Birth, Marriage and Death: Weaving in Mizo Culture with Siami x Siami

Kuki sits in a small room in Mizoram, Northeast India. Sunlight pours in through the trees that shade the white windowpane behind her. An antique Singer sewing machine waits to her right on a wooden desk, next to a brightly patterned, folded cloth. Kuki adjusts her large glasses and smiles at the interviewer, Fiona McAlpine, a Co-Founder of The Fabric Social. Kuki is the designer behind The Fabric Social’s Mizoram handbag collection, and in this interview she discusses the history of her homeland, its fabric, her process, and how these are all connected.

Can you tell us a little bit about what’s happened in Mizoram, particularly with the famine and the uprising?

The Bamboo plant flowers every half century, and historically this has caused huge problems for Mizo people, who live surrounded by bamboo forest. In the late 50s the bamboo flowering (called Mautam) caused the rat population to skyrocket, literally into the millions. The rats ravaged the local agricultural industry, meaning that Mizo people not only had nothing to eat - but nothing to trade. So along with the bamboo flowering, came famine and poverty.

Across the Northeast region at this time there were multiple armed insurgent groups. Instead of assisting the Mizo people, the ruling Assam government wrote off Mautam as tribal superstition, and ignored the pleas for help. In response, the Mizo people launched a revolt that lasted a quarter of a century.

In 1966, Indira Gandi, who had just come to power, launched an air-strike against Mizoram in an attempt to crush the insurgency. There was a huge loss of life, floods, and many people were displaced. This exacerbated tensions and strengthened the cause of the resistance.

What happened to your family?

My parents, who were children at the time, lost their homes and had to start again from scratch. My mum’s family home was bombed, and lost everything except for the clothes on their backs. The same thing happened to lots of other families in Mizoram. After the bombing, the rebels ran into the forest and there was chaos. The military came in.

And the history books deny the air-strikes to this day, but there are thousands of eye witness accounts from survivors. We don't learn from our history.

I think that is the reason why Mizoram is still a very closed society, suspicious towards outsiders even today. For years after the bombing we had curfews that would go on for months and months. There was no trade and farming was destroyed; but people were still weaving. 

Why is weaving so important in Mizo culture?

I think weaving is just part of our culture. Mizo people have been wearing our own traditional fabrics since the beginning. Even today we still wear our Mizo puan – we wear them for weddings, we wear them for special occasions, we wear them to church every Sunday. The Mizo puan is important to society because our culture depended on weaving for trade. The way we weave our designs is also very unique. Designs are something a mother would pass down through her family, so they are like heirlooms as well. It’s a part of the tradition and an important part of our festivals. If you’re getting married, you get puan.

Mizo girls are quite famous, particularly in North Eastern India, for the way they style traditional garments with contemporary fashion. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Well, Mizo people generally love fashion. Generation after generation, we are influenced by a lot of things that come from outside. I think I could start from when our blouses changed. Usually we would wear a puan, then on top of that we had another wrap-around for the top. But when the British missionaries came, we changed the top into a shirt. It was still stitched out of our own puan though. Through the years us Mizo girls have still worn our puan, but now we have a slightly different way of wearing it, sometimes shorter or longer depending on what is in fashion. Women modify according to what they think is cool.

Is carrying tradition forward through fashion important to your work?

I think it’s very important. I do like the way that you can’t use something traditionally forever. I wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing a puan every day; I would wear it for special occasions but with the kind of work I do, if I were to travel someplace wearing a puan, it wouldn’t be a reasonable thing. If I could wear it in some other way – say, if I could wear it as a handbag or a jacket – that would be good.

What is it about working with Mizoram weavers in the traditional style that is important to your vision?

Over the years different cultures, different weaving states and societies have integrated into each other. Because of trade, our Mizo puan has incorporated some designs from neighboring states. I know that the other states also take a lot of our designs. We tend to use very tight weaves. We also like to have a full design, and we add a lot of colors. If you see other woven fabrics, usually there would be a border and it would be plain. I think it’s important to keep this traditional design because it’s a weaving technique that is dying out – the ways of weaving in other states is often a lot easier.

Do the different themes have particular meaning?

