Our rattan weavers have strong hands, nimble fingers, a strong grip on their toes. They can sit cross-legged on the floor for days without tiring, working reeds between their fingers and pulling them tight. They are built for weaving, their bodies and skills inherited from the generations that have gone before them.
And beyond the subject matter of their chitchat, not much else has changed about the way they weave for hundreds of years. Perhaps the chitchat hasn’t even changed much.
They live in the Ayeyarwady region of southwest Burma, a region where the forests are thick with rattan palms, and where village after village turn the harvested tendrils into trays, lampshades and beautiful bowls. It’s what they do, it’s what they know, and as long as demand keeps up, they won’t be changing professions any time soon.
Now perhaps we’re biased, but we believe they are the best rattan weavers in the world. Their technique hasn’t changed for centuries; it hasn’t needed to. They got it right years ago, so why change it? They still do it entirely by hand, unlike elsewhere in Southeast Asia where machines have largely replaced hands. But hands can feel the tension is tight enough where a machine can’t. Hands can work around an imperfection in the strand where a machine will splutter. Hands can create something perfectly imperfect, each slightly different from the next, where a machine will produce identical pieces lacking in character and soul. Oh, and a machine doesn’t need to be paid, but hands do. We’d rather pay the hands.
The families work in groups, sharing the work between them. We give the designs, patterns and sizes of what we need to the leader of each group, along with enough money to cover the cost of the raw materials and half of the labour costs. They distribute the jobs and keep tabs on the projects. Once the weaving is done, the semi-finished products come to Yangon where they’re sanded and smoothed, fire-treated to remove stray rattan hairs and splinters, then sealed and painted, packed, labelled and boxed for shipping.
Strong hands, a strong material and a strong heritage make for strong products. It would take an incredible hulk to snap one of their placemats in half. You can upturn a bin and stand on it to reach something at the back of a cupboard. One of their trays will still be serving drinks when your babies are celebrating the birthdays of their babies.
They’re truly the best at what they do. And if we can keep selling their products, we can keep ordering from them. Let’s keep the machines at bay.