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Blending Handloom Tradition and Technology to Bring Innovative Designs to the Market in Sri Lanka

Ushani Hewage always loved textures and textile designs. As the final project of her fashion design and product development study, she had to design a fashion collection. Always curious about Sri Lanka’s handloom industry, Ushani blended tradition and technology to create “image weaving,” an innovative weaving technique, while supporting weavers in the country.

Photo: Ushani Design

After she graduated from the University of Moratuwa, Ushani joined Hayleys Fabric PLC, a leading fabric manufacturer in Sri Lanka and part of Hayleys PLC, one of Sri Lanka’s biggest multinational business conglomerates, where she got the opportunity to go into the apparel industry.

At the same time, in 2017, she launched her first design brand Wiyaman, before rebranding her creations in 2019 under the name “Ushani Design.”

Supporting her Family and Sri Lanka’s Weavers

Born in a farming family, Ushani was determined to support her family financially. “My father is a farmer, he raised three children, myself and my two brothers, and we saw how hard he worked and how he committed his whole life to be able to send us to university to graduate and contribute to society.”

As she toured Sri Lanka to find weavers, she realized that most of those skilled weavers were grossly underpaid, getting only a fraction of the selling price of their work.

By setting up her design brand, Ushani aimed at accomplishing a dual goal: providing financial support to her family and helping weavers get a better income.

Photo: Ushani Design
Photo: Ushani Design

Untapped Potential of Sri Lanka’s Handloom Industry

As Ushani learned more about the specificity of the Sri Lanka handloom industry while at university, she saw opportunities and potential. She noted that the industry had not grown as fast as other technological developments in the country’s apparel industry.

Ushani realized that rural weavers are highly skilled but cannot convert their skills into a business. Fresh from university, she had the technical knowledge, capability, and creativity that she applied to the Sri Lanka handloom industry while converting her technical ideas and concepts into reality.

Image Weaving

There are multiple techniques in handloom weaving, explained Ushani. Image weaving implies certain types of settings for the weaving machines, she said. Weavers weave a full-width image by using the same plain weave settings. The unique selling point of Ushani Design is the unique color combinations.

Using a gradient color combination, the weaving will not appear as a weaved fabric, but like a printed fabric, according to Ushani. Another of her innovations is the manual insertion method, which creates small images in the fabric. “I always wanted to do something new and unique,” she said.

The technique uses traditional weaving machines, fully manually operated by experienced and skilled weavers.

Becoming an Entrepreneur with WIPO’s Experts’ Advice

Although Ushani launched her brand in 2017, she said, “I did not have any proper idea as an entrepreneur and businesswoman.” “I did not know how to find customers, what types of products could meet the market.”

The turning point of my business life was my selection to participate in the six-month WIPO’s Enabling Innovation Environment (EIE) Mentoring Program.

Ushani Hewage, Ushani Design

Ushani learned that her initial business model was flawed and about the importance of protecting her brand. After attending the WIPO customers’ discovery program, in 2019, Ushani re-launched her brand as “Ushani Design” with adequate branding and “proper ideas on how to enter the market.” The EIE Mentoring Program showed her the potential of her technology and helped her define the right product to sell to the right customers, she said.

Photo: Ushani Design

Now working with three weavers, Ushani makes mostly saris. Weavers are paid per meter weaved, and Ushani pays a fixed price on the number of saris they weave. A sari requires about 6 meters of fabric, which a skilled weaver can produce in one day. She pays a higher price than weavers get from the industry, particularly because her weaving technique is more time-consuming and requires a higher technical level. She provides the weavers with raw materials, design, and machinery.

Ushani Design’s target market is working women who can buy Ushani’s creations from her Facebook page.

She had trademarked her previous brand Wiyaman and is now preparing to register Ushani Design.

Economic Crisis, Design Imitations Main Challenges

The economic crisis in the country impacted all businesses, and Ushani also felt the brunt of it, with raw material prices soaring to three times their regular prices and customers more hesitant to invest in non-essential goods. She had to hibernate her business to weather the crisis. Skies are clearer now, she says, as she is working on a fashion collection to be launched at the end of June.

Being copied remains one of Ushani’s worries, which she tried to address with WIPO’s help as she registered her brand name.

Expanding Customer Base

For now, Ushani’s customers are only based in Sri Lanka, but she is looking for an opportunity to sell her textiles to other brands for their collections. She is also looking at selling her creations overseas.

She also plans to have her own fashion house in the coming years.

Besides being an entrepreneur, the young woman works as a Sustainable Product Development fabric Technologist at MAS Holdings. “My family and husband Gayan have also greatly supported me,” she said.