Bendigo has a thriving Karen Burmese weaving and textile making community who design and create their work from home or at the Cultural Exchange Hub in the Beehive Building in Bendigo.

In 2007 the first Karen Burmese refugees arrived in Bendigo and over that time more refugees have relocated to Bendigo. Creative Bendigo met with one of Bendigo’s Intercultural Ambassadors and Young Citizen of the Year, Ma Aye Paw to discuss the weaving traditions of the Karen people and meet weaving matriarch, Paw Hla.

“Weaving is a fundamental Karen art and practice in Karen culture, and it is an art the Karen value and teach their children and the generations after.” Ma Paw explains.

Textiles hold the cultural values of the Karen people and traditionally played a significant role in identifying marital status. Ma Paw says, that unmarried young females would wear the white dress known as ‘Chay Moe Wah’, representing purity, innocence and virginity. Married women would wear ‘Chay Moe Thu‘, the traditional black top with red sarong.

“In the Karen culture, brides upgrade their attire to a sarong, which is a long, flowing woven fabric that wraps around their waist. This change marks the rite of passage from singlehood to marriage.”

Traditionally, the groom’s family would visit his betrothed and her family seven days before the wedding, to drink, cook, and eat together, similar to Western engagements. As part of this ceremony, the bride places a red woven bag over the grooms traditional red top, representing stability and responsibility.

“For men, marriage means taking care of their family and becoming the head of the household. After seven days, the male comes to the groom’s village, and they host the wedding”.

Karen brides wear red as part of the wedding attire too, but in this case it represents bravery. By wearing the red top and sarong, the women is saying that she is brave, loyal and truthful to the end. “It means one husband, one wife. I am no longer involved with others. We want our generation to know their roots, their culture, and their identity. We don’t want this to disappear”, explains Ma Paw.

Cotton was grown to produce the yarn for the Karen textiles. The mature cotton bolls were split from the seeds using a wooden stick known as ‘ Doh Kwee.’ After the seeds were removed the cotton was left in the sun to expand, later pounding the cotton preparing it for the spinning wheel. The long, fine thread was then boiled with leaves or tree bark, dyeing it to create the traditional colours ready for weaving.

Paw Hla is an expert weaver who is fundamental to keeping the Karen weaving traditions alive in Australia and particularly in Bendigo. A mother of five children, Paw Hla has lived in Bendigo for five years and started weaving at 14 years of age, learning the craft from her mother and grandmother. A dedicated weaver, she would take her loom with her while she tended cows in the rice field during the day and even today she takes her weaving with her wherever she goes. Pa Hla has knowledge of the traditional patterns, weaving bags, scarves, tops, dresses, sarongs and blankets. In the refugee camps, she would sell her woven textiles to make money for food and school supplies for her children.

The scarf that Paw Hla was weaving during our visit uses the three colours from the Karen flag, each with a specific meaning; red denotes bravery, white for purity/sincerity, and blue for honesty. The loom is hand-made from general household items and is strapped to the weaver and a chair, using a large bag of rice to weigh it down. Paw Hla demonstrated the weaving process while sitting on the floor with legs outstretched and back supported by a brace. The weaver is embraced by the loom where human and creativity are entwined in a beautiful action.

We asked Ma Paw about the contemporary use of weaving and textiles in the Karen community and she explained that there are 11 tribes in Karen ethnicity, however there are two main dialect groups that are spoken; Poe Karen and S’gaw. Each tribe has different designs and wear the textiles differently, however today the Karen people wear the styles and colours they desire rather than to denote specific cultural traditions.

I am glad and thankful that our Karen people still love to wear and value their clothes”, explains Ma Paw. Bendigo benefits from the incredible talent and weaving traditions that continue to enrich our cultural fabric.

Visit the Cultural Exchange Hub in Bendigo from Friday – Sunday 24-26 Pall Mall Bendigo to see a range of hand-made art and crafts from communities with diverse cultural backgrounds.