Making of: Kalaga Tapestry, Myanmar
Words by Emily Lush, Photos by Go Myanmar/Lann Say Thaw, Expat Alien, The V and A Collection, Video by British Council Myanmar
Kalaga tapestries, known in Myanmar by the name of the main technique, Shwe Chi Toe (gold thread embroidery), have a long history of production in the country’s north. One of 10 Pan Seh Myo or traditional art forms that emerged in Myanmar during the Bagan era, Kalaga techniques were once used to furnish pagodas and dress members of the royal family. Today, there are more than 50 tapestry workshops in and around Mandalay, Myanmar’s cultural capital and the traditional centre of Kalaga production.
The women who make Kalaga tapestries typically work in small groups, seated on the ground around a horizontal wooden frame. Black or white base cloth is tightly pulled across the frame to form a canvas for the applique and embroidery. It is set at chest level to give the women easy access to the underside of the cloth. Designs are first transferred to the base cloth in chalk. These can be either traditional, derived from Burmese cosmology, folklore and poetry (such as the Jataka and the Ramayana), or modern, conforming to contemporary motifs (such as elephants).
Most designs consist of a central scene with layers of borders. To make the Kalaga, pieces of fabric, velvet and satin are affixed tapestry-style to the base cloth with gold stitching.
Cotton wool is carefully inserted between the layers of cloth to achieve different elevations for different elements and the impression of a three-dimensional scene. Finally, dense layers of bead and sequin work, glass stones and seed pearls are added using gold and silver thread.