As a country that accommodates so much diversity, there is so much we can learn from different cultures. And, the clothes that one wears is a reflection of the tradition of that particular region. Indigenous weaves are colourful, handmade, and truly fascinating.
And one among the fantastic varieties India contains is the ‘Puan’. The Puan is a traditionally woven piece of clothing from Mizoram, that is extremely versatile.
Women most often wear it as a skirt. At the same time, the ‘Puak Puan’ is a variation of the Puan, which is tied around as a sling to carry a baby.
And Malsawmtluangi Hmar, a homemaker turned entrepreneur and founder of ‘Zo Weave‘, is one of the best people around to know all you need to know about this ancient and incredible art.
Malsawmi, as she is commonly addressed, had always been surrounded by these traditional weaves as her mother and aunts would often get ‘Puans’ customised for themselves. In addition, trips with her father kept her interest burning bright.
“My father was in the civil services, and through him, I was exposed to different villages. There, we would speak with artisans and weavers. Even as a teenager, I would see my aunts and other homemakers practice making Puan on the loin loom for extra income,” recalls the 36-year-old and mother of four now.
The loin loom is a system to weave thin strips of cloth, about 18 inches wide. Traditionally, the women in Mizoram would all learn the technique and weave cloth as part of their daily routine.
Malsawmi’s exposure and understanding of traditional loin loom weave throughout her life inspired her so much that she founded ‘Zo Weave’ in 2017.
“The reason why we have named it Zo Weave is that we work with weavers from different villages who belong to different tribes under the ‘Zo Umbrella’,” informs Malsawmi.
Watch this video to check out how the Puak Puan is tied as a baby sling.
Initially, Malsawmi began working in a few homemakers who were also loin loom weavers to produce beautifully woven Puak Puan and Puan. Today, they have a network for 63 weavers across the state. Malsawmi informs that so far, Zo Weave has sold over 1000 units of Puak Puan. They have also sold over 1000 Puans. Additionally, they also launched their range of table runners and shawls which are also all handwoven by artisans.
All the pieces are handwoven on the loin loom, and the patterns are reflective of modern design rooted in tradition. The designs and quality are so well-loved that northeasterners who live abroad in the UK and the US have also bought these Puan and Puak Puan, arranging the shipping through relatives.
How it all began
Malsawmi was born and brought up in Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram. She moved to Delhi in 2002 to pursue her Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Indraprastha College in Delhi University. While she was in second year of college, she got married and finally finished her degree in 2006.
After living in Delhi with her husband until 2009, they moved to Singapore for a year and returned to Delhi again. Her husband’s transfer brought her back to Mizoram in 2014. By then, she was the mother of two children.
“When I moved back to Mizoram, we would often get invited to weddings and other events. For these, I always wanted to wear Puans that were customised. You see, for us, the Puan is like a prized possession. So, I would visit weavers in Aizawl, give them my design and yarn that I had bought from the market. They would weave these beautiful Puans for me,” informs Malsawmi.
Also, in 2016, she was expecting her third child and wanted to use a nice Puak Puan once the child was born.
“I was hoping to enjoy motherhood by using a nice traditional Puak Puan (baby sling). These baby slings have been used for years, and I was looking for anything that caught my eye. But, the quality of Puak Puan that was available in the market was not good. So, I thought to myself that since I was anyway getting Paun made from the weavers, why not ask them to also customise a Puak Puan for me,” recalls Malsawmi.
She then bought some yarn in the market and handed it to her weaver. The weaver agreed and took a week to make the baby sling as per Malsawm’s directions.
“Although she was initially hesitant about trying out a new design, she made the baby sling, and I loved it. It is so versatile that it can even be worn as a shawl!” Malsawmi says.
Soon, Malsawmi started getting a lot of appreciation for the customised weaves she was getting made. This got her thinking, and she realised that she could start a business where she sold these handwoven beauties.
This would keep the traditional loin loom alive while also aiding the livelihood of homemakers who possessed the skill and knowledge of weaving. This is what led to the birth of Zo Weave.
Going about the operations
The operations begin with Malsawmi buying the yarn from the markets. She then sits and conceptualises different designs, which are explained to the weavers.
The weavers work from the comfort of their homes and there is no unit for Zo Weave as such as of now. Most of the weavers are based out of Aizawl while some also belong to neighbouring villages.
Once the products are ready, Malsawmi herself goes and picks up the products. While, for weavers in remote areas, a vehicle is arranged from Aizawl for the pick-up of the finished goods.
