Pakistan town fighting to keep hand-weaving industry alive

Shawls made using traditional Khadi method threatened by rising costs and intricate nature of the technique

Centuries-old Pakistani shawl-making trade makes a splash on social media

Centuries-old Pakistani shawl-making trade makes a splash on social media
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Just over 10 miles from Mingora city in the lush green mountains of Swat district, lies Islampur, a small town with a population of 25,000 people. There the sound of the traditional handloom machines locally known as Khadi can be heard all day.

“We have kept this tradition alive,“ Riaz Ahmed, 52, the owner of a Khadi shop, told The National.

Khadi involves meticulously crafting handmade shawls and other warm textiles from locally sourced sheep wool or imported fibres, requiring collective efforts.

Mr Ahmad told The National that weaving shawls is a challenging task that "involves 37 people in the production process, from herding sheep to making wool, weaving and designing.”

Mr Ahmad explained that making one shawl using the intricate method typically takes two to three hours, and that can increase when the shawl is embroidered.

The industry employs 70 per cent of the town's population, according to the Islampur Cottage Industry Association.

More than 50,000 locals from Swat and the surrounding districts of Dir, Bajaur, Shangla, Buner and Chitral work in the industry.

The prices for the shawls range from $6 to $700, contributing significantly to the local economy.

Workers make three to five shawls a day, depending on experience and skills, earning them just PKR 500 to PKR 1000 (USD $2-3) per day.

Cultural heritage

Naik Mohammad, a 45-year-old artisan, was busy weaving a shawl in a traditional underground Khadi in Islampur. He told The National that the centuries-old art of weaving holds a deep-rooted significance in the town as an “identity marker” and a piece of cultural heritage passed down through generations.

“Growing up, I observed my parents working in Khadi making shawls.”

However, he says the time-consuming nature of Khadi, coupled with rising costs, has made it difficult to make a living.

“Some years ago, we had a normal life and the wages would cover our house expenses but now inflation has gone up, which has caused a serious stress in our life."

He added that in the past wool and other materials were cheap, which meant workers were able to make a comfortable living.

Hazir Gul, chairperson of the Islampur Cortege Industry Association (ICIA), says the industry has evolved, most notably with the growth of online businesses. This has attracted international orders and expanded the industry's reach.

The exquisitely crafted shawls and other wool products from Islampur have become very popular in Pakistan’s markets and are exported to the US, Europe, Central Asia, and the Gulf countries, said Mr Gul.

The industry is being kept alive by local workers, they say, but inflation and a lack of government support have cut their earnings considerably.

Ayaz Mohammad, assistant director of the Trade and Development Authority of Pakistan, told The National that the government continues to offer support.

"For the promotion and protection of this indigenous industry, we give them spaces in different exhibitions, organised training, and support to make improvements in their work and businesses," he told The National.

Naik Muhammad has spent almost 25 years in the industry, yet he thinks coming generations need to equip themselves with new skills and technology, because the industry has evolved a lot. “Khadi requires more energy and time and earns them less money at the end of the day.”

However Shehzad, a 25-year-old Khadi worker who considered moving to the city to pursue an education but ultimately decided to stay in Islampur, thinks it is still worth the effort.

"I am happy I decided to stay and keep alive the skills of my grandfathers,” he said.

Updated: February 02, 2024, 6:26 PM