How technology is weaving a better future for Pathamadai mat makers

TE Raja Simhan Chennai | Updated on August 06, 2019

A file photo of mats on display at a shop in Chennai   -  Bijoy Ghosh

An electronic loom is helping makers of this iconic mat earn more while raising productivity

It is a standard item of the bridal trousseau at Tamil weddings, with the names of the bride and the groom inscribed on it. Indeed, the fine, handmade Pathamadai mat, which is made of Korai grass, is a symbol of pride for Tamil Nadu. It has even been granted Geographical Indication (GI) status by the trademarks and GI authorities.

And yet, this century-old traditional craft has been fading due to outdated handicraft methods and the next generation’s lack of interest.

The good news is that technology is helping revive this craft by simplifying the weaving, thanks to the efforts of a number of individuals and organisations, including IIT-Madras and the Tamil Nadu Handicrafts Development Corporation (TNHDC).

Stagnating craft

The mats derive the name from Pathamadai in Tirunelveli district. The 20,000-plus population in the Panchayat, predominantly women from the Muslim Lebbai community, normally produce about 500 of the mats, priced between ₹2,500 and 2,750, in a month.

However, the mat makers have been facing a series of challenges, particularly because of primitive processes, which kept their output stagnant and returns low, and discouraged the younger members of the community from taking up the craft.

“The trigger to revive the craft began when a 90-year-old weaver from Pathamadai met me, pleading to help the industry,” says Santosh Babu, former CMD, TNHDC, and IT Secretary of the State. He roped in Rural Technology Action Group (RuTAG), IIT Madras, to transform the craft. TNHDC also sanctioned ₹47 lakh for the project.

RuTAG developed a software-driven 192-hook Electronic Jacquard Handloom (EJH), which uses electricity to select hooks according to the design fed into the jacquard (a jacquard is an apparatus fitted to a loom to facilitate weaving). The software package developed along with the loom enables the loading of any animal or floral theme from the Internet and customised designs such as portraits, names, or motifs after conversion to a woven textile design format.

Traditional looms require women to be seated on the floor with legs placed at an inclined position to facilitate basic weaving operations. “The new EJH provides comfortable seating, making it ergonomically superior,” says Abhijit P Deshpande, Professor In Charge, RuTAG, IIT Madras.

“Through EJH, productivity has increased up to 300 per cent. The time required to weave a full mat has been reduced to 10-12 hours from 30-36 hours,” says Deshpande.

“Mat weaving has become simple and our income has risen,” said Syed Ali Fathima, a weaver.

Published on August 06, 2019

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