The women behind the loom

28 year old Daisy probably has no idea that the cushion covers she is weaving outside her modest home will end up on the other side of the world, be coveted by people she will never meet and be displayed in homes she will never set foot into. All she is hoping for is some free time to play the role of a mother and an income to support her recently-unemployed husband and their young son who quietly sat by her side watching her pull strings and switch wood panels in the loom.

One would expect a huge institution where women are housed together and tirelessly working on their loin looms. But this isn’t a booming industry. It is an almost forgotten traditional art that is struggling to be preserved. There is no technology involved. If it’s not up to the mark or to their satisfaction (because they know the quality of their own work), the yarn is undone and the work must begin again.

Within the Sangtamtila colony in Dimapur (Nagaland) there are two groups of weavers from two different villages: Inpui and Tsithrongse. The village setting is idyllic and with no more than a 100 households in each, the languid and slow living provides a balanced environment for the women who double up their weaving work with other chores. The age bracket of the weavers vary. There are some as young as 16. Their personal lives are varied as well. Some have a support system to share the responsibilities with while a few are separated and must depend upon themselves.

Amileu, 45, has been weaving for five years and according to her, the difficult designs take about three or four days while a simple one would take just two days. The ease and difficulty of the designs is evidently based on the patterns. The colours, not so much. Amileu’s work space was quite planned and structured. She had a small 4 x 4 room with the loin loom situated near the window where natural light streamed in.

Kumsha, 29, had a different setup that wasn’t necessarily conventional or a common sight. But while we can view it as an unlikely space, it shows us the flexibility of the loin loom. It’s not just flexible in terms of time management. The loin looms are collapsible making them extremely handy. Kumsha’s loom hangs in the corner of what first looks like the kitchen but then you get the full view and realise that it is also the bedroom. In a shade of cerulean, it truly was the warmest colour in the case of Kumsha as this room held the quintessence of the many roles she played in her life every day. 

“It is the flexibility of the loin loom and the way it benefits the women giving them the space to do everything else they want. That is the essence”– JesminaZeliang, founder, Heirloom Naga.

These women and their families live well below the average standards that we are familiar with. They are the other half. Yet, in saying that, they do not wallow in their poverty nor do they sink in self-pity. They are admirably ‘gung ho’ and are driven to make ends meet because the end goal for each of these individuals is the same: to educate their children so they can have a better life. Daisy had initially left the weaving unit to care for her son but now that he was older, she took it up again. The financial aspect too was a factor especially now that she is temporarily the only one earning wages. In some cases, weaving had also become a family affair. Lipila was introduced to it by her daughter-in-law. Seeing that she was home with not much to do, her daughter-in-law convinced her and she now weaves at her convenience. In fact, if she feels like it, she even weaves at night with the help of the emergency light, she said.

In the lives of these women lies a large part of the Naga culture. While weaving is not inherent only to the Nagas, it does form a part of their identity. Each tribe is recognised by the colours of their shawls. Each motif on the shawl is a representation of either the individual or the tribe and each were carefully hand woven. While it doesn’t need to be said, the designs being woven for Heirloom Naga too are inspired by the Naga shawl but have been given a modern dusting. Yet, it does so by still retaining it in the traditional way (i.e. weaving).

Every piece of the finished product is not just about the essence of owning something ‘Naga’ or being ‘made in Nagaland’. While important, it is also not about the hard work and time that has been invested. Rather it is about the women who are single-handedly keeping this art alive each weave at a time. These are the women behind the loom and it is about the little fragments of their lives that goes into each piece that is woven by them within the confines of their home. In the spirit of Instagram, these are the women and their lives #BTS (“Behind The Scenes”).

Stories were told and tea was consumed around looms where cushion covers was being woven. A little boy, curious about the loom, unfortunately caused the yarn to come undone. The rolled up loom with an unfinished piece was in the presence of unexpected guests and laughter as photos were being taken. A weaver’s young daughter ‘steals’ her mother’s leftover threads creating her own designs in secret.

All that translated and woven into one piece of cloth. Could you imagine?

Written and photographed by Lesly | for Heirloom Naga