The shawl weavers of Pakistan: Keeping alive a dying art
ATTOCK: Twenty dirhams. That is all a weaver makes from two days of back-breaking effort to produce some of the most beautiful handmade shawls in the world.
It is hard for Mahmoud Khan, 65, and his brother Ahmad Khan, 75, to make ends meet on their limited earnings.
However, they still hang on to a profession they feel is a talent as well a family tradition.
The Khan brothers make beautiful embroidery shawls in the Wali Sheenbhag area of Attock, a rural district of Pakistan’s Punjab province.
Theirs is the only family that is still associated with this business in the area. In the past the whole village used to do it. Rapid changes in technologies used in the textile industry have changed the way these shawls are made.
Mahmoud and his elder brother have been weaving embroidered shawls for a long time. Ahmad has been at it for six decades. It is an art which they inherited from their forefathers.
But is it something they are bound to do? Apparently not. They say they took up this craft out of their own choice. According to the pair, it is a great job and they earn a modest living through this honourable work.
This correspondent spent a day with the two shawl-weavers and their families to find out how they make these beautiful shawls.
The effort is great as a single shawl is completed after the struggle of several hours.
“It takes two days to complete one shawl as the needlework takes a lot of time. I work eight hours a day and after two days I am hardly able to finish one shawl,” Mahmoud says.
The finished product is sold by middlemen in the markets at expensive rates, but the artisans who make these shawls only get a few hundred rupees.
Mahmoud Khan says he earns almost Rs600 (Dh20.8 or $5.6) profit from a single shawl.
“The shopkeepers earn the maximum profit as we just take the orders from the wholesalers,” Khan says.
The wool and other raw material which they use for the weaving is mostly purchased from Peshawar city. Ahmad Khan, the elder brother, usually helps with the purchase of the fine yarn and cotton that is used in these shawls.
Though both brothers are illiterate, they can use mobile phones to book orders from wholesalers and to contact the other potential buyers.
Ahmad Khan says: “I go to Peshawar and purchase the wool and the cotton for these shawls. Normally the cost of one shawl [there] is Rs3,000 but the price of same shawl goes up to Rs10,000 as they are displayed lavishly at various shops and outlets in Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar.”
The two brothers say they have a great working relationship. Ahmad’s wife, Begum Jan, 60, helps them keep the wool and cotton in order.
In the first step of weaving a shawl, they set the wool or cotton in sequence, according to the intended design. They often create their own designs. However, they also weave according to the buyers’ specifications.
After the sequencing the knitting process starts.
Ahmad says they can work with cotton and wool but, in Pakistan, the majority of buyers demand shawls made of wool.
He recalls a time when they worked with silk cloth some decades ago.
The Khans may not have not formal education but they still have a great passion for design.
Their products are known for being unique, Begum Jan, Ahmad’s wife says.
“We have some very unique and different styles, which we got from our forefathers, but they are very difficult to weave and take several days, subsequently the cost went so high that it is not affordable for everyone,” Jan says.
Ahmad has been weaving for several decades, but when asked why his wife doesn’t have any such shawl for her own use he said: “These shawls are for others and it is not possible to wear such expensive shawls as we hardly get a profit to afford a very simple life and feed our children.”
According to Mahmoud, it is only specific people who use these shawls as they are relatively expensive. Moreover, he says, many people don’t know about the high quality and attention to detail which goes into making handmade shawls.
Ahmad has a daughter and two sons, who all help their father in this business.
Asked about his personal life and family, Mahmoud said: “ I never got married because I cannot afford a family on this limited income. My elder brother Ahmad has a small family but still lives hand to mouth.”
Ahmad and Mahmoud are faced with a challenge familiar to many craftspeople and artists — they don’t know how to market their products properly.
They say they would be interested in exhibiting their wares somewhere in Islamabad or Karachi, or any other place where they can display the embroidered shawls to a large audience.
But they remain optimistic that one day their efforts will generate great output for them or future generations of their family.
“We have a dream to open an outlet where we would sell our own handmade shawls and this can only be done with money earned from exhibitions because we have not any capital to invest,” Ahmad says.
The dreams of these artisans are not too far-fetched, as their handmade shawls are already displayed by others in famous outlets in Peshawar, Islamabad and Karachi.
The shawl industry in Pakistan has been a part of local tradition for ages and versatile varieties have been produced over the years.
The weavers produce masterpieces, which find are highly-rated on the international market.
The foreign currency generated by these artisans is increasing each day as demand increases.
More and more international fashion houses and retail customers are seeking ways to get these masterpieces direct from the makers.
But the shawl industry still does not have any formal training institutions.
Weaving is not taught at colleges and universities. Most people in the industry learnt the art from their forefathers or developed it on their own.
The challenges faced by these weavers are forcing them to abandon a skill they have developed over decades.