Enter the internet, and the power of social media. Over the past year the “anyar saung” (a blanket made in upper Myanmar) has found its way onto Myanmar Facebook pages, with businesses promoting new patterns and designs.
“In the past we’d just buy our bedding from the shopping center, but now there are more anyar saung online. Even though they are more expensive, they are much more beautiful,” said Ma Wityi Tun, an anyar saung consumer.
“I have a foreign-made cotton blanket at home, and it was given to us as a wedding present. It’s comfortable, and the style is more popular than locally-made blankets. It’s a shame that Myanmar people have forgotten about their own anyar saung,” she added.
The sale of anyar saung has always been popular among country folk, especially those living in Mandalay Region, Kachin and Shan states, where the temperatures drop below Yangon’s tropical lows in the winter.
Companies like Sein Ngar Pwint, a four-decades-old family weaving business, seek to expand their reach via social media. Daw Kan Kyawt Khine inherited the business from her father, before the days of Facebook, Instagram and Google.
Despite the technological changes, anyar blankets are still made the traditional way. With the freshly picked cotton, workers at the weaving houses spin the cotton into thread. After dying, they either weave the blankets by hand or with a machine, Daw Kan Kyawt Khine explained.
“Machine-made blankets are easier to make, and are also cheaper. Hand-made blankets cost more, because they require more skill to make. The weaver always estimates the length of the blanket, rather than with a preprogrammed guide,” she said.
People like to order the hand-made blankets, as weavers can help create custom-made designs. With a seasoned weaver the quality is the same as the machine-made blanket.
A machine can produce around 10 chi lones (rolls of fabric) per day, human weavers can create around three.
Different styles of machine- and hand-made anyar saung are available online, including the double-sized blankets that are around 12-feet long. The warda (cotton) blankets are thicker, being made from cotton. These blankets are only made in the northern town of Pakokku, she said.
Warda blankets are typically weaved in the cool season. Blanket makers say that the humidity of the monsoons makes the cotton more brittle, and prone to breaking.
“I’ve had my warda blanket since I was a kid, and I’ve used it ever since. The blanket is the same age as me,” said 30-year-old Ko Tun Tun.
He said that although imported blankets have fine patterns and colours, they have a traditional aesthetic that foreign blankets don’t. They may have a slightly rougher texture, but this is something that Myanmar consumers actually like.
“I met an expert loom weaver about 15 years ago who used to make blankets for a Chinese exporter. Their factory produced a lot of blankets. Our country needs more of these kinds of experts to help further develop the industry,” said Daw Aye Kyawt Khaing.
Daw Aye Kyawt Khaing said that although supplies of cotton had declined over the past decade, it was still easy to source all the raw materials to make a good quality blanket.
“The anyar blanket industry fluctuates, and demand seems to change with the latest trends and politics,” she explained.
“The looming business has really taken off in the last five years, I think because Amay Su (Daw Aung San Suu Kyi) likes to wear traditional dresses. People see these patterns on our blankets, and that helps drives demand,” she said.
The anyar blanket market usually relies upon monthly sales festivals around country, but due to the COVID-19 restrictions these sales opportunities have since ceased, she said.
“As producers have turned to Facebook to advertise and sell their blankets, consumer interest has increased. As more online forums and groups emerge, companies have also started to explore new delivery options,” she said.
The anyar saung may be new to foreigners, but they are a perennial favourite among Myanmar consumers. It will be interesting to see how the industry develops, as more people turn to this very comforting style of blanket during the pandemic.