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How first Vietnamese ‘lotus silk’ weaver rose to success

Vietnamese weaver Phan Thi Thuan hitches up her
trousers as she wades into a lotus paddy to gather the stems needed to make a
rare and highly sought-after thread.

Her great-aunt made and sold traditional silk to the French during colonial
rule, passing the technique on to Thuan, who started weaving when she was six
in her village on the outskirts of Hanoi.

But three years ago Thuan spotted a new opportunity in the lotus stems left
to rot in nearby fields after the seeds had been harvested for food.

She began extracting the fibre found in the stems to make “lotus silk”, an
exclusive fabric highly sought by fashion designers.

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“I was the first in Vietnam,” the 65-year-old told AFP proudly.

“I started all by myself, then I trained those already in my workshop,” she
added.

Farmers often toil for hours to clear lotus paddies of rotting stems, which
ruin the soil and bring unwanted insects.

But thanks to her vision, Thuan today leads a team of about 20 mostly
female workers who snap off the stems in the paddies, before they tease out
the fragile fibres and roll them into thread.

Dressed head-to-toe in brown silk and wearing a pearl necklace — the same
outfit she dons as she picks through the lotus paddies — Thuan describes her
work.

It’s a painstaking process — a large scarf requires the thread of around
9,200 stems and would take one worker around two months to complete — but
Thuan insists it’s worth it.

“I see this as my task now, to generate jobs, and to do my bit for the
environment,” she said, adding that during busy periods, she employs hundreds
to weave from home.

The profits are another reason to persevere.

While a regular silk scarf might go for 20 dollars, even a smaller lotus version
— popular with pre-coronavirus tourists — fetches more than 10 times that.

Although lotus silk is made in a handful of countries — including Myanmar
and Cambodia — Thuan is seen as an innovator in Vietnam.

She has been supported by the Ministry of Science and Technology, which
kickstarted a three-year national-level project to further develop the
harvesting technique.

Thuan also runs training sessions during the school holidays, hoping to
show children there is space for dynamism even in this ancient profession.
Nguyen Thi Xoa, 40, was taught by Thuan in 2017 and she now wants her
children to follow in her thread.

“At the beginning it was very difficult, but now I love doing it,” she
said. “It’s a stable job and I’m proud of it.”(AFP)

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