Colour my world: the textiles of Sri Lanka

Barefoot's design house, Sri Lanka.

I have fondled hemp throws in Morocco, lusted for Kashmiri embroidered cushions, gone cammo with Arabic scarves, and when my husband told me not to buy any carpets in Iran I deduced the man was obviously delusional: I was going to Persia, home of the rug. He'd given up by the time I announced the Sri Lanka trip.

In my defence, textiles are surely the ideal souvenir. They usually pack down easily, they're not fragile, they are useful and, importantly, they are a direct link to a country's culture.

I showed him photographs of women working on traditional handlooms and waxed lyrical about the colours of the country: peacock blue, russet red and saffron yellow.
"You have to use bright colours in Sri Lanka because of the sunshine," says British interior designer George Cooper, who has lived in the southern seaside town of Galle for the past decade and stamped his mark on a string of villas along the coastline.

"In England and France, muted colours work, but you have to up your palettes here.

Traditional batik.
"The colours are more primary. They're simpler."

The country's textiles were born in the time of legend, says Sri Lanka-born, Melbourne-based textiles artist Cresside Collette. She's talking way back: as far as the Ramayana, the Indian epic from 3000BC; in Sri Lanka's royal chronicle, the ancient Mahavamsa, even the queen is spinning yarn.

Cresside, who recently led a new textiles tour through her home country, says the main industries are weaving, lacemaking, embroidery, dyeing and batik. Don't expect the massive factories of Bangladesh or India: Sri Lanka's textiles industry is small, secretive and, in some instances, even dying out. You'll need a knowing local on hand to help eke them out.

Luckily, I have Cresside's tips and my friend Andrea, a writer, guide and friend of the arts, who has a flair for design. Happily, she's also an English-speaking Dutch burgher - an exotic, ethnic blur of of Dutch, Portuguese and indigenous Sri Lankan: the woman is a strolling atlas.

In Galle, the Portuguese element is obvious in the southern province's reputation for its cotton lace. Intrepid Portuguese were blown off course from the Maldives and landed here in 1505. "There's a strong sense of Lisbon through the lacemaking," Cooper says.

One morning, as I leave my hotel, the luxurious Amangalla, a quiet man sells me a beautiful child's white cotton nightdress. Strips of handmade lace decorate the chest, hem and armholes, and although a delicate white dress is a green light to my rambunctious daughter for wildness, I have to buy it. I'm undertaking a classic transaction that's been taking place for centuries: Amangalla's own history notes recall local Sinhalese women sitting tatting on its verandah, making lace to sell to tourists until the 1970s.

Waxing a batik. Photo: Alamy.
Andrea translates for me the story of Manikku Badathuruge Priyani - or Priyani, for short - an internationally recognised lacemaker. Now 53, she first sat down to lacemaking when she was five, the fourth generation in her family to do so. Her work is stocked in local handcraft stores including Lanka Hands and Laksala, and each year, in her tropical home, she tats snowflakes that are exported to Finland as Christmas ornaments.

Priyani has a cabinet full of awards for entrepreneurship thanks to her own one-woman campaign to preserve the craft by visiting stay-at-home women and disabled women, giving them knowledge and small orders. You'll spy Galle lacemakers' work on the silver screen in Jane Austen movies Persuasion and Mansfield Park, yet she's not optimistic about the future of lacemaking.

"It's hard to sustain and is dying out rapidly because of the lack of resources to preserve this craft that has survived for hundreds of years and preserves our Portuguese heritage," she says, echoing the time-old complaint: "Young people are not interested."

In contrast, handloomed fabric is enjoying a renaissance, as we Westerners fall in love with the seeming simplicity of design and clarity of the colours employed by Sri Lankan designers. Treadle looms weave bright tableware, and rolls of fabric are on sale in the country's high-chic shops.

In KK Collection, Cooper's interiors shop in Galle, I unfurl cotton handloomed fabric from its roll. The cotton is woven in villages near the capital, Colombo, hand-dyed into smart stripes using vegetable dyes, which creates variation that is frowned upon by puritans but loved by those of us who see humanity in its imperfection.

