Bakan Nawi, 82, was born in the latter years of Japan's rule over Taiwan, a time when traditional weaving had been banned. Weaving activity was intermittent at best, but nonetheless, she was able to learn the basic techniques from her mother and grandmother, experimenting and practicing from there.
After Japan surrendered Taiwan at the end of World War II, textile production, processing, and export began to grow, and a number of young indigenous women moved to the cities for work. However, Bakan Nawi stayed behind, influenced by the new weaving methods that foreign missionaries were bringing with them.
Taiwan’s indigenous peoples use backstrap looms, weaving while sitting on the ground. The backstrap limits their movements, and being seated for long periods of weaving can put the waist and hips under stress, which makes weaving daunting for many women.
In the 1960s, American priest Father Richard Devoe came to Taiwan as a missionary. In working with the Atayal, he helped build on traditional weaving by introducing jack looms from New Zealand and teaching group lessons on weaving patterns from other minority groups abroad.
Women from different Taiwanese tribes learned to produce outstanding and exotically patterned fabrics and products, which were then sold to the West through Catholic church channels. This brought substantial benefits to these women and set off a boom in interest over learning to weave.
Bakan Nawi not only learned modern weaving methods, but also sought out new tools and equipment to put to use in fashioning woven goods for tourists. To this day she continues to keep hold of the invoices and business cards from hotels and art stores, keeping a record of how much was sent where and how much it was valued at. From the sheer frequency of mailings, one can see just how much she was selling back then.
Later, as indigenous consciousness began to rise in the 1990s and community rebuilding and local cultural industry policies were put into effect, weaving enjoyed a new renaissance. Under the guidance of local industrial organizations, Bakan Nawi formed her own studio, working to reestablish the old traditions while also adding a little personal flair to the traditional textiles she created.
The biggest change since establishing a studio has been shifting back to weaving with ramie, which needs to be grown, stripped, and washed before use. It is a long and involved process, but Bakan Nawi says she finds a great sense of satisfaction and belonging in it.
Having been named a preserver of cultural heritage, Bakan Nawi continues to remember and emphasize the lessons passed down from her female elders: "I was taught to make the clothes I wear now by bubu (mother). Without their lessons, I wouldn’t be able to make these. We cannot forget what they have passed down to us. I will remember, I will keep doing it, and I will work hard at weaving, because every [Seediq] woman should know how to weave!"