Nagas have a rich tradition of art and craft rooted in a lifestyle that has always been in harmony with the environment they live in. Weaving is a traditional art handed down through generations in Nagaland. A number of traditions and beliefs are associated with the weaving and wearing of the traditional dress. It considered auspicious and had its traditional value and meaning. Each of the major tribes has its own unique designs and colors, producing shawls, shoulder bags, jackets, mufflers, cushions, runners and other made-ups with traditional tribal patterns and motifs peculiar to the Naga tribes. It has a rich heritage in designs that differ from tribe to tribe.
The Nagas are best known for their shawls in which three or more pieces are woven separately and then stitched together. Different tribes weave and wear different types of shawls. The Shawls are hand woven in traditional black, red and white, in combination with other color such as green yellow, blue varying from tribe to tribe. The color combination, design and pattern symbolize a specific tribe and the wearer’s status in the society. Each Naga tribe has its own signature shawl.
Traditionally Naga shawls are mainly cotton, which is cultivated widely in the villages of northeastern states in India. Textile dyeing is a significant art among the hill tribes of the region with each tribe possessing one or two good dyes. Each tribe uses different colours and motifs according to their clan traditions. The natural dyes used by them are extracted from barks, roots and plants. Each tribe use distinguishing colors and motifs often based on tribal legends.
Unlike other parts of India, spinning and weaving in Nagaland is the exclusive monopoly of women. All women are expected to know weaving and they normally weave the cloth necessary for the family. Two types of looms are prevalent in Nagaland. The loin loom or pit loom and the fly shuttle loom. Most of the women in villages possess loin loom and the weaving is done on these looms. The loin-looms are used by women for traditional shawl-weaving while the narrow fly shuttle is used to weave other fabrics. Each Naga tribe uses bold distinctive patterns with simple geometric designs and motifs for shawls and sarongs. Naga loom, though of the type known as Indonesian tension loom, is a simple back strap loom, with continuous horizontal warp consisting of six sticks serving the function of warp beam, lease rod, held stick, beating sword and extra warp beam. For setting the loom, first the warp beam is securely fastened to the wall of the house in a horizontal position.
The uniqueness of the Naga textiles had been its traditional use of yarn and natural dyes, but the nature of the weaving industry has changed. In this mechanised and globalised market, the handloom sector is providing a refreshing change in unique manual skill and diversity. It plays a positive role for providing livelihood to a large section of women in the region. Naga women wove textiles for their own personal use. There was no trend of weaving and selling the products in the market. Despite fulfilling the basic clothing needs at home, or for ceremonial occasion or as a decorative piece, it has become a part of the decentralised sector consisting of cloth production by family units. Cotton cultivation, yarn spinning and dyeing was traditionally practiced by the tribals, but gradually the weavers discontinued these activities due various reasons like migration, employment shifts and the availability of cheaper options in mill made dyed yarns. This shift is due to various factors such as non-availability of good quality cotton, durability, weaver friendliness and washes fastness of the acrylic yarns, which has made it the preferable yarn type.
Nagaland has created an internationally acclaimed space in the field of indigenous crafts. However unethical business-practices have become rampant. There are poor supply of quality finished goods as well as declining use of traditional raw materials. This is due to problems faced by the weavers’ non-availability of raw materials, lack of working capital and market linkages. The weavers are spread out in large areas which are difficult to access and most of them work independently and take up weaving as a part-time occupation. It is high time the Government of Nagaland take interest in identifying the poor weavers by supporting and promoting them.