In December 2006, Neil and his father went to attend the Hornbill Festival held in Nagaland every December to revive and promote the Naga heritage and traditions. After attending the festival in Naga Heritage Village, Kisama, about 12 km from Kohima, the father-son duo decided to explore other villages and reached Chuchuyimlang, inhabited by the Ao Naga tribe.
“We were hungry by the time we reached there and there was no food outlet around. A local, whom we did not know, took us to his home, gave us oranges to eat and cooked lunch for us. We were moved by his hospitality,” recollects Neil.
Back home in Kolkata, with takeaways from the Hornbill Festival and Naga hospitality still fresh in their minds, Neil and his father decided to work towards the revival of Nagaland’s loin loom or backstrap weaving which was dying a silent death due to the use of synthetic wools and rapid mechanization of the textile industry.
They found a partner in Sonnie Kath, an expert in traditional Naga weaving. Her robust design sense apart from awareness of Naga sentiments around textile weaving led Neil and Sonnie to set up non-profit Exotic Echo in Diezephe craft village, about 13km from Nagaland’s commercial hub Dimapur.
Nagaland’s weaving traditions vary from tribe to tribe. The state is inhabited by 16 major tribes, which are officially recognised, and 40 other sub-tribes. The 16 tribes include Angami, Ao, Chakhesang, Chang, Dimasa Kachari, Khiamniungan, Konyak and Kuki among others.
Reviving loin loom weaving
Sonnie, the brain behind Exotic Echo who mobilised weavers and farmers to take up traditional methods once again, lost a prolonged battle with cancer in 2020. She spent the last 12 years of her life reviving the vanishing craft of loin loom weaving through Exotic Echo, which is involved in cotton production, organic dying, spinning, weaving, designing and selling the handmade sustainable products. Sonnie’s sister Jemule Kath now runs production operations at Exotic Echo.
Despite a centuries-old tradition of weaving, more and more women were moving away from the original craft due to the rising demand for cheap, synthetic products, Jemule adds.
Exotic Echo empowers rural women weavers by creating contemporary and utility items from their traditional sustainable weaves, which are now gaining global recognition. These products include bags, cushion covers, stoles and table runners. While the prices of stoles start at Rs1500, cushion covers are priced upwards of Rs1000 per piece and table runners at Rs2500.
“Today, about 200 registered weavers, dyers and spinners work with us besides 25 farmers who grow the organic cotton for weaving,” says Jemule.
It encompasses the whole process of textile creation from the revival of organic cotton through Jhum cultivation to the marketing of eco-friendly products.
Yashvi Vasundhara, who worked as Design and Marketing Co-ordinator for Exotic Echo until a few months back, says it was not easy to convince the farmers to opt for organic long-staple cotton given its dwindling popularity among weavers due to the availability of cheap synthetic wool.
Loin loom weaving process
“Initially, the farmers did not believe there will be buyers for organic long-staple cotton. Exotic Echo convinced them that it would buy out their produce fully. That’s when a few agreed to work with us,” says Yashvi.
Once the fully ripened cotton balls are plucked around March-April, they are de-seeded and cotton is separated by hand through ginning. The lint is then untangled and fluffed up with the help of a bow. This is followed by rolling the cotton into long strips for spinning into thin yarn in spindles by hand.
Jemule explains that Exotic Echo processes all the cotton it buys from farmers. “Spinning is done by farming families and the yarn is procured from them for weaving,” she says.
Hand-spun cotton yarn is transferred from spindles to bundles, which are soaked in cow dung to increase fastening properties. Then the cotton yarns are dyed using natural materials like leaves, flowers and roots of local plants. After warping, the thread is ready for weaving, Jemule adds.
Loin loom weaving is a laborious process where warp yarns are stretched between two parallel bamboos. Most of the loom’s parts are made from bamboo and wood. While the bamboo at one end is fixed to a wooden branch fixed into the ground, the other one is held by a strap worn around the lower back of the woman weaver. She regulates the tension by bending forward and backwards.
“Since loin loom weaving strains the body, they move on to spinning and dyeing with age and younger ones take up weaving,” she explains.
Nune, a weaver who has been associated with Exotic Echo since its inception in 2008, says the work has given her an assured source of income as well as social recognition. “I weave for three to four hours a day after finishing my household work. It allows me to look after my family while providing financial independence. I can also pay fees for my children,” she says.
Jemule says that many Naga men work as daily wagers or are unemployed for most part of the year due to seasonality of their jobs. “Working with Exotic Echo provides women a stable source of income. Many of our weavers are the sole breadwinners in their family,” she says.
And that has been the core pillar of Exotic Echo’s strategy – to revive the traditional, sustainable, loin loom weaving while empowering rural women.
Craft beyond borders
The operations are funded by Neil’s family and friends besides revenues from the sale of products, which are mostly bought by tourists and craft connoisseurs. As part of its efforts to revive the craft, Exotic Echo also set up a homestay for tourists in 2013 to provide the travellers with an immersive experience at the craft village, branding it as ‘Weaver’s Place Homestay’.
“The first homestay was a machan hut raised above the ground and made by the locals. The Weavers’ Place Homestay is the family house of late Sonnie Kath and our weaving centre is close by,” says Malvika, Communication and Marketing Co-ordinator at Exotic Echo.
The homestay complex has grown over the years and can accommodate 60 people in its mud and bamboo cottages and bungalow-style bamboo machan on stilts, besides brick, wood and bamboo rooms and camping tents.
Exotic Echo also started an annual International Loin Loom Festival, held in December, to promote the weaving craft.
Exotic Echo’s revival efforts have moved beyond India to other countries with a history of loin loom weaving. “We have a global vision. We had signed an MoU with the Government of Bali’s Art and Culture department to hold a weaving festival in 2020. But it had to be cancelled due to COVID19,” says Neil.
“But we have built a solid foundation and are well poised to take loin loom and other vanishing crafts across the world,” he adds.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in business, financial and socio-economic reporting)