Handcraft industry thrives in SWAT-Malala Yousufzai’s hometown

By Haroon Siraj and Usman Nadeem

Special Report

Swat: The fashion industry has thrived and grown rapidly over the past decade in Pakistan.

Pakistan offers thousands of options in shawls and embroidery pieces across the country. The choices and variety are unlimited especially since the modern era of fashion industry has prevailed so much. Yet the Islampuri Shawls their warmth and color rich embroidery pieces always tweaked Naseem’s heart.

Naseem travels every year from Islamabad to Islampur to buy these extravagant embroidery pieces of clothing especially the Islampuri handmade pure wool shawls, she believes that the quality she finds in SWAT is un-parallel in comparison to all the other options available across Pakistan or the whole world.

Naseem is a house wife, a mother of three beautiful children, she expresses that when she wears Islampuri shawls and the embroidery pieces blended with her usual attire in social and family gatherings her appearance always sparks a lot of interest from her peers when they see such extravagant piece of quality and hand craft and raises an over whelming interest, everyone always enquire and express their fascination of the material and quality they see.

It is common for everyone to ask about how they can get their hands on such quality of clothing for themselves. Naseem always ends up recommending her peers to buy Islampuri shawls and embroidery crafts.
She was introduced to this quality and hand-craft of the locals of SWAT valley when she started visiting the valley after the military operation against the evil of Taliban, she was attracted by the fine quality and unique designs that made her a regular customer of these culturally rich handmade items.

Visits to SWAT valley introduced Naseem not only to the scenic beauty of the valley, but also to the beautiful local craft and the simple yet pure-hearted people and their hospitality. It was impossible to not visit the valley every year. This also gave her the opportunity to purchase ample items of variety to build up her collection over the years.

Isalampur village in the SWAT valley is famous all over the world for the quality of its hand woven woolen shawls, extravagant hand crafted embroidery clothing and blankets. The locals are bent on keeping the cottage hand loom industry up and running after the crisis of the war on terrorism the valley has seen in the recent past. It is of utmost importance to preserve and grow the high quality woolen shawls and rich embroidery clothing as it is the premium source of income for the local small/cottage industry proving to be the livelihood of many local residents.

The beautiful village is located between the mountains of Marghazar a prime tourist spot in the valley which is about 13 kilometers drive from the Mingora City.

The tourism industry which is highlighted by the present government to be a remarkable source of revenue in the near future should promote to tourists planning to visit swat valley in the future and especially visit the village of Islampur to explore the riches of the local culture in shape of these high quality handmade woolen shawls, the unique embroidery crafts and experience the beauty and warmth of the hand stitched blankets offered and sold here.

The main source of income of the villagers is their handmade craft. Men and women of this village have the remarkable skill of making a unique variety of woolen embroidery shawls, embroidery clothing and blankets which are very popular nationally and internationally, this craft has been perfected by the locals over generations. The craft of SWAT valley has found its recognition across the world due to the uniqueness and its highly refined quality.

These local crafts has been perfected and flourished as a small industry, the beauty of it is its source of origin. It is produced in a local villager’s homes and farm houses, woven and manufactured on embroidery machines named as (Kaddy) to produce these crafts of art. Men and women of the area work side by side to earn their livelihood from this craft passed to them from centuries by their ancestors, more than 90 percent of population of this area is associated with this profession. These hand woven crafts are supplied to the every nook and corner of the world. There are 450 small woolen Shawls industries in Islampur which export their goods to the entire world.

It is pertinent to mentioned here that during the militant occupation of Taliban in swat valley, handicrafts and shawls industries suffered severely, not only the local investors but the workers on daily wages underwent heavy social and economic losses. After the military operation Rah-e-Rast, the industrial activity has revived once again and business were resumed this revival has started attracting business prospects from the entire world once again. Yet the progress and the road back to prosperity is slow paced due to the crisis this valley has seen in the recent past.

Aqeel Khan who is the owner of local woolen shawl Industry told Islamabad Telegraph that our forefathers were the founder of this craft and this is a legacy of craftsmanship passed to his family over 4 decades.
Aqeel Khan also known locally as Shah sb said that there are large varieties on offer in woolen shawls, men’s shawls made up of premium quality are called 48 number shawls and single shawls are known as 52 number shawls.

While variety in female’s shawls which were made up of pure wool are called 72 number shawls. He also stated that the single shawls are their best rated shawls. When enquired about the prices of these shawls Shah sb stated that premium shawls which contain high quality pure wool are their high priced range starting from PKR.3500 (34.6 USD) up to 50000 (495 USD), yet different ranges of woolen shawls are sold even at modest prices starting from PKR.1500 (15 USD) to PKR. 3000 (30 USD).

