It’s a long way from the ethnic Chin villages of southern Rakhine State to museums and private collections around the world, but somehow, the traditional weaving of the Sone-Tu has made that journey—and it has done so almost by accident.
“It came out of frustration,” explains Mai Ni Ni Aung, the director of Sone-Tu Backstrap Weavings, a project that has won international recognition for its efforts to preserve the traditional weaving techniques and patterns of the Sone-Tu, a Chin sub-group famed for its indigenous textiles.
It all began in the summer of 2002, when Mai Ni Ni Aung, who is herself a Sone-Tu Chin, was working with a team documenting the oral history, rituals and customs of the ethnic group. They wanted to film the shamans who were their local interlocutors in their traditional dress, but found to their surprise that there wasn’t a single item of Sone-Tu clothing to be found in the entire village.
“I was shocked,” recalls Mai Ni Ni Aung. “Imagine not being able to find Chin dress in a Chin village!”
This experience led her to ask why Sone-Tu textiles appeared to be dying out among the people who made them, and what she could do to reverse this situation.
The answer to the first question was fairly obvious: Poverty had forced many local people to sell their hand-woven clothing to outsiders attracted by its high quality, durability and sophisticated weaving patterns. In its place, the Sone-Tu started wearing cheap, mass-manufactured clothing devoid of any cultural value.
The second question—how to return traditional textiles to their rightful place in the lives of the Sone-Tu—was not so simple. The problem was that the skills needed to produce the highly sophisticated weaving that was once central to Chin culture were fast vanishing, as younger generations grew up without exposure to traditional clothing.
Desperate to do something about this, in May 2002 Mai Ni Ni Aung hastily recruited some young women in the village to take part in a training program under the guidance of older master weavers who still knew the secrets of Sone-Tu weaving.
“I wasn’t very ambitious at the time. All I wanted to do was arrange for some training,” she recalls, explaining that when she started out, she had no clear idea how she would revive a dying art that had been at the heart of her people’s culture for centuries.
What she eventually realized, however, was that it would be futile to teach the skills unless they could be used to provide the weavers with a livelihood. As it was, even very experienced weavers were living hand-to-mouth, often forced to do odd jobs just to survive.
So the first priority was to hire highly skilled weavers as teachers. Because the Sone-Tu don’t have a written language, the sole repository of traditional weaving skills is the “muscle memory” of long-time practitioners of the fine art of back-strap loom weaving, the distinctive technique employed by the Chin.
Using a back-tension, or back-strap, loom with cotton or silk is an extremely time-consuming process, taking even an experienced weaver two to three weeks, at six hours a day, to produce just one 80-by-20-inch single-pattern shawl. The results, however, are often quite stunning in their beauty.
According to David W. Fraser, co-author with his partner Barbara Fraser of “Mantles of Merit: Chin Textiles from Myanmar, India and Bangladesh,” the traditional textiles of the Chin are remarkable for their variety, quality and importance to their traditional culture as emblems of status.
“Some of the Chin groups are particularly adept at using supplementary wefts to create remarkably intricate patterning,” Mr. Fraser explained recently via e-mail. “Because warps are generally very closely packed in Chin textiles, in many cases the supplementary weft patterning is visible only on the front face of the textile.”
The patterns on Chin textiles differ greatly from one piece to the next, but all are characterized by a highly evolved aesthetic sensibility and executed with a rare virtuosity. As Dr. Khosrow Sobhe of Textile Museum Associates of Southern California puts it, the patterns vary “from minimalist statements evocative of a Mark Rothko painting to exquisitely intricate supplementary yarn patterning, in some cases using weaving structures mastered exceptionally by the Chin.”
In the decade since it came into existence as an “accidental” project, Sone-Tu Backstrap Weavings has made great strides in helping to keep these skills alive. It has saved 52 traditional patterns for posterity and trained more than 120 women, providing them and their elderly mentors with an income that enables them to dedicate themselves to their work. And this year, it opened its first weaving center in southern Rakhine State’s Minbya Township, employing around 20 women under its motto, “Preserving Culture through Opportunity.”
Besides its important role in preserving cultural traditions, the project has also had a positive social impact. In addition to partially supporting the education of nearly 300 children in the region, it has also improved the status of women in their homes and communities.
“The employment has significantly raised the role of women in the region,” says Mai Ni Ni Aung. “With their regular incomes, they earn respect from their husbands, who are now willing to take care of their babies and prepare food while their wives are busy at their looms.”
The project has achieved its success—which last year earned it a grant from the National Geographic Society—by increasing international recognition of the artistry of Sone-Tu weaving. It has done this largely through word of mouth, winning Sone-Tu textiles a dedicated following among private collectors and a place in such prestigious venues as Singapore’s Asian Civilization Museum, the Textile Museum in Washington and England’s Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, among others.
But for all that she has accomplished, Mai Ni Ni Aung is still not satisfied, because her original mission—to make traditional hand-woven clothing a normal part of everyday life among the Sone-Tu—has not yet been fulfilled. With a minimum price tag of 80,000 kyat, or US$80, for a single-pattern shawl, the project’s products are well out of reach of most people in this desperately poor part of Myanmar.
“I still don’t feel my project is a success, as my products are not widely available in the local market,” she says. “As long as Chin people can’t afford to wear their traditional dress on a daily basis, I don’t think my mission is completed.”
She adds that to make its products more affordable, the project is trying to “modify the looms to enable us to produce more textiles in a less time-consuming manner.”
In the meantime, other customers who are more than willing to pay top dollar for exquisite examples of hand-weaving are helping to keep the project going.
Vanessa Chan, a Singaporean woman who has bought more than a dozen Sone-Tu products over the years, says they are superior to any other indigenous textiles she has ever seen.
Knowing that buying them not only helps to save a rare and special weaving tradition from extinction, but also employs rural women and supports the education of their children, makes them even more precious to her, she adds.
“I value the shawls that I buy from Mai Ni Ni Aung more than I would value a scarf from Hermes,” says Ms. Chan, expressing a sentiment shared by many.
This story first appeared in the October 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.