Among the textile products selected under the ‘One District, One Product’ List, Wangkhei Phee from Imphal East District in Manipur features as a delicate handloom, made with very fine white cotton yarn with a closely woven texture. While it may not be a name as familiar as other ODOP textiles such as the famous Kancheepuram or Pashmina, it is a product with a life of its own.
A luxurious fabric
This delicate fabric is known as “Wangkhei Phee” because it was first developed by skilled weavers in the Wangkhei area within the Imphal East District of Manipur, for the royal family. Today, it has been donned by the likes of Bollywood A-listers like Sushmita Sen and Kangana Ranaut with designs from Manipur’s top designer, Robert Naorem. Among the handloom fabrics he uses, the Geographical Indication (GI) tagged Wangkhei Phee features prominently.
Today, the weavers are still weaving this special type of cloth at a wide scale across the state. It is also shown in Manipuri costume through ages (India, Bangladesh and Myanmar) published in 2011, p-123 by Mutua Bahadur. This “luxurious” cloth is a popular attire used by women during marriage ceremonies and festivals.
This piece of muslin cloth was originally made uniformly in white. Today, the cloth has its peculiar designs with different motifs and colours, such as khoi (hook), thambal (lotus), atargulap (rose), Namthang Khuthat, Angom Ningthou (royal symbol), khongup melei (a kind of orchid), thangjing tangkhai (half euryle ferox), numit chura (sunrise head gear), Jubakusum (floral), leaves, raining night, angoor charong (grapes bunch). The design is used for luxurious items, such as, Inaphee (chaddar), Phanek (sarong/ladies’ lungies), dhoti, saree, skirts and as a model design for school uniforms.
How it is produced
The fibre used for making the yarn is derived from “Lashing” (Cotton ball) and “Kabrang” (Mulberry cocoon) and, also extracted from the bark of the “Santhak” tree species. The fibre is spun into threads, and then dyed using extracts from plants, flowers, bark and leaves. The dyed yarn is subject to sizing through the application of rice-based starch, followed by stretching with a bamboo stick, and then wound onto bobbins and pirns.
Fine cotton is the type of yarn in the fabric used. The weaving process based on use of shuttles involves two methods: fly shuttle loom and throw shuttle loom. In the former, it is made as a single piece complete fabric. In the latter, two pieces of fabric are made and then joined by stitching to make it a full fabric. Additional motifs are woven in by hand. The fabric is “porous, airy, see-through and thin”, making it suitable for luxury items such as chadors, saris, skirts and school uniforms.
Three shuttles are used to produce Wangkhei Phee. For the body weft thread, the conventional shuttle is used and for the extra weft, two smaller shuttles are used. When the fabric is woven with three shuttles on fly shuttle loom, two weavers are involved. However, if the fabric is woven on throw shuttle loom, only one weaver can weave since the width of the fabric is smaller.
Robert Naorem is just one example of taking this local fabric beyond the state and to the world stage. With such unique and exquisite characteristics, Manipur’s Wangkhei Phee is prime for the larger international market of luxury fabrics. With the ODOP initiative’s mandate to select, brand and promote chosen products with an aim to develop each district as a major export hub, Wangkhei Phee’s turn to shine even further is just around the corner.
This blog has been co-authored by Bethamehi Joy Syiem and Sukriti Mishra.