Artisan Profiles: Mrs W G Sumanawathi


In our second traditional artisan profile we are writing about Mrs W G Sumanawathi.

Born in December 1956, Mrs Sumanawathi was brought up in the village of Yatawatta in the Matale District. Her mother was originally from the village of Henavala before moving to Yatawatta after marriage. Also, her father staked close ties to the village of Henavala through his mother, who like his wife moved to the village of Yatawatta after marriage. Being born into a family of expert weavers and it came as no surprise when Mrs Sumanawathi developed a keen interest in the craft from a young age.

Mrs Sumanawathi (right) having a chat with Vikum.

Scraping Hana leaves to extract fibre.

Mrs Sumanawathi attended the Matale Weera Parakrama Central College for her formal education. As was the case with many children in rural Sri Lanka during the middle part of the 20th century, she dropped out of school at the young age of 11 years.

She apprenticed under her parents learning the basic techniques of weaving the Hana mat. She assisted her parents with harvesting Hana leaves, extracting fibre and preparing the dyed fibre for weaving. With time she became increasingly proficient in the hand weaving technique mastering complex designs. This led to her participation in the “Guru Shilpee” (translated as “master artisan”) programme conducted by the National Crafts Council.

After her marriage to Mr Rupathilake, a highly skilled Hana mat weaver from the village of Henavala, Mrs Sumanawathi moved to Henavala. She is a mother of two children. Weaving Hana mats at home allowed her to secure an income while tending to her family. After the Government run crafts boutique, Laksala, was set up in 1982 she started to produce finished goods such as bags, wallets and purses to sell at Laksala.

Mrs Sumanawathi with her husband, Mr Rupathilake (right)

Showing us some of her finished product samples which she no longer makes.

However, with cheaper imports of higher quality arriving in the local market during the early 1990s both price pressure and lack of demand took its toll on her work. Laksala was unable to pay a price which compensated adequately for her work and payments were being delayed causing her to run into debt. Eventually, she stopped producing finished goods and concentrated on producing more Hana mats.

Today, she works closely with us at Kantala and produces much of the mats used in Kantala handbags. She is an industrious lady with a beaming smile. We often pay her a visit when we are at the village and she always makes sure we leave after having a cup of tea. She is keen to see the development of the Hana mat weaving craft and see a new generation take up the craft. She hopes Kantala’s efforts to popularise the craft with a global community will shine a new light on her beloved industry.

Girl power: the women behind the weave. Mrs. Sumanawathi (right) with her fellow artisans.

A message from Mrs Sumanawathi for the Fashion Revolution Week 2017 campaign.

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