Exploring Textiles in Sri Lanka

Exploring Textiles in Sri Lanka

Hand loom Sri Lanka
Handloom Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has held a fascination for many people with its tea estates producing exquisite 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 hikes, Sri Lanka has a varied landscape ,with hikes 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 Journey begins

Sunset Sri Lnak
Sunset Sri Lanka

I awoke to the rhythmic relaxing sound of the sea breaking upon the shore. My plane had 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

Catch of the daay

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.

Brief History

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.

Canals Negombo Sri Lanka
Serenity and peace as we drifted along the Dutch Canals

The 14.5 kilometers canal became an important route for transportation of people and goods from Puttalam through Negombo to Colombo.

My Canal Journey

In my research on the Dutch canals I was very happy with the discovery of this boatman. The reason being, is that his superior knowledge of bird life on the canals and of general historical life of the waterways. This knowledge he is passing on to his young grandson, the next generation of boatmen.

The feather hues of the purple herons was spell binding to view and the monitor lizards swiftness in navigating the canals kept you captivated.

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 escorted 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.

Exploring textiles

The next day was spent in searching and buying handloomed textiles. Sri Lankans are known for their skillful   embroidery, flamboyant designs and eye catching colour combinations.


Embroidered Cushions

South Coast hidden Textiles

Batik Artist

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.

making Batik
Painting Batik

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.

Ancient Textile Art of 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.

The Art 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 Process

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.

bobbin lace finished product
Finished Bobbin Lace

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.

Heavenly Mirissa

Sunset in Mirissa

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.

Cotton Shawls and other wonderous textiles

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.

Exploring the Weavers Workshop

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.

Mordant Phase

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.

Spinning of the cotton threads
Spinning of the cootn threads

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

Light house Negombo

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.

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