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5 Handmade Crafts You Must Shop For In Sri Lanka

For me, a big part of the travelling experience is to explore handmade crafts. I am passionate about how things are made, before the era of mass production. Indeed, I believe this is where you can find real quality of craftsmanship and unique items. I love to observe and document how skills and craftsmanship go from one generation to another. My trip to Sri Lanka gave me a great opportunity to discover what handicrafts in practice and which quality items to seek. Now, it is entirely possible to find poorly executed work but overall, I found the quality of handicrafts in Sri Lanka quite good. Throughout my trip, I sought the handicraft work of local artisans and I found 5 handmade crafts you must shop for in Sri Lanka.

Wood Carving

Wood carving has a long history in Sri Lanka. This long-held tradition is demonstrated within the walls of the Temple of Sacred Tooth in Kandy. You can spend hours studying the intricate details of the Royal Hall, which doesn’t have a single nail in its structure !

Photo Thierry Mignon

Wood carving objects you can buy include: wall hangings, figurines, sculptures, gift boxes and other household items.

I found this workshop in Kandy where they created all sorts of objects, big or small.

Masks

Masks are deeply connected to healing rituals in Sri Lanka. Known as “Devil Dances”, the drama-performances tell an elaborate story of fighting diseases brought about by “yakkas” or devils.

Masks are a facial decorative wear in Sri Lankan dancing. The performance-dances using masks mean to cure diseases and ward off evil spirits.

Most masks are made of a light wood called Kaduru and are carved into various characters. They are not dissimilar to Balinese masks and are a commanding presence.

Batik

Originally from Indonesia, the art of making batik was introduced to Sri Lanka by the Dutch. There are numerous factories and small workshops around Sri Lanka, who produce large quantities of batik clothes, decorative homewares and pictures.

Batik is a time consuming process which consists of applying wax to non-dye areas. After each dyeing, you need to set the colour in the fabric. You wash out the old wax and apply new wax for the next dyeing.

With this time-consuming process, the number of colours is an indicator of how much work was required. The more colours there are, the more time it took!

I have a more detailed blog post about the art of batik here.

Gems

Sri Lanka is famed for the high quality of its precious and semi-precious gems. There is excellent craftsmanship in cutting and designing modern jewellery. Coupled with modern technology, this means you can get beautiful jewellery in Sri Lanka. There are 2 jewellery traditions: Galle specialises on cutting precious stones and you can find intricate metal work, including silver, in Kandy.

Photo Thierry Mignon

There are many different types of stones in Sri Lanka including Alexandrite, Amethyst, Aquamarine, Garnet, Moonstone, Tourmaline, Topaz, Zircon, Quartz, Sapphire and Ruby.

Most of gem extraction sites are around Ratnapura, however previous gems and jewellery are available for sale in all the tourist centres. Now, it can be tricky to pick out good operators from shoddy ones, unless you are knowledgeable about gems yourself. The Sri Lankan government has  a registry of accredited sellers to help you choose.

I bought some jewellery at a place called Isiri in Kandy. There is a fully operational lapidary studio and a gem museum, so you can get an understanding of the process from beginning to end.

Of course, there is a strong commercial push and they are more than happy to show off their best sapphires. These can be very expensive and I would recommend to stick to semi-precious stones. I also had a sapphire ring redesigned and they did a very good job. I don’t know much about lapidary or buying gems, nor do I have a big budget. So I was always going to remain cautious but I am now very happy with the blue topaz ring I bought and the remodelled sapphire ring my parents bought in Sri Lanka some forty years ago. The semi-precious stones, such as topaz, amethyst or aquamarine are quite affordable and not as much a risk as the sapphires or rubies.

Lace Making

Introduced as a pastime by Dutch women, lacemaking was turned into a household industry, mostly around the South Western Coast, around Galle and Weligama. It’s fascinating to see women handle the lace making tools to create intricate patterns.

Lace decorates garments, curtains, table spreads and various homewares.

If you are in Sri Lanka, I also recommend visiting a spice garden or a tea factory, a different kind of handmade experience but equally fascinating !

Of course, there are many other handicrafts in Sri Lanka to choose from in your shopping endeavours. Do you have a shopping experience in Sri Lanka you want to share ?

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Sri Lanka is a beautiful shopping destination with a rich tradition of handmade crafts.

11 Comments

  1. tracymcvety

    April 27, 2017 at 12:01 pm

    These are so neat! I particularly liked the batik and the lace. Very talented people!

    1. Delphine

      April 27, 2017 at 12:17 pm

      Thanks Tracy, I visited a lace making school in Galle and it was very interesting, it’s such an intricate art!

  2. glogeworld

    April 27, 2017 at 12:02 pm

    I have heard so much about this beautiful place. I love the Batik, they are so unique.

    1. Delphine

      April 27, 2017 at 12:16 pm

      Thanks, I bought some batik place mats and I use them everyday!

  3. Jean Lane

    April 27, 2017 at 12:59 pm

    I love the gems, they’re so beautiful!

  4. Monica

    April 27, 2017 at 1:30 pm

    Those are some lovely items, but I did have one question. During my time in Guatemala, I spent a lot of time at markets and it was very clear that those which were aimed at tourists all carried the same mass produced items. I later learned the arrive in bulk from Chinese factories. How do you assess if a product is locally produced or not?

    1. Delphine

      April 27, 2017 at 2:34 pm

      Hi Monica, this is a very good question. The places I visited included the manufacturing, so it was possible to see where things were made. Sri Lanka has a government-owned tourist shop chain called Laksala and it is possible that items are made in China but manufacturing is pretty cheap there so I doubt it. When it comes to gems, the industry is well protected by government policy so if you buy in reputable shops, you can be safe that the product is local.
      In general, it’s hard to be 100% sure but if a shop is attached to a workshop, you’ll probably be safe.

    1. Delphine

      April 27, 2017 at 2:35 pm

      Thanks, my list doesn’t include all the handicrafts but it’s probably the most important ones.

  5. Sofia

    April 27, 2017 at 8:34 pm

    Love this! I always Google the local crafts of the city/country I’m visiting 🙂

    1. Delphine

      April 27, 2017 at 8:46 pm

      Hi Sofia, using google as an initial guide is a great idea! I always like to explore the handmade experiences when I visit a new place!

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