By Naveed Rozais
Sri Lanka’s handloom industry is prolific and ancient. The tradition of handloom in Sri Lanka, legend has it, predates its settlement by Prince Vijaya (one reported first meeting between Kuveni and Vijaya took place while she was preparing yarn for handloom weaving).
Today, it is a robust, economically viable local industry, but what has made it so? This is what a team of professors from the University of Moratuwa investigated – the many contributory factors to the success of handloom and which of these factors make handloom the inherently sustainable heritage craft it is.
This research team recently published their findings (with the support of the Research Fund for International Scientists, National Natural Science Foundation of China). The Sunday Morning Brunch sat down with three members of the research team, Prof. Virajini Medagedara Karunaratne, Prof. Gayathri Ranathunga, and Nilhan Niles for a bit more insight on what the building blocks of the handloom industry have been over the years.
Handloom’s driving force
The key goal of the research paper, titled ‘Sustainable Textiles in the Past – Wisdom of the Past: Inherited Weaving Techniques are the Pillars of Sustainability in the Handloom Textile Sector of Sri Lanka’ was to explore the defining characteristics of Sri Lanka’s handloom industry and see how these characteristics enabled the sustainable survival of the industry over thousands of years.
Shedding more light on what the team discovered, Prof. Virajini Medagedara Karunaratne explained: “We can see that the industry dates back to before the fifth century BC, and can see the clear development of the industry, and we worked to identify the characteristics that have led to this sustained development. We identified three main characteristics; one is inherited craft knowledge, then the impact of Buddhist culture, and the impact of a network of people working within a particular industry. We can consider the handloom textile industry as a society.”
One example where all these three characteristics push the industry forward is in the small weaving community of Ududumbara, where the weavers are of the Dumbara style of handloom. Dumbara handloom is quite unique to Sri Lanka; it can be described as a jacquard that features Sri Lankan motifs adapted to the loom. When it comes to Dumbara, the inherited knowledge aspect of Sri Lanka’s handloom industry really shines.
Dumbara weaving was developed in this small village and for a long time, it was only worn by royalty, with the village being exclusively patronised by the king. Parents taught their children the ways of weaving Dumbara over and over for centuries, it was very much an inherited skill. Buddhist culture driving the little community forward comes through the association of the kings with the State and the use of Dumbara as a royal textile.
Prof. Gayathri Ranathunga spoke to Brunch about how handloom had sustained itself as a heritage industry, explaining that despite patterns changing heavily over time and for the most part modelling themselves after weaving patterns of our bigger neighbour India, many weaving communities in Sri Lanka, not just Dumbara but all round the island, still maintained their own unique inherited pattern of weaving that had been passed down from the generations before. Therefore, handloom is truly representative of Sri Lankan culture, design, motifs, and colour and that is part of what makes it sustainable.
“Sustainability is a key concept in many fields today and we wanted to argue that culture and knowledge systems should partake in sustainable discourse, especially in local industries,” Prof. Ranathunga said, adding that with cultural sustainability, regardless of industry, there needed to be a strong connection in the local context across the supply chain and this was what handloom had – from materials to design process, to supply chain to finished product – and this cultural sustainability and its integral part in our larger culture had played an important part in sustaining the industry all these years.
Handloom today and cultural sustainability
The cultural sustainability aspect of handloom has played an integral role in its development and growth to date, not just in terms of being a heritage textile that intricately links back to culture and religion, but through the role that the State and other actors have taken in nurturing it.
The inherited knowledge gives identity, cultural diversity, and emotional experiences which are the selling points in textile marketing in consumer society today. The industry caters to two main market levels: mass productions for the larger group of consumers and designer productions for a niche consumer market. The second-level niche market is defined by its own unique needs, the exclusiveness of designs, preferences, or identity that makes it different from the market at large, but the cultural identity is higher there.
However, at present, Prof. Ranathunga noted that there was a worrying dependency on foreign markets for the supply of materials and there was also difficulty in meeting local demand for handloom. “In the ancient era customers were very limited and there wasn’t such a huge demand, but now it’s completely different,” she noted, adding: “Consumers have increased and there is a huge demand. Since we don’t have enough materials we have to depend on foreign materials.”
Fixing this gap is key to ensuring the handloom industry can sustain itself for the future. “This is the right time to start the cultivation of cotton plant farms in the country and to implement policies that will create consistent infrastructure for supply chains. If not, in the near future, the handloom industry will feel the consequences of depending on foreign materials,” Prof. Ranathunga said.
Strengthening the handloom industry
So what do we need to ensure the sustainability of the handloom industry?
Nilhan Niles picked up the topic of growing cotton locally, noting that while past attempts to grow cotton had not been very successful, this was no reason not to try again, particularly given the requirement of the handloom industry. He said that it was also important to look at alternative materials like banana fibre, which had seen some success as a fibre used for spinning.
Niles also noted that while Sri Lanka had a thriving textile industry in the past, this had now dwindled to only one large spinning mill in the country, knitting and finishing segments, and small-scale weaving industries, adding that there needed to be greater thought put into revising Sri Lanka’s textile industry as a whole, something made doubly difficult by the economic crisis which was making people, both locally and internationally, think twice about investing in Sri Lanka.
Another key factor in driving the industry forward and ensuring its sustainability is learning. On a national level, Prof. Ranathunga shared that the Department of Textile Industry had, for decades, conducted special workshops and training programmes to better equip handloom weavers with new knowledge.
“This traditional inheritance from families plus this accomplishment of new knowledge and technological advances as well through training programmes are a driving force in sustaining the industry,” she shared. “Before the crisis, there were also plans for the Department of Textile Industry to send selected award winners to a month-long training programme, something that had happened continually before Covid-19. In that way too the industry was sustained and those within it gained new knowledge.”
Niles too emphasised the importance of learning in sustaining the industry: “Learning is very important because being exposed to other ways of doing it without changing traditional motifs and techniques but through finding ways where they can increase their productivity and try out new things can give a better product, but this is only possible through learning and exposure.”
Sustainability through the international market
Speaking on the role the foreign market has to play in sustaining handloom, Prof. Karunaratne said: “The foreign market has a huge demand for traditional craft textiles,” noting that India was ahead of the curve when it came to creating demand for their unique heritage textiles.
“We are in the position now to make our own phenomenal cultural crafts for the world fashion market. We’re more than capable. Handloom textiles are known to be a craft based on human emotions and value systems. This is why we need a strong policy, to produce a powerful value addition and be able to market this craft not only to attract local demand but foreign demand as well.”
These themes are discussed in further detail in the joint research paper ‘Sustainable Textiles in the Past – Wisdom of the Past: Inherited Weaving Techniques are the Pillars of Sustainability in the Handloom Textile Sector of Sri Lanka’ which can be read in its entirety on www.mdpi.com.
‘Sustainable Textiles in the Past – Wisdom of the Past: Inherited Weaving Techniques are the Pillars of Sustainability in the Handloom Textile Sector of Sri Lanka’ is written by Hafeezullah Memon (College of Textile Science and Engineering, International Institute of Silk, Zhejiang Sci-Tech University, China), Gayathri Madubhani Ranathunga (Fashion Design and Product Development Degree Course, Department of Textile and Apparel Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, University of Moratuwa), Virajini Medagedara Karunaratne (Fashion Design and Product Development Degree Course, Department of Textile and Apparel Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, University of Moratuwa) Samudrika Wijayapala (Department of Textile and Apparel Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, University of Moratuwa), and Nilhan Niles (Department of Textile and Apparel Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, University of Moratuwa).