Post–COVID–19: Reintroducing traditional handloom fabrics in Myanmar

By Khun San

Traditional weaving on handloom of colourful cotton fabric has a long history in Myanmar being undertaken as livelihood by fair gender on manageable scale in their cosy cottage industry. “Ma Lay Let Khat Than” still lingers on as the most popular Myanmar country song being heard across the rural areas for decades highlighting the typical pretty girl working at a traditional handloom, releasing pleasant noises from the conventional apparatus. A loom is a mechanism or tool used for weaving yarn and thread into textiles. Some handlooms are fairly small and simply mastered by their users. Stepping into the 21st century, Myanmar male still wears “Longyi” and the fair gender wraps the tender waist in “Htamein”, simply for the love of tradition. Comfortably placed in the olden days at the household are the blanket, bed sheet, table cloth, and napkin, the usual products of Myanmar traditional handloom industry. In the recent past, the whole country was flooded with Pakokku blankets, Monywa blankets and Mudon blankets, domestically most popular brands in every nook and cranny of the country.
In simple grandeur, “Wada Blanket” was the most popular item of Pakokku, and that it was dyed with most striking contrast colors of red and black in modern design.
With favourable view, “Monywa Cotton Blanket” was user friendly as the blanket offered adequate warmth cold weather and the people loved to have one for the night.
Motley assortment of colours such as red, yellow, blue, green, orange and pink were artistically combined together for the delight of the users on traditional fabrics produced on handloom. However, time has changed with modern technology, and that colorful and trendy blankets rolled into Myanmar from neighboring countries, which wreaked havoc on traditional weaving industry. Weaving livelihood faded out.

Good for health
These traditional blankets were most suitable for all sorts of weather conditions in Myanmar as they did not emit chemical reactions in summer, monsoon and winter.
Intimidating the industry, the foreign blankets rolled in and the traditional weaving industry has been knocked down.

Polyester fibre blankets
Synthetic fibres such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic tend to be ultra-soft, but they are made from nonrenewable fossil fuels. The blankets made from such items are not good for health especially the children and the elderly persons.
It could even breed bacteria when the weather is unruly creating health hazard. Yarn fabric blanket is the best option for health.

Traditional items to be proud of
Until today, Pakokku traditional handloom industry remains, withstand and survive against all odds. Pakokku blankets are useful in all seasons and that the designs are updated to the preference of the users. As the price tags are acceptable to the public, the number of buyers is on the rise.
Remarkable aspect is that the items are produced with natural dyes derive from the trees, the fruits, the leaves and the barks, leaving no room for health problem. Therefore, the products have become popular and to take pride in the traditional aspect.
Due to the use of natural dyes, the fabrics items are free from health problem, and the users feel comfortable. The visiting foreigners customarily purchase traditional short mini blanket before going home. In the eyes, it is like a shawl or a wrap, a large piece of material that one wrap around the shoulders. Shawls are often triangular shaped, and wraps are often rectangular. They are like a mini blanket, but fashionable. In January 2020, an exhibition on traditional handloom and fabric design was convened at Saunders Weaving and Vocational Institute in Amarapura of Mandalay. In ultimate revelation, the show highlighted the Myanmar tradition of making cloth with lotus fibers, which has a much longer history. Once widespread throughout Buddhist countries in Southeast Asia, the practice has today faded into relative obscurity, and Inle Lake is one of the only places on earth where one can still observe this ancient technique.

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A woman is weaving traditional fabrics on the loom in Mudon township, Mon State.  Photo: Township IPRD

Another show that attracted the audience was how to make dyes from natural plants.
Exhibition booth of Kaing Ngai Lay Village of Min Hla Township in Magway Region has offered fabric items including fashionable mini blankets that are coloured with natural dyes totally free from harmful chemicals. Interested visitors rushed in buying the environment friendly items at the show. Perhaps, it was a good omen for the possible development of Myanma traditional handloom items in the post COVID – 19 scenario. Looking closer, the Myanma traditional handloom industry is most suitable for women in Myanmar as they could work from home with only a small amount of investment. Thinking further, this industry could be expanded among the community, which could create considerable number of job opportunities.
There are (14) Weaving and Vocational Schools across the country under the Small Scale Industries Department, the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation.
Interestingly, those who passed the Matriculation Examination could enroll at the Saunders Weaving and Vocational Institute for one year diploma course on weaving and cloth designing subject. Six month course for “acheik” and three month course for “embroidery” are also offered at the school.
In every century Myanmar women valued “acheik” which are made with more than a hundred shuttles. These acheik are called “Lun Yar Kyaw Cheik” or “Kyoe Gyi Cheik”.
“Shwe Chi Hto” or Gold Embroidery is the most gorgeous and exquisite craft work of Myanmar and originated a thousand years ago.
It is an art of Myanmar tapestries woven with silver or gold thread and different coloured cloth on which the depiction of tales of Buddhist scriptures and mythical animals are appliquéd.

MMK30,000 stipends granted
There are (13) Weaving and Vocational Schools across the country.
1. Myitkyina in Kachin State
2. Loikaw in Kayah State
3. Hpa-an in Kayin State
4. Falam in Chin State
5. Mindat in Chin State
6. Monywa in Sagaing Region
7. Shwedaung in Bago Region
8. Pakokku in Magway Region
9. Meikhtila in Mandalay Region
10. Mudon in Mon State
11. Sittway in Rakhine State
12. Taunggyi in Shan State (South)
13. Kyaukme in Shan State (North)
Those students who passed the Basic Education Middle School may enroll one year course on Yarn and Fabric Skill Course. Those who passed the Basic Education Primary School may apply for six month course on handloom skill course; on fabric dye skill course; and design printing skill course.
Students are provided with MMK30,000 for each month by the government as stipend throughout the course.
With the intent for the sustainable development goal, the Small Scale Industries Department has imparted training courses to (122) diploma course, and (1,813) skilled courses from 2016 to 2020 academic year.
Moreover, the doors of the schools are opened for those who wish to enroll, and people in quest of establishing manageable scale of handloom weaving industry are provided with necessary inputs.

Creating more jobs
In the wake of COVID – 19 pandemic, Myanmar citizens working abroad and in neighbouring countries have returned back home on various grounds, and that some may have interest working in traditional weaving industry.
Possibly, the attractive and fancy traditional fabric items such as the table cloth, the bed sheet, the napkin, and mini blanket and sleeping blanket would be flooded in towns and cities across the country.
Probably, fabric items that are used in the households, the offices, and the hotels would be seen everywhere in colourful designs of Myanmar culture.
Adding the ethnic nationalities drawings and colourful designs in the expanded fabrics products, it could give way to penetrate to international market. Making the domestic manufacturing developed and at the same time generating income for the workforce and the community in the cottage industry.
Anytime, anyplace and anyone wishing to establish the traditional handloom business may contact the vocational school located at states / regions under the Small Scale Industries Department of the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation for necessary assistance on technical aspect as well as financial soft loans under MSME scheme through the Myanma Economic Banks.
Those wishing to devote the livelihood in traditional weaving jobs may communicate the same with full confidence.
In the post COVID – 19 scenarios, we can think of new and maybe better futures for livelihood that truly benefit our societies and help prevent a climate disaster.
In conclusion, the writer would like to say that we have learned the side effect, the spin off and the sidebar of the ultra-modern way of life, and that the world is returning to the traditional way of life. As part of the economic recovery, the people in ward / village/ small town may jump on the economic bandwagon of traditional weaving of handloom cottage industry on manageable scale. Translated by UMT (Ahlon)

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