Assam’s Mising indigenous tribal community has a rich tradition of weaving. A Mising woman, despite being engaged in myriad household activities through the day, is likely to spend some time on her loom everyday. The women make garments, mainly for everyday use, on handlooms. They also weave classy products for special occasions. Mising women weave in advance five to 10 sets of mekhela chador, a traditional women’s attire, to gift their daughters at the time of marriage.

In Assam, women feel proud to wear handloom products, especially mekhela chador, during special occasions such as weddings and festivals. Hence, the products are in great demand among people residing in Assam as well as outside the state. However, handloom weaving has not taken off as a thriving source of livelihood for various reasons. But using simple technology and adapting to market needs, Mising women have made the prospects of handloom weaving looking bright.

Weaving a viable livelihood

Mising villages are on the banks of the Brahmaputra river and its tributaries. Every year the area faces devastating floods. The recurrent floods reduce the scope for alternative livelihood. Villages such as Sisitangoni in Dhemaji district and Matmora in Lakhimpur district are affected by riverbank erosion or sand deposition, reducing any possibility of agrarian or land-based livelihoods.

The traditional throw shuttle loom is built under the traditional stilt house. Through a tedious process, the weavers produce wraps like mekhela chador and gero, stoles like gamosa, besides some utilitarian items. Traditionally, weaving in the Mising community was for their own use. But these days, Mising handloom products are much in demand.

At the handloom fair in 2014, Mising handloom products sold for Rs 1.4 crore over a period of five days. But due to low efficiency (weavers produce just two mekhela chador in a month) of traditional looms and limited product diversity, the weavers’ remuneration is low. As a result, handloom weaving is not seen as a viable livelihood.

Mising women working their handlooms. Photo credit: Abdul Hamid

Bringing technology to tradition

However, dovetailing modern technology with the traditional skill of the weavers, handloom can provide a lucrative livelihood opportunity for the Mising women. With the objective of bridging the demand and supply gap, and making handloom weaving a sustainable livelihood, Mising Autonomous Council and the Center for Microfinance and Livelihood with the Tata Trusts planned an intervention to be executed over three years.

The team decided to introduce technology to overcome the “low production efficiency”. As a first step, a warping drum was introduced for getting a defect-free warp. Unlike the traditional method, warping drum helped reduce the area required to make a warp.

Replacing the throw shuttle loom with the advanced fly shuttle loom brought down the cost of production. A complete set of fly shuttle loom costs about Rs 30,000. But the cost was reduced to Rs 5,000 through a local innovation of replacing the steel frame of the loom with a bamboo frame. Bamboo is not only locally available, it is also cheaper, durable and easily repairable.

In batches of 25, the weavers underwent 60 days of “skill upgradation” training, many of them overcoming resistance from the men at home. They learnt to take the warp in a warping drum, practise with the fly shuttle loom, develop designs, diversify products and also maintain records. In 18 months, 375 members have completed training.

On completion of the training, each weaver received a fly shuttle loom. With the prospects appearing good, the weavers provided bamboo and labour for construction of a 100 square foot weaving shed in their homes where floods would not damage them. “Earlier I couldn’t take warp during rains as it required open ground but today with the warping drum I can take warp in a single room,” Runa Doley of Matmora village said.

Introduction of the new loom has greatly increased production efficiency. “Now I produce four mekhela chador in a month, when earlier I could make only one or two,” Anima Taye of Sisitangoni village said.

New technology has not only improved production speed but also reduced the drudgery for the weavers. “Earlier I had to bend after every weft to throw the shuttle and I couldn’t sleep at night because of the back pain,” Purnima Kaman said. “But now I weave at three time the usual speed without bending and without pain.”

Mising women meet regularly to share their ideas and problems. Photo credit: Abdul Hamid

Weaving for the market

The women took a while to consider that handloom weaving could be taken up commercially. Exposure through handloom exhibitions and community-led commercial enterprises helped them understand the need to complete orders on time as well as to move beyond the use of traditional yarn, colour combinations and designs to suit market requirement. “Till two months ago, I wove only what my mother had taught me,” said Doley. “Now I know warp measurement for different products and can weave any design developed in a graph paper.”

Besides the traditional wraps, now the women weave shawls, stoles, table cloths, curtains, fabric for shirt and kurtas in diverse design and colour combinations. As a result, the range of buyers for their product has increased. “It was painful to weave a mekhela chador for a month and get just Rs 1,200 in return,” Doley said. “Now I will earn more.”

Of the women who got training, about 200 have already started production on new looms. They have also formed three informal producers groups, which sell collectively to a few customers.

Timely marketing of the products and regular cash flow to the weavers remains a challenge. To overcome it, the marketing channel will have to be strengthened and better organised.

The nascent initiative shows handloom weaving could change for better the lives of the Mising people living in the flood-prone area of Assam. Now, the government needs to step in to scale up the initiative.

Abdul Hamid works with the Centre for Microfinance and Livelihood.

This article first appeared on Village Square.