Shah sb further explained to us that after producing large quantity of these shawls they are sold to whole sale dealers who mostly own their businesses in the local market of Mingora city and their network spreads across Pakistan.

These wholesaler dealers sell embroidery handmade products throughout Pakistan and even export across the border to Afghanistan, China and Malaysia, they also export overseas to the likes of United States of America, UAE, South east Asia, Europe and even as far as Australia.

Another small embroidery industry owner Wahidullah of Islampur told Islamabad Telegraph that for the last 5 years our businesses were at its peak as things started to pick up after Taliban militants were wiped out by the armed forces, but the recent price hikes and the inflation of the economy has hit us hard, and the lockdown due to Covid-19 in the country has badly affected our businesses, cotton and other materials which are required to manufacture these shawls and crafts has become so expensive recently that it has become very difficult for small businesses to survive.

Ruqiya Bibi 58, an aged female owner of the local small industry told Islamabad Telegraph that the main profits generated from selling these products is pocketed by the middleman or the whole sellers. She said majority of the pioneers of this crafts bid farewell to the industry due to the price hike and inflation seen in last few years as the margin of profits are squeezed so drastically that it became incredibly hard for a small business/industry owner to survive.

A large chunk of profit is earned by the dealers or wholesalers because they have large investments which they use to stake large quantities of stock negotiated at reasonably cheap rates, further selling our handmade products and crafts at hiked up profit margins to the rest of the market across the country and overseas through their monopolized network. Thus the manufacturer who is bound by their limited resources is left with only the basic fight for survival with modest margin of profit and a limited choice due to the lack of network.

In an interview with Qadar a laborer working in a small woolen shawls factory told our correspondent that he has been working since the last 7 years in this industry and usually make up to six or seven shawls within 2 days on which he receives up to a modest amount of 800 hundred rupees remuneration. He said that the meager wage which he receives for his work does not even fulfill the basic needs for his family yet he continues on for the sake of experience he gains of the craft.

He further told us that he has even crafted fashionable shawls and clothing which were worn on the ramps of National and International Fashion shows.

Arshad Ali another local shopkeeper from Islampur who has been in this business for the last 15 years told us that foreigners and local tourists used to come to the valley in huge numbers before the crisis of terrorism came to SWAT valley in the shape of Taliban. Business used to thrive in the past and huge growth and prosperity was in sight yet in current times retailing of their products has subsided greatly and their sales are limited to dealers who buy from them and sell across their own network throughout the country. Arshad further explained that the best quality shawls he produces starts from the range PKR.1500 (15USD) up to PKR. 8000 (80 USD) which includes a vast range of quality and prices a lot higher as well.

Some questions and concerns was raised by everyone we interviewed in this industry about the role the government that is required in the prosperity and growth of their craft and their business in the valley.
If the government provides ample support can our local industry in SWAT thrive further and with little or required support what seem to be the growth prospects of this industry?

A common response observed, that if the government takes a positive initiative to promote and subsidize the industry, not only the local sales will spike up but in fact the overseas exports will also surge greatly. This will not only benefit the local business community resulting in better profits margins but in fact add to the GDP for the country as well, and this industry might play an important part in bringing in foreign revenue and help establish foreign trade which is a dire economic need of Pakistan in the current economic back drop and economic decline the country is facing nationally and internationally.

They further expressed that if the present regime showed keen interest to promote their local industry and extend support to them; it would definitely reduce the pain and suffering they have seen in the wake of the war on terror this valley has been inflicted with in the recent past. The valley and its people has suffered a lot already, it feels like it is the duty of the government to take necessary steps as this is a profitable equation for everyone involved.

They suggested that if the government takes steps for the training and development of the skills of the local labor involved in this industry, to educate them to the national and international trends of this industry, the locals have such craft, skill and wisdom that they may step up their standards of manufacturing matching with international standards thus resulting in a prosperous future for the industry of fashion and leisure in Pakistan.

Extended support from the government will result in great improvement and will result in higher standards of production, proper promotion and the awareness created for this industry will also have a domino effect spreading to the tourism industry which is surely to seek a boost in the wake of such growth and promise the valley will project. The local infrastructure of this valley will see improvements marking SWAT as a prominent shinning tourist destination on the map of the world.
Thus a win for all.

In today’s day and age don’t we need solutions which benefits us all?

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