Sone-Tu translates to “people at the mouth of the river.” The name is derived from a Chin ethnic group living in northern Rakine State. Ni Ni Aung, born in this area, started Sone-Tu in 2002. Before the Sone-Tu began their work, backstrap weaving designs were in danger of being forgotten. Because there was no written record, the patterns only existed in the muscle memory of those who had, at that point, stopped weaving. Sone-Tu has brought these master weavers out of retirement to assist a new generation in learning these historical weaving patterns and techniques.
Today they have revived 52 patterns, some of which are very complex. There are currently over 100 weavers who have gone through a rigorous training regimen. During the process, the master weaver will train her students in every detail, including how many threads go up or down at each stage. One of these groups of trainees was funded and documented by National Geographic in 2012.
The weaving process begins in Mandalay where the cotton or silk is purchased and dyed. These are then transported to the remote villages in Rakhine State. There the fibers are washed, grouped and twined before weaving can begin. Because many of the weavers are illiterate, they do not have the opportunity to move to the city or other locations for work. If the weavers do not have rice fields to cultivate, they will weave full time. Working full time, a single weaving takes a month to weave.
In addition to their work preserving traditional weaving culture, Sone-Tu is helping to document and preserve the ritual spoken language of the region, which currently only one man speaks.
*All photos credited to Sone-Tu and used with permission