The Puak Puan sold by Zo Weave is slightly broader and longer than what is available in the market. The ones handwoven by the brand are 27 inches in breadth and 90 inches in length. A Zo Weave Puans are priced between Rs 2500-15,000 depending on the intricacy of the patterns and time taken to weave it. The size helps in the comfort of the baby and the person carrying the baby.
The Puan, on the other hand, is 63 inches in width and 48 inches in length and there is a great demand for these as well, especially among the Mizo women.
These weaves take anywhere between a week to a month to be ready. It involves a lot of hard work and precision to weave beautiful designs. Once the Puak Puan and the Puan are woven, it is washed, dried and ironed by a staff member hired by Malsawmi.
In case there is a defective piece, it is not labelled and sold, but Malsawmi sells it if one wants to buy it at a discounted price.
The entrepreneur also adds that social media platforms like Instagram and word of mouth have been important factors that have helped reach many customers.
History professor Rosaline Varsangzuali had just had her third child six months back when she first came across Zo Weave’s baby sling in a children’s clothing store in Aizawl. She was immediately taken by the fine quality of the Puak Puan and the exclusivity of the designs. She has used the Puak Puan for six months now and says she loves it.
“It is beautifully woven while the patterns and motifs really stand out. It is sturdy and soft at the same time. It is easy to tie around and comfortable enough to carry the baby. Moreover, it is multi-purpose and can be used as a baby blanket and even a shawl. I love the contemporary design,” says the 46-year-old.
Dr Ramdinthari was scrolling through Instagram when she came across a picture of an acquaintance wearing a beautiful Puan with a black and white design.
“The Puan is something that is a traditional attire rooted in culture and wearing a beautiful Puan is nothing less than a fashion statement. In a way, you could say this beautiful piece of clothing defines us and is a matter of pride,” says the 38-year-old
The Assistant professor of English then decided to contact the person and find the designer of the beautiful Puan. This is what led her to Zo Weave about two years back. Since then, Malsawmi has become a go-to designer for Ramdinthari, and she has ended up buying over 10 Puans from Zo Weave.
“I love the fact that she makes traditional designs contemporarily relevant. It is her little twists that make the products unique. The quality is refined and I also really admire the fact that it engages and empowers women who are telling their stories through these weaves,” states Ramdinthari.
Overcoming challenges and looking ahead
Zo Weave is currently managing its operations with efficiency, but it is not a piece of cake. As a mother of four and the main person managing all the functions, Malsawmi says that it can often be very challenging.
“It is often very stressful to manage all the operations by myself. But, I have three sisters, and they often give me feedback that helps me improve the quality of the products. They also lend a hand when I need support,” says Malsawmi.
Additionally, maintaining the authenticity of the product while also ensuring the quality is up to the mark is a constant challenge.
But, through her learnings, Malsawmi has a few words of advice for homemakers, mothers and entrepreneurs like herself.
“The thing is, if you are passionate about something, go ahead and pursue it. Remember that it is never too late and with hard work, one will only succeed in the long run,” she says.
So, what is in store with Zo Weave now?
Malsawmi informs that they are currently experimenting with different kinds of fibre. By the end of this year, she is hopeful that they’ll launch the first sample of silk Puak Puans and Puans as she hasn’t launched a collection using this fabric yet. She believes that with more variety, accessing more customers and engaging more weavers would be possible.
“I have a real vision for us to grow and expand globally. I want to show the beauty, character and functionality of Mizo weaves while also proving that when women support each other, we can achieve anything,” she says, signing off.
*An entrepreneur you admire.
Ans: Jesmina Zeliang, founder of Heirloom Naga
*One value that can help small businesses thrive
Ans: Trust / Loyalty
* Any app/software that helps you manage your work
Ans: Instagram (in promoting my business)
*Your favourite book
Ans: Three thousand stitches by Sudha Murthy
*In my free time, I ____…
Ans: spend quality time with my family… I particularly enjoy road trips
* A message for your past self about small businesses
Ans: Learn from trials and errors for better outcomes
* Something they don’t teach in college but is important to run a business is
Ans: the fact that satisfaction comes from doing things we are passionate about.
*One question I always ask people while hiring is __…
Ans: that I expect loyalty from my employee
*Best advice you ever got is ____…
Ans: we rise by helping each other.
Check out Zo Weave’s Instagram page.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)