Nagas are skilled at weaving, especially traditional shawls. The legacy has been passed down through generations. Heirloom Naga, a textile studio and social organisation based in Dimapur for over 25 years, was recently a part of the Vogue Architectural Design Show in Mumbai. Jesmina Zeliang, founder, Heirloom Naga, which has a range of products like eri silk and traditional Naga textiles, tells us more about Naga weaves and how this cottage-based industry empowers women.
Zeliang says that the loin loom is traditional to the Nagas, who practise this form of weaving on the most ancient, if not primitive loom. “Every cloth has a meaning in Naga society and this loin loom is a mirror of Naga identity,” she says. Each of the Naga tribes have their own exquisite designs which depict their stories. “Textiles in Naga society have been greatly used to signify a person’s status, wealth, gender, valour, feasts of merit with strict restrictions on who can wear what, so one has to understand the historical perspective behind the weaving method, whereby the art of weaving was integral to every Naga home,” says Zeliang.
Talking about the technique, she says that all Naga textiles are woven on the loin loom, which is also often referred to as the back-strap loom. “In this loom, the weight of the warp rests on the weaver’s waist and the tension of the loom is manipulated by the weaver so the designs and patterns are created in the cloth base with extra weft yarn or supplementary warp weave,” she explains.
Weaving is done entirely by memory and with no graph to adhere to. Every motif is meticulously picked on the warp by the weaver by a bamboo stick and an extra thread is passed through. In the earlier days, porcupine quills were used to pick the motifs. Zeliang points out that out of all the processes involved in weaving like the picking of cotton or other fibres, spinning and dyeing, the final weaving process is strictly reserved for women because in the Naga community, it is considered taboo for men to weave.
Naga textiles are characterised by lines, stripes, squares and bands with geometric shaped motifs adorning them. Black, red, blue and yellow are the most common colours. Back in the day, these colours were achieved by using different plant dyes. “Hand spun cotton and the nettle fibre which were used earlier have seen a major decline, however, there are now new initiatives by the villagers themselves to protect and promote their indigenous fibres,” she says.
Naga textiles are all generally woven separately in three pieces and then hand-stitched together. The central part is lavishly decorated.
Zeliang points out that every household in the village has a loom. “Traditionally, all women were required to weave cloth for their families and today the loin loom has become instrumental in empowering our women,” she says. Since the nature of the loom is flexible, it allows the women to pretty much set up their loom anywhere. “She could be weaving inside her kitchen by strapping her warp into the window sill, or inside the bedroom, her courtyard or even simply carry her loom on her back wherever she travels. This portable nature of the loom allows the women to be in total control of their work, and even while they are busy with chores, they can still generate income,” adds Zeliang.
She points out that Heirloom Naga has provided employment and empowerment to local women and is also taking their work to boutiques across the world.
The founder says that there are a few institutes run by the government that impart professional training in weaving to the younger generation in the state. “Efforts are being taken by several organisations and educational centres to promote weaving by teaching loin loom weaving in schools and most of them also observe a traditional day once a week where students are required to wear traditional attires,” says Zeliang.
However, she says that it is getting difficult to get young people interested in weaving. “There is no attraction in the weaving industry as it is a tedious process and the takeaway is far less than the other sectors, so most of the youngsters from rural areas and underprivileged backgrounds prefer going to the metros and work in hospitality, wellness or retail sectors,” says Zeliang. She believes that the need of the hour is to fetch value for working with hands.
Conscious efforts to keep traditional crafts more relevant are being made by entrepreneurs. “While traditional textiles are widely appreciated, it does not have much end use by others outside the state so this gap is being addressed by textile units such as ours, whose intent is to keep this traditional craft of loin loom weaving more meaningful, sustainable and offer more livelihood options,” says Zeliang.
For a state which is grappling with the longest conflict globally, the founder feels that their development process is understandably slow with limited economic opportunities, but cottage-based industries like weaving has brought a glimmer of hope.