Loom weavers at work. Photo: Cresside Collette.
On her tour, Cresside visits the cloth weavers of Dumbara Valley, Sri Lanka's indigenous weavers, who draw on the countryside for inspiration. In little Henawela village, the traditional motifs of elephants, deer, peacocks and snakes gallivant along agave fibre stained with plant dyes and woven into mats. All cotton used in Sri Lankan fabrics is imported, mostly from India. Sri Lanka is about the same size as Tasmania but with a population of about 20 million, and while its rumpled geography is fine for delicate tea terraces, it defers to India's vast plains to produce raw cotton.

The bright interiors of another indigenous design house, Barefoot, are a celebration of all that's wild and lovely on the island. In 1958, Barefoot's founder, textiles designer Barbara Sansoni, began teaching village women weaving and needlecraft. Under principal designer Marie Gnanaraj, they now create vivid, high-quality, hand-woven and hand-dyed fabric while earning a living wage, and their beautiful fabric, toys and fashion are exported all over the world, including to Australia.

While I love a good shop, show me the creator and I'm sold. You're bringing that person's skills into your home. Cresside ventures in to the village workshops around Kandy that specialise in mat weaving, silversmithing and wood carving, and on to Matale Heritage Centre, between Kandy and Matale.

The centre is at Aluwihare, the ancestral home of batik and embroidery artist Ena de Silva, dubbed Sri Lanka's grand dame of batik. Her signature pieces are a wild batik ceiling in the Bentota Beach Hotel and a set of banners of heroic proportions, hanging in front of Sri Lanka's parliament. De Silva is widely regarded as one of the major catalysts in Sri Lanka's craft revival: her women's co-operative operates out of Aluwihare, where local villagers balance wax and dye to create traditional batik. Their embroidered cushions and toys are for sale and lunch is also available.

The time is right for such tours, as Sri Lanka itself awakens to its own riches. The Colombo National Museum has just opened a new textile gallery, and there's an international appreciation for the social consciousness that guides much of Sri Lanka's home-bound textiles workforce.

When I finally, regretfully, leave Sri Lanka, Andrea and I exchange gifts: flowers and wine for my friend, while she presses a handmade paper bag into my hands. Inside is a long scarf, dyed strong fuchsia, grassy green, blood red and a deep royal purple. It is hand-block-printed with a black motif of stylised flowers and bordered with strips of gold.

The scarf encapsulates all that is Sri Lanka: its blazing palette, ebullient nature and the rich embellishment worthy of a culture of tradition and vivacity.

The writer was a guest of Banyan Lanka Tours and Sri Lanka Tourism.



GETTING THERE: Singapore Airlines has a fare to Colombo for about $1125 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne including taxes. Fly to Singapore (about 8hr) and then to Colombo (3hr 40min); see Malaysia Airlines flies via KL from $975 return including tax; see

TOURING THERE: Cresside Collette will lead Active Travel's next Sri Lanka Textiles & Crafts tour July/Aug 2014. From $4842, 15 days. 1300 783 188, see
Her next tour is a 20-day tapestry tour of Europe, from London, September 2, priced from $5950. See

Burmese Lun-taya acheik,
MYANMAR: Join textile designer and weaver Morrison Polkinghorne from Yangon to Bagan and Mandalay, where handloomers create weaves at an inch (2.5 centimetres) a day. The tour coincides with Waterfestival. Departs April next year, from $4500, 14 days, see

LAOS: The 20th-anniversary Laos Textile & Culture tour is escorted by the head of textiles at the ANU, Valerie Kirk. From Hanoi into Laos' mountainous villages, the birthplace of Lao weaving, to Luang Prabang and Vientiane. Departs January 15, next year, from $4375, 17 days, see

INDIA: Gujarat Tribals + Textiles is a five-star tour through western India exploring the clothing, jewellery and fabrics of Gujarat's indigenous people. Departs January 26, next year, from $US7250 ($8095), 15 days, see

MOROCCO: From Marrakesh to the imperial cities of Rabat and Fez,through museums and palaces, experiencing Amazigh (Berber) food and hospitality. Departs September 28, next year, from $3180, 15 days, see culturaltours

With textiles artist Barbara Mullan, travel from Paro to the annual Thimphu Festival, pausing to admire striking architecture and the view from high mountain passes. Departs each September, from $4290, nine days, see

This article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald & The Age newspapers (Australia)
Belinda Jackson


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