Peace in Swat Valley means good business for Islampur shawl makers

By Danish Yousafzai

Islampur, shown here January 10, is famous for the local artisans who weave handmade shawls. [Danish Yousafzai]

Shopkeeper Abdullah Khan (left) shows a customer the many varieties of shawls available for men and women in the local market of Islampur, also known as Salampur. Many tourists visit this market to buy shawls. Some vendors ship shawls to buyers. [Danish Yousafzai]

Historians consider the shawl business one of the oldest in Swat, and more than 80% of locals in Salampur are directly or indirectly associated with it. Shawls and cloths are woven through a traditional handloom that the locals call a khaadi. [Danish Yousafzai]

Local male and female artisans design creative patterns on shawls. Sometimes they spend weeks on a single shawl. [Danish Yousafzai]

Hafeez ur Rahman, 21, is following in the footsteps of his parents in weaving shawls. He has become proficient at making high-quality shawls. [Danish Yousafzai]

Hafeez ur Rahman says that one learn the basic skills for making shawls after 18 months of training. In Swat a number of NGOs have established training workshops to enhance the skills of local artisans. [Danish Yousafzai]

The most commonly used raw materials to produce shawls in Islampur are local wool, Australian wool, Pakistani wool, Chinese wool, artificial silk, nylon and cotton. [Danish Yousafzai]

A tourist shows keen interest in handmade shawls from a shop in Islampur January 10. Some women order customised embroidery on their shawls. [Danish Yousafzai]

Haji Hashim Khan, 64, a local shopkeeper associated with the shawl industry for more than 50 years, says that business is booming after the restoration of peace in Swat Valley. [Danish Yousafzai]

Besides making shawls for women, the artisans in Islampur make chaddars for men. Many tourists like these special shawls for men, vendors say. [Danish Yousafzai]

SWAT -- The niche business of handmade shawls in Islampur is booming -- employing nearly every family in the small village in Swat Valley.

The warm sheep's wool shawls for women and men are known throughout Pakistan and the region, and are even exported to international markets.

The residents of Islampur, also known as Salampur, have been weaving shawls for at least the past century. However, the business was on the verge of collapse due to a long wave of terrorism and extremism in Swat Valley, which peaked in 2007.

The shawl business has been revived after successful military operations in the area -- Operation Rah-e-Rast in 2009 followed by Operation Zarb-e-Azb in 2014 and the ongoing Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad -- helped improve law and order and attracted tourists to the green valley of Swat.


Hafeez ur Rahman, shown here January 10, is following in the footsteps of his parents in weaving shawls in Islampur, Swat Valley. [Danish Yousafzai]

Now that security has returned, the weavers are back to work and the village boasts 100% employment, according to Geo News.

The population of Islampur is more than 30,000, out of whom 80% are associated with producing shawls, Hafeez ur Rahman, 21, a local artisan, told Pakistan Forward.

The cottage industry comprises 3,000 handloom units that are owned by several individuals, he said.

"Women's contribution is imperative in boosting this business in the area and plays a key role in producing woolen shawls and chaddars," he said.

"Every person in Salampur is a master of his [or her] craft -- they weave shawls, woolen cloth and scarves," Akhtar Ali, a social worker from Islampur, told Pakistan Forward.

Even with peace, challenges remain. Artisans from Islampur do not have direct access to the market, and most are at the mercy of middlemen.

"The middlemen purchase their products at heavily discounted prices and then sell them in the national and international markets for [marked up] rates," Ali told Pakistan Forward.

Welcoming the return of peace

Abdullah Khan is the owner of one of the 60 shawl shops in Islampur.

A colourful woolen shawl costs between Rs. 400 and Rs. 30,000 ($4-$271), depending on the quality of wool and embroidery on it, he told Pakistan Forward.

The long years of militancy forced many weavers to quit their profession, despite having an association with the business for the past century, he said.

Khan said he is happy now that they can continue their family profession because of the return of peace in Swat.

He thanked the Pakistani army "for the elimination of terrorism in this beautiful valley".

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How many kg wool are used in per shawl of making?