Kalagas: The Golden Tapestries of Myanmar

The only light inside the room filters through slits in the woven bamboo walls. A man hunches over a curious handmade apparatus, wrapping copper wire around a rod to form a small, tight spring. He methodically turns, coils, and cuts off centimeter-long segments of the spring, giving them to several little boys seated on the floor, each before a piece of tree trunk that serves as a low worktable. A boy places a spring on a metal plate, covers it with a smaller metal template, and begins to pound with a hammer. Copper is soft and easily worked; after a minute or so of pounding, the flattened spring is transformed into a flat disk with a small central hole—a sequin! Cup-shaped sequins are formed using a cup-shaped template. The copper sequins are strung on cord, then taken behind the cottage, where the electroplating solution and auto battery are kept, and coated with a silver-nickel mixture.

sequin tapestry of a buddha figure

Gold-thread and sequin tapestry called a kalaga of a Buddha figure, made in Myanmar (formerly Burma). Photograph by Joe Coca.

My husband and I saw the sequins being made in 1987 in a small village near Mandalay in Myanmar (the name of the country changed from Burma in 1989), where we were vacationing, following a business trip to Southeast Asia. I was interested in the traditional beaded, embroidered, and sequined ceremonial tapestries called kalagas (a Sanskrit term for Indian wall hangings), and we had begun our tour of their manufacture by watching the sequin makers.

Early tapestries were used as screens or wall hangings in religious buildings, as coffin covers at monks’ funerals, as doorway covers, and as oxcart decorations. Adherents of Buddhism perform merit deeds; one such act is to commission and donate a tapestry to a Buddhist temple or monastery. Contemporary kalagas may even depict modern-day secular scenes.

sequin tapestry horse

Gold-thread and sequin tapestry called a kalaga made in Myanmar (formerly Burma) with a central figure of a horse. Photograph by Joe Coca.

Making the embroidered and appliquéd kalagas is a cottage industry that involves many villages, each of which specializes in producing a certain craft in factories that are family homes, cottages woven of bamboo. Simple furnishings and hammocks are pulled out of the way to provide as much working space as possible for the family members and neighbors involved in the craft work.

Sara’s complete article is in the March/April 2017 issue of PieceWork. The original version of this article appeared in the November/December 1995 issue of PieceWork.

To learn more about other needlework from around the world, check out these back issues: