that it can be repeated many times to create complex multicolored eye capturing pieces.
I discovered that the two main types of batik can be either hand-painted or block printed.
They differ in production techniques, motif and aesthetic expression.
The artist used both techniques depending on his creative endeavor.
I bought a piece for myself, the iconic Sri Lankan fishermen on stilts.
Beeralu ( Bobbin ) Lace
The ancient textile art of Beeralu (Bobbin ) Lace has been documented in Sri Lankan history books for 600 years.
The Beeralu ( Bobbin) lace was made popular during the 1600s with the Portuguese Invasion. Then subsequently developed by the Dutch into the golden age of Bobbin Lace.
It is first thought that the Malays brought this lace making technique to Sri Lanka.
The art of Beeralu ( Bobbin ) lace is prevalent in many villages on the southern coast of the country. I was on a mission to locate this lace.
I was lucky to discover and spend time with a family of 3 generation’s of ladies keeping this art form alive.
The weaver explained the process to me that they begin by hand-drawing a pattern of the lace design onto graph paper.
The weaver explains, they dot the graph paper with round headed pins following the hand drawn pattern.
IIn the next step the weavers then can wrap the completed graph paper design with the pins around a lace pillow.
The next step of the process the weaver explains is that several lengths of thread are woven or braided around the pins using the wooden bobbins.
On completing this step it gives the weaver the ability to weave an exquisite piece of lace using the designed pattern around the pins.
A point of interest of Beeralu (Bobbin) lace is that it can use different working threads such as linen, silk, wool or cotton threads.
Unfortunately the art of Beeralu (Bobbin) Lace is time consuming in comparison to the bulk produced machine-cut lace products.
In comparison the machine lace does not compare with the authenticity, quality and beauty of Beeralu ( Bobbin ) lace.
I was lucky to buy pieces to sell and pieces for my own textile collection.
Most importantly Beeralu (Bobbin) lace has its uses with costume designers on movie sets and this certainly assists to keep the art alive.
Next time you are watching a period drama and notice the lace, it quite possibly is Beeralu ( Bobbin) Lace.
Mirissa township fringes two beautiful sandy bays separated by a rock island which is accessible at low tide.
Mirissa has surf waves, whale watching at certain times of the year, great bars and restaurant’s.
Its a great place to relax and chillout. A visit to the secret beach is a must.
The Spice House
Slow whirr of the overhead head fan as i sit drinking tea overlooking a sumptuous tropical garden, bird calls flood the air. The breakfast at the Spice house in Mirissa was lavish. The warm tropical heat makes ones body feel heavy and relaxed to the point of not wanting to move or venture from my chair. I had booked in for a massage, a wander on the golden sanded beach and some photography at dusk was on the agenda.
The possibilities are endless in Mirissa.
I would highly recommend the Spice house, lovely unique cabins and gorgeous rooms in the main house. The cabins nestle amongst a stunning back drop of tropical plants and as night falls exquisite lamp light guides you along a maze of mysterious paths. In the evening sitting in the dining verandah by candlelight watching the dusk fall across the garden was most relaxing. The chief creates sumptuous meals which were very delicious. I cannot forget to mention the gorgeous friendly family dog.
The couple who own it are a wealth of knowledge of the area.
Cotton Shawls and other wonderous items
As we continued down the coast, evidence of the damage from the Tsunami has left it’s scars. Damaged homes, vacant rubble strewn blocks.
In downtown Galle monuments are prominent showing the depth of the sea that swamped and left rampart destruction in its wake.
With diligent research I was able to locate a family run weaving workshop set amongst the greenery of the jungle.
The owner explained the weaving process occurring in his family run workshop.
The narrative began with importance of the requirements of high quality cotton yarn imported from South India. If the quality is not there they can not produce the beautiful textile products.
The Dyeing process
The creation of woven items begins with the cotton yarn placed in a large vat and simmered with soda ash for two hours which scours the thread .
The cotton yarn is hauled from the vat draining off the soda ash and then the threads are rinsed with clean water to remove the residue of the soda ash and dried.
An interesting fact is that the dye is Ph dependent which determines the intensity of the dye colour.
The weaver explained the term ” mordant phase” : it means a fixative process that allows for the dye uptake into the thread.
The cotton yarn moves next into a large vat with the mordant and simmers for one hour. The next step is too rinse the cotton yarn in cold water, air dry it ready for the dying process.
The dye process depends on the need for intensity of colour. This in fact decides whether the cotton yarn is dyed for certain period of time or only dunked in the dye vat.
The person after completing the dying of the cotton yarn washes the threads in a tub of cold water and then the threads are hangs them up to dry.
From Spindle to the Hand Looms
The owner explains during my tour of the weavers workshop the spinning of cotton threads to the spindles has been mechanised. He quoted it makes a time consuming process easier and produces high quality thread.
Setting up the hand looms with the threads is a time consuming process. This task requires patience and a high level of skilled workmanship with a high level of concentration for design detail.
I could not help purchasing some gorgeous table clothes and brightly coloured cotton handloomed shawls that portrays the vibrancy of South Sri Lanka for my shop.
Most importantly the weavers will design and create textiles to cater to your needs.
During my travels I have witnessed first hand that the skilled work force is aging and consequently the art of hand -loomed textiles is in danger of extinction.
The younger generation are discovering easier ways of making a living and are not taking up the traditionally taught skills.
Thoughts on Sri Lanka
On my bucket list for the next trip post covid is:
- Exploration of the mountains and the weavers who work in that region
- Delft Island in the Palk strait, Northen Sri Lanka. Why do I want to visit? My Interest in this island is that it is home to a herd of wild horses who are steeped in mystery. It is further thought they are descendants of horses brought with the Portuguese soldiers in the 1600s. This will certainly indulge my photographic passion of horses.
Sri Lanka, I am highly recommending for a holiday, whatever your desires are, Sri Lanka will deliver.