Handloom industry: Swat's economic lifeline in dire need of govt attention

July 28, 2015

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An artisan is weaving woolen shawl on his handloom. — Photo by author
An artisan is weaving woolen shawl on his handloom. — Photo by author

MINGORA: In the village of Islampur, Swat, Ghani Rahman toils over a leased handloom machine, deftly weaving yarn into a colourful woolen shawl that will sell in the market for up to Rs5,000. While his eyes and fingers are fixated on the loom before him, his lips murmur an inaudible prayer; some day he will own the machine so he can enjoy full wages for his manual labour.

The tiny village — which is nondescript save for its famed cottage industry — means to handloom material what Sialkot means to sporting goods. The craft contributes Rs10 million to the national exchequer and is the mainstay income for more than 80 per cent of the residing population. But despite the offering, it suffers from government indifference, lack of education and health facilities and non-existent labour laws.

The centuries-old industry has witnessed multiple transformations in the tastes and fashions of time. Executive Director of the Islampur Cottage Industry Association Hazir Gul says more than 10,000 men and women are actively serving the trade, while over 30,000 people are benefiting from it indirectly.

All year round, customers from Pakistan's major cities throng markets on the lookout for variations of shawls, cloths and other handicraft.

A small mud-made open-sky handloom industry in Islampur village. — Photo by author
A small mud-made open-sky handloom industry in Islampur village. — Photo by author

Peshawar tourist Abdul Wahab is a proud owner of 12 shawls. "We had heard great things about Islampur’s shawls so we decided to visit Swat and see for ourselves," he says.

Wahab's mother tells Dawn she is planning to buy more shawls for her family and friends. “I told my cousin who resides in the US about the quality of the shawls and she asked me to get some for her. She said she would visit Islampur when she comes to Pakistan.”

The Wahab family is just one example among many others. Other than Pakistan, the demand for these items is known to reach as far as Europe. Shopkeepers also frequently export their goods abroad.

Handloom weaving

According to the Islampur Cottage Industry Association (ICIA), the cottage industry comprises 3,000 handloom units owned by several individuals with over 80pc of the population making up its workforce.

In about 18 months of training, a person can acquire the skills needed to detect faults in the handlooms which are being produced.

An artisan is weaving woolen shawl on his hand loom. — Photo by author
An artisan is weaving woolen shawl on his hand loom. — Photo by author

Shawls and cloths are woven through a traditional handloom machine that the locals refer to as “khaadi”. Most artisans have their own looms but they are often required to pay rent for the shops they fix their machines in.

And even though the manufacturing process is not that complicated, local artisans describe the task of weaving shawls to be time-consuming.

Local artisans busy in weaving shawls on their handlooms in Islampur village. — Photo by author
Local artisans busy in weaving shawls on their handlooms in Islampur village. — Photo by author

Matiur Rehman, an artisan who has been serving the industry since 1995, says: “A shawl of common quality takes three hours to manufacture whereas the best quality can take up to a week.”

Another artisan, Faizur Rehman, works every day from early morning till 1pm and is only able to produce two shawls of ordinary quality for which he earns Rs500 in total.

An artisan is weaving a woolen shawl on his handloom. — Photo by author
An artisan is weaving a woolen shawl on his handloom. — Photo by author

Several varieties of shawls are produced for both males and females. Matiur Rehman is adept in the art of weaving five varieties of shawls for women and seven varieties of shawls for men.

Given the extent of labour, the cost of products can range from Rs1,000 for a shawl of ordinary quality to up to Rs15,000 for that of higher quality.

Difficulties encountered by artisans, businessmen

Even though the industry is flourishing and sales per annum are high, people in Islampur are encountering several difficulties.

An artisan is making floral design on a woolen shawl. — Photo by author
An artisan is making floral design on a woolen shawl. — Photo by author

For example, the condition of female handloom workers is of particular concern for social activists in the area. These women contribute greatly towards the constant running of the looms and the ongoing production of handloom products but are unable to maximise productivity and enhance their skills due to a lack of proper education and healthcare facilities.

The business is also restricted to a small area in Pakistan and the government has paid little attention to move it to other regions. No labour laws have been enacted in the area due to which workers do not enjoy labour facilities such as standardised wages, fixed working hours and other government incentives.

“Two years ago, the government had announced a package for Islampur and had expressed its interest in establishing a model village for the weavers but like other government projects, this too is lying in cold storage,” laments Gul.

He says “such indifference” hinders the industry from growing and has several others with him who believe the government should do more to help the trade.

Additionally, these artisans also experience struggles on a personal level. Despite investing several hours and sometimes days of labour into manufacturing their goods, Matiur Rehman resentfully says that it is the dealers who end up reaping the highest profits — earning Rs300-Rs500 for a shawl.

Expensive raw material

The production process is such that artisans manufacture woolen items during the summer season and stock them for winter. In order for them to pull through large-scale manufacturing, they require hefty investments so they can purchase raw material; this is hard to come by because they are unable to procure that kind of investment.

An artisan is weaving woolen shawl on his handloom. — Photo by author
An artisan is weaving woolen shawl on his handloom. — Photo by author

"If the government initiates loan schemes for us, we can buy raw material, manufacture items and earn a modest income," says Rehman.

The most commonly used raw materials to produce handloom products for the trade are local sheep's wool, Australian sheep's wool, Pakistani wool, Chinese wool, artificial silk, nylon and cotton.

An artisan is paddling to run his handloom for weaving shawls. — Photo by author
An artisan is paddling to run his handloom for weaving shawls. — Photo by author

Amir Rashid, a local businessman who has been sourcing raw material for over 40 years, says earlier vendors travelled to upper Swat and Kohistan areas to purchase sheep's wool which would be processed and sold to workers and artisans.

"But now, we are dependent on wool from China which rich Pakistani businessmen import. It is very expensive for us."

He adds that there are different qualities of wool sold in the market which are numbered from 48 to 72 indicating the quality of the wool. "The higher the number, the better the quality."

Rashid says 45 kilogrammes of wool procured locally costs up to Rs18,000 whereas the same quantity of best quality wool imported from China can cost up to Rs130,000.

This picture shows colourful woolen shawls on display in a shop. — Photo by author
This picture shows colourful woolen shawls on display in a shop. — Photo by author

Meanwhile, Ahmad Nabi, a dealer in Islampur, says that even though the buyers pay for the raw materials with ready cash, they often provide the material to artisans on loans.

He underscores the need for the government to launch loan schemes for both artisans as well as dealers.

This picture shows colourful woolen shawls on display in a shop. — Photo by author
This picture shows colourful woolen shawls on display in a shop. — Photo by author

"The government must also set up a proper market in Pakistan where we can purchase raw material procured from China on cheaper rates or installments. It should also open a link with European markets so that we can export our products there for increased income."