What once started as a backyard project, empowering a single Naga weaver, has transformed into a global brand, employing over 450 women across Northeast India. Heirloom Naga is changing the face of ethical and sustainable textile in the fashion industry, preserving the native craft of its culture, and honouring the hands of its craftswomen. Meet Jesmina Zeliang, the woman who turned a small backyard project into a global brand.
Image: Craftswoman weaving, photographed by Architectural Digest
How did Heirloom Naga begin?
Heirloom Naga started as a backyard project with a single Naga weaver back in 1993. I was acutely aware that beyond the traditional textiles available back in the day, there was nothing really meaningful or modern that might appeal to customers outside the state. It was this gap in the market that led me to create samples in soft furnishings.
I soon found my first collection being showcased at one of Delhi’s plush lifestyle boutiques. There was no looking back. I was innovating in existing textiles and weaving in pure cotton, which no one was doing at the time. The collection found favour in the market. One thing led to another and soon we were in business. We sat in my backyard and from one weaver we grew to five. This is how Heirloom Naga was born.
Image: A group of Naga craftswomen weaving
What was the turning point?
In 1997, I got a frantic call from a chief merchandise exporter in FabIndia. She said, “look, there’s a buyer from the U.S. and they want to place a huge order with you.” The invoice value was a little over eight lakh rupees, which, at that time, was a lot. I didn’t even know how to count all the zeros! That drove home the point that maybe Heirloom Naga was meant for bigger things.
I realized I could generate significant employment at the grassroots level. Most women from the tribe knew how to weave but had no way of generating income. During this time, the insurgency was at its peak and we didn’t have economic or trade opportunities. I thought we could send out some positive vibes from our troubled state. I curated small collections, exhibited them in metro cities, and booked orders. Soon, we were working with most boutiques and lifestyle stores across the country. In that year, we grew from five weavers weaving in my backyard, to 150 weavers weaving across Nagaland.
Image: Two Naga craftswomen weaving using the loin loom
Where does your appreciation for textiles come from?
My love for textiles grew from vivid memories of my mother weaving jholas for me and traditional angami naga shawls for my father. I was fascinated to see my mother living in an urban area but still very rooted to her culture and tradition. She always wore her Mechala and shawl. By the 70s-80s my peers' mothers would be wearing trousers but not my mother.
Are all the textiles woven in homes?
These textiles are all woven in small homes and on the most primitive loom known to mankind. It is important that our workers are not displaced from their homes. They work in the comforts of their homes, dictated by their own space, and thereby possess total ownership over their work. Our people face a lot of discrimination outside the state. By allowing them to remain in their own homes and providing them with a livelihood, we’ve created an enabling environment and encouraged new weavers into the craft.
Image: A craftswoman weaving in her home
What can we as a society do?
We need to sensitize the younger generation by introducing craft as a subject in schools. In Nagaland, there are some schools that have already started teaching weaving and basketry. This is a good beginning. Unless and until we validate our own handmade textiles, who else will?
Image: Naga craftswomen weaving, photographed by Architectural Digest
What is Heirloom Naga’s role in society?
We are the cultural custodians of our society. It is through our textiles that we continue the tradition of our culture - not only promoting but also preserving it. By continuing this tradition of handcrafts, we respect and draw inspiration from the rich upholstery of designs from Nagaland. I believe Heirloom Naga has been successful in placing ‘Made in India’ on a global scale. From a small backyard project, we’ve come a long way.
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