Traditional Crafts in Burma

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While we were in Burma we saw a lot of interesting traditional crafts including pottery in Inle Lake, woodcarving in Mrauk U and hand weaving  in the Chin villages.  When you have the opportunity to visit with individual crafts people it's wonderful but  often crafts are billed in tourist itineraries as a way to  shuffle you through a  brief explanation (or demonstration) in order to end with the inevitable "exit  through the gift shop". It's important to know what sort of  "craft" experience you're getting. Sometimes it is interesting to see how things are made, for example seeing gold leaf pounded by hand in Mandalay, but overall I have no interest in commercial shops and I prefer to buy directly from the artisan. 

There is a lot of traditional weaving in Burma and many different ethnic groups have woven designs associated with their culture, which are still worn for specific occasions such as weddings. In the areas where we saw weaving this appears to be women's work.
In the Chin villages (above and below) women weave by hand using small hand looms. They also spin the cotton (or was it kapok?) by hand which is a time consuming job. However, they sell directly to tourists which keeps the money within the community and provides local employment. As you can see these are simple looms which are anchored around the woman's backs to stretch out the piece they are working on. These were much simpler than the hand and foot larger looms we saw in Inle or the ones that we saw some years ago in remote villages in Assam.

This lady was so pleased when I picked out her piece. The only question is why didn't I buy more?

Particular crafts are often identified with families, villages or neighborhoods. At Inle lake we visited a village where they specialize in large pottery jars created for the local market, again crafted by the women and girls though the men stoke and run the in ground kiln at the edge of the village.

They were so welcoming and so proud of their work.
Also on Inlewe visited a small silk weaving factory where the women do piecework using large treadle looms. The weavers are gathered into a small faculty settling but the looms are all still operated by hand. They weave in silk and cotton but they also produce a silk cord made from the Lotus plant which we had not seen elsewhere. We visited late in the day  and I was interested to see the move to  small scale, semi-industrial production of cloth.

As you can see above, this is detailed work and they create highly sophisticated designs. Below the weaver is laying out the threads at the beginning of the process. Iimage that this place would be intolerable if you hit it at the same time as a tour group. There is indeed an extensive gift shop. 

In Mrauk U the guide was proud of the  variety of the local craftspeople and brought us to several ateliers. It was interesting that they were not geared towards tourist visits and in several there was nothing to buy. We were privilege that he took us to meet a local sculpture who was working on a large commissioned piece, a sculpture of a locally renowned figure. He was working in clay to create a large wax model that will be used for a bronze casting. You can see the photograph he was working from on the wall on the left.
From here we went on to a local carver's workshop. He works in both wood and stone and  currently he has a huge stone carving order  for a new hotel. You can see one of the finished pieces behind him on the left. There was nothing here to buy but they were happy to have us come in, sit down and see what was going on.
There were the stone blocks waiting to be carved in the street outside his house.
In a village near Mrauk U this family specialized in  making small fans woven from palm leaves. This woman worked rapidly to make us two heart shaped fans, each from a single frond, in a few minutes. You can see them stacked on the right.

You can see the pride people take in their trades in Burma and it was wonderful to get the opportunity to see so many craftspeople at work.