Pathorichuck village, a weaving hub in Assam’s north Lakhimpur, is humming. Women are busy making stoles and scarves with indigenous Mising diamond patterns known as ghai-yamik. Each woman has a big white booklet by her side. It’s a yarn passbook.
Mimicking the familiar bank passbook, it keeps track of the thread they have used, the garments they have woven, and the money they have earned. It’s all part of an effort by Xuta, The Thread Bank Initiative, to preserve and promote the so-far unorganised sector of traditional weaving.
“In Assam, prices for weaves are not fixed. People come in from the cities, dump the yarn, bargain on the prices of finished pieces, and leave. No one knows the rates of weaving,” says Pabitra Lama Sarmah, who co-founded the Maati Community, an organisation focused on alternative education and livelihoods to promote the state’s heritage, in 2009 with like-minded people—artists, musicians, poets and film-makers.
A survey they conducted about 18 months ago found the youth were more interested in jobs in restaurants and dhabas in cities, even for a monthly wage as little as ₹3,000. The attraction was a fixed income, something that eluded weavers. “We saw a gap. We decided to create a sustainable enterprise, a wholesale model in the village, with a fixed package for weavers,” says Sarmah.
Xuta started with a pilot project, involving 10 weavers, in August. Today, it covers 173 weavers from 17 self-help groups.
This is how it works. Weavers get a fixed amount of yarn, around 3kg, at a time. Once the products—the stoles, gamusa or home furnishings—are ready, the women take these to the thread bank. These are measured, with weavers paid per piece.
“Suppose a weaver took 3kg of thread and gave us 10 stoles, we measure how much cotton has been used. If they have some remaining, they can create more products and generate more income. This realisational aspect of weaving was missing earlier,” says Sarmah.
The weavers are paid regardless of whether the product is sold or not, with the money credited within 12 hours. Xuta takes responsibility for the repair of, and accessories for, looms. In addition, each weaver is entitled to a family health insurance cover of ₹2 lakh.
The initiative, which is trying to streamline the process, was formally launched in October. In the very first week, the products were sold within 72 hours, grabbed by brands and stores in the North-East as well as cities outside the region, with stole prices starting from ₹650.
As part of the enrolment process, each woman usually gets an assured package of ₹5,500 in the first month, with individual accounts being opened at the Assam Gramin Vikash Bank. This has put paid to complaints from families that weaving is a waste of time.
“With numerous household chores, there is always a debate at home. Family members complain that you spend so much time weaving when you could have spent that time working in the fields, and got more money for it,” says Sarmah.
It helps that the project is not forcing the weavers to adopt power looms, which would make it tricky to replicate the traditional motifs of the Mising community. “They are very fast on the traditional loom, which costs only ₹3,000, made with bamboo. They are very proud of their skill and don’t like designs to be forced on them,” says Sarmah.
Xuta has also given some thought to the thread it provides. Given the rise in awareness of natural fibres, it has tied up with Orient, a pure-cotton thread distributor.
They are learning through trial and error. Sanjay Payeng, the project coordinator, recalls how difficult communication was during the lockdown. Phone connectivity would fail, and he would struggle with WhatsApp. Eventually, Payeng—renowned for stitching—learnt, and now conducts the weekly Monday meetings efficiently.
Deepti Payeng, 23, who lives in a household of 10, recalls the first day at work for Xuta. “I had to wake up a little earlier to finish all my other chores and then devote time to weaving,” says Deepti, in a conversation translated from Assamese by a university student, Debahuti Gogoi. “I have now become a multi-tasker.”
Weavers are also picking up new skills. For instance, Maina Payeng, 30, a mother of four, wasn’t used to making stoles. Her expertise lay in weaving the traditional mekhela sador and gero, worn by Mising women. “But we have had to acquaint ourselves with newer products and that has helped to widen our creative scope,” she adds. Families too have changed attitudes, realising the business potential. Maina’s husband, for one, has started sharing household chores.
For the women, weaving has become a medium to dream, and perhaps realise some of those dreams. One of them wants to rear pigs and sell piglets. Another wants to dig a pond, get fish from the state fisheries department and start a business. “When women want to start a business, they spend a lot of thought and effort on it. All we want to do is help them gain confidence,” says Sarmah.
The women, meanwhile, take pride in the small joys this new sense of financial independence affords. “With my first salary, I treated my entire family,” smiles Panchawati Payeng, 27, mother of a three-year-old girl.