In Nagaland, cotton is found in abundance and so is the skill to make the textiles. The Naga methods of processing, spinning, and weaving cotton are simple but the motifs, designs and patterns that are woven on to the cloth are complex. Traditional shawl-weaving is done by the women on narrow loin-looms, while other fabrics are woven on the fly shuttle.
Nagaland is home to several tribes. Each tribe uses bold distinctive patterns with simple clean lines, stripes, squares, and bands and has its own specific designs and motifs for shawls and sarongs. Common colours are black or white with red and green motifs for introducing an extra weft. The combinations and the designs have tremendous social significance and symbolic meaning. The dress a person wears reveals his/her standing in the tribal hierarchy. Men are allowed to wear certain patterns and colours only after establishing a record of feats and achievements. Within each tribe, there is a distinction between classes on the basis of the shawls they wear. Elaborately designed shawls are used by the warrior classes or the rich segments within the tribe.
A Naga shawl is the most important part of the dress and is woven with cotton and staple fibre, though some wool is used. Shawls vary from simple white ones to elaborately designed ones with symbols and colours. The same is true for skirts in which mainly red woollen yarn is used. Shawls are woven in three pieces and then stitched together. The central strip has more ornamentation than the borders, which usually have the same pattern. The tsung kotepsu has a white woven band stitched along the centre of the shawl and is woven over with figures of elephants, tigers, mithuns, cocks, and circles, representing human heads. It has horizontal black, red, or white stripes. A rich and brave man’s acquisitions and achievements are picturised on it. The lotha naga shawl is woven in nine parts and stitched together.
Many traditions and beliefs are associated with the weaving and wearing of the traditional dress. When a chang cloth is worn care is supposed to be taken to see that all the zig-zag lines fall uniformly, or else the young warrior may die a premature death. When a Konyak woman gets married she wears a shatni shawl which is preserved and used only to wrap her dead body. Convention demands that a rongtu shawl be worn only if the mithun sacrifice has