Textiles of Burma (Myanmar)
Lecture by
Sylvia Lu
December 14, 2008

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Archaeological finds indicate that textiles in Burma date back to pre-historic times to the pre-Buddhist Samon river valley civilization c. 700 BCE-100 CE. A series of historic migrations of various groups of people who entered the country at different times mainly from the north and east out of Tibet and South-west China, has resulted in a complex ethnic brew of over 120 distinct groups speaking some 250 languages. This diversity is reflected in the country’s textiles for dress and ornament have long served as a key visual element that distinguishes one group from another.

Minority groups such as the Chin, Kachin, Naga, Karen, Kayah, Lisu, Lahu and Hmong, most of whom live in clan-based egalitarian village communities or hereditary chiefdoms in the more remote uplands around the periphery and practice slash and burn agriculture. Most were traditionally animistic and honored the ancestors, but since the last century many have converted to Christianity and Buddhism. Each ethnic group may be readily identified by their distinctive ‘traditional’ hand-woven textiles worn on ceremonial occasions that have been made from home-grown cotton and woven by female family members on body tension looms. Contacts with neighboring groups and the availability (or lack thereof) of raw materials has led to modifications in the basic dress of many minority groups.

The lowland peoples such as the Burmese, Mon, Arakanese and Shan who constitute a majority of the population are traditionally wet rice agriculturalists and largely Buddhist with a history of state organization. Their weavers, both family and professional, have over the centuries produced a wide range of textiles from local and imported yarns on distinctive floor looms, not only for their own personal use but also for the royal courts and the Buddhist monkhood. Despite government isolationist policies, urbanization, globalization and textile technological innovations have also brought about changes to what is being worn and how textiles are made and used in Burma.


A New Zealander by birth, Sylvia Fraser-Lu after graduating from Otago University, spent many years as an educator in a variety of teaching and administrative positions in East and Southeast Asia. Her growing interest in Asian arts and crafts led her to begin writing articles for Arts of Asia and reviews for Oriental Art in the late seventies-early eighties. Books for Oxford Press soon followed such as Indonesian Batik: Patterns Processes and Places (1986), Handwoven Textiles of South-East Asia (1988), and Silverware of South-East Asia (1989). She also served as series advisor to Oxford University's Images of Asia Upon her husband's retirement to the United States she served as Program Assistant at the Asia Society's Washington Center. In recent years she has turned her attention to Burma with publications such as Burmese Lacquerware (Orchid Press, 1985 and 2000, Bangkok) and Burmese Crafts: Past and Present (Oxford Press 1993, Singapore, and Splendour in Wood: The Buddhist Monasteries of Burma, Orchid Press, 2001. She continues to teach and lecture on Chinese and Southeast Asian art and is currently working on a book on Burman textiles.

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