Yeah! Each design has a different meaning, a different name, a different story. We have something called the senior, which is this diamond-shaped weave, and even within this we have different variations. There is the large senior, and then there is something called the small, ‘tight’ senior, where each diamond shape is filled in. The stripes of gold are inspired by the stripes of a tiger, and there are even some that are designed like the vertebrae. So you see, each design has a story, an origin. It’s important to preserve that.
When this project is fully funded, what will you use the money for?

What is most important for me is to get equipment and machines for the producers – the ladies who stitch these bags and garments. The second thing I would like to be able to do is to open a sampling studio, which is important because that is where all the ideas are put in. A sampling studio is a place where you work on how products can change, what kinds of products you can make, what designs are you going to go with for each product, so that we have a unique end product made out of our puans.

The third thing I would like to do is have a platform where I can market these products. It’s not only important for creating a puan meant for people who know how to stitch and make the product, it’s important for the weavers because they’re not just making a fabric, they’re creating a product. If you dictate the various stages at which a garment is made that will sell, it benefits everyone who’s involved.

How will this project change the standard of living for the producers with whom you work?

I can give you two examples. The weaver, Pi Piani, is a senior citizen who is the head of her family. She is also a grandmother, having had 11 children, 10 surviving. She put all her kids through school, some of them through college. She provided them with all of that through her weaving. Now she is working in a small shack in somebody’s compound, and the children have to come to help her weave whenever they have time – after school, after college. Even then, her standard of living is still very low. They’re struggling to pay school fees, college fees; struggling with whatever they need every day.

Our basic aim is to create a long-term relationship with her so that whatever she’s producing, after the effort that she’s put in, she has somebody she can sell fabric to at a rate she feels comfortable with. Her children have their own lives and there may not always be somebody there to help her out with the weaving. These are all things with which she has no security. We can provide her with students who need training to learn the skill.

Another example is my tailor, Tete, the woman who stitches the bags. She is a single mother and head of the household, and she is the oldest daughter in her family. Tete started a small, two-room little unit where she stitched and fixing things, and that’s how she started out. Handbags are her passion, and she was making a living by repairing second-hand bags.

She taught herself how to construct a bag by taking orders from the five or 10 people who knew what she was doing. But she has never been able to afford good machines. She still uses very ancient machines, which she has actually somehow modified so that they can take the load of stitching canvas or leather. But that is a drawback: because she still can’t afford machines made for these fabrics, the quality of her fabrics is lower than what it could be.

Her unit is now half the size it used to be because she wasn’t able to earn enough money to pay for it. The other thing is that there’s no one ordering bags in large quantities, so Tete’s left repairing bags or preparing just one order – neither of which brings her enough income. She also has three women working under her and she has trained them to cut and stitch with garment machines that have been around for 20 years.

She could really use help because she’s talented and has the capacity to train people, and she’s also the sole earner in her family. It could make a huge difference if we were able to produce something with her and provide some consistency for her to get more work and earn more money.

So, this project is already having an impact?

For the last project, Tete and I worked together and came up with trendy new designs. I taught her how to do some things with fabric and follow trends that she hasn’t been trained for. From my point of view, if we had a fully-funded project, these women – who are already so used to working with each other and helping each other out – could see an enormous impact, not only for themselves but also as an example for the other women in the state.

We’re already a community that helps each other at every level; you can imagine what could happen if the weavers and the tailors – all of us – had good machines and steady orders. Even minor things like transporting goods from here to there, that would be a big deal for them. We could have a small industry where people could have good employment, teaching each other. It’s a chance for young girls to have a part in keeping our culture alive.

How can people in Australia and around the world know that this is a fair supply chain that’s really making a difference?

The fact that weaving is so part of our culture, and that there is great demand from even within the Mizo people, ensures that the supply is there. The government is teaching lots of people to weave. At the end of the day, weaving may not be as important to somebody if she cannot see a chance to make an income. The weaving itself is done in my neighborhood by two women in their homes.

This is a community of weavers. What’s important for me and my workers and production is that everything is made in Mizoram. I’m from here, I live here, I see everything that is happening, I work closely with the women who are weaving and stitching. We all work together.

[Original interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

Shop our Mizo Collection here.

You can find out more about Kuki here. Photography borrowed from Siami x Siami Instagram. You can follow Kuki on Instagram and Facebook.

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