How can fine hand weaving, made on simple backstrap looms by Myanmar women artisans, make its way out of an economically poor, hard-to-navigate country to new markets? Yoyamay, based in Myanmar, has made it its mission to assist the Chin weavers in preserving and developing the Chin textile tradition and find new markets.
The Chin Weavers and Their Artisanry
There are about 200 weavers scattered across the southern Chin State in Myanmar (aka Burma.) Most of these weavers are women who weave at home or gather together with other weavers to work. As is typical with rural women, they are responsible for many household duties of cooking, raising a family, and, during harvest season, farming.
Traditionally, Chin textiles are woven with cotton or silk, and dyed naturally using indigo and other vegetal dyes. The weaving is created on backstrap looms using patterns and motifs which reflect the Chin culture and the environment.
Also within tradition is for young girls to learn weaving from their mothers, weaving their traditional cloth for their dowry and to keep as a family heirloom. These traditional textiles are worn for special occasions. Nowadays, most weaving is done by older women, but younger women are again learning to weave and Yoyamay is supporting young weavers to improve their weaving techniques.
To weave a typical table runner, a weaver has to commit to three hours a day for seven to ten days. The technique is called one-faced supplementary weft patterning, an extension of brocade as explained in my blog here. One-faced means that the pattern is created only on the front side of the cloth, the supplementary pattern weft floating across threads to create these intricate patterns.
Supporting the Weavers
At least ten years ago, U Kyin Lam Mang (aka Pa Mang) noticed the old traditional weavings of Myanmar were disappearing so he started collecting them. During the course of collecting, he and his wife Daw Khun Shwe (aka Nu Shwe) met many weavers, mostly women, whose livelihood depended on weaving textiles. So, they started buying every textile that the weavers made, even if they weren’t topnotch. They opened an ethnographic textile gallery, Yoyamay, to sell the older pieces as well as current ones, and started to work with the weavers to develop new weavings.
They learned how difficult it is to get product out of Myanmar, almost impossible for an individual artisan, so they began representing the weavers collectively. Now their daughter Cing Chan Sang (aka Julie) oversees production of bags and cushion covers, such as these in our store, with the guidance of designers as well as ensuring quality control. Julie has many ideas for sustaining the work of the artisans and developing more product lines.
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Special thanks to Kristine Jones, the marketing and brand consultant who assists Yoyamay and the artisans, as well as Pa Mang for the use of his images and information.