Traditional hand-woven saris are the first choice for many Bangalee women on any occasion. Tangail's Pathrail union was once famous for the traditional attire as almost every family workshop of the village had handlooms.
But power looms have gradually pushed out the 250-year-old handlooms as only 50 handloom factories now exist in the region. Factors such as higher production costs, manual technology, lack of loan access and a lack of interest on the part of the younger generation have put traditional weaving in jeopardy.
According to the Tangail textile traders' association, there are currently around 50 factories with 200 handlooms in the district. There were 800 factories and around 4,000 handlooms even as recently as 2010.
Rafiqul Islam, who has been involved in weaving for over 30 years, said, "Once I had 50 handlooms, but now I don't have a single one thanks to higher labour costs."
Rafiq said workers charge Tk250-300 for a handloom woven sari, while it sells at Tk500-600. With the power loom, the wages are TK70-80 per piece, while a sari sells at Tk400-500.
He also said yarn and dye prices are way too high now. Ten pounds of yarn used to cost Tk1,200-Tk1,300 three years ago, which is now Tk4,000.
Badal Basak owns a weaving factory in Chandi village of Pathrail union. "Once we had more than 100 handlooms in the village, but now there are only ten left," he told The Business Standard.
Amit Basak, another factory owner at Pathrail Bazar, said he has been involved in the business for generations.
"The business was at its peak in the 1980s," he told The Business Standard. "Since then, the industry has been in decline owing to not getting proper prices. The pandemic dealt another major blow to handlooms."
Amit Basak pointed the finger at changing fashion tastes for the decline in demand for handloom products.
The handloom cluster once used to employ 20,000 people, but subsequently 90% of them switched to other professions.
Ripon Hossain was a handloom weaver for 10 years. But he now drives an auto-rickshaw. "The income of the weavers was paltry. Now I can earn more by driving the auto-rickshaw even for 6 hours a day."
The history of handlooms in Tangail's Pathrail and adjacent areas goes back more than two hundred years. Weaving started here even before 1800. There were more than 50 weaving mills in the area in the 1960s, and the cluster had been garnering popularity since then.
Sohrab Hossain, general secretary of Tangail textile traders' association, told TBS that weaving by handlooms is almost dead as power looms dominate the business.
He said the weavers never received any financial assistance from any government, not even during the pandemic.
Bulbul Ahmed, archaeology professor at Jahangirnagar University and a researcher, recently visited the Tangail handloom hub. He found only 35 handloom factories during the visit.
"The industry at Pathrail is almost extinct. Like the Dhaka Muslin, handlooms may become a thing of the past," he told TBS.
He said government support, training for weavers, technology upgradation and promotion are urgently required to keep the industry afloat.
Md Mafizur Rahman, managing director of the SME Foundation, said, "We will inspect the Pathrail handloom cluster soon. We will provide all kinds of assistance, including financial support, to keep the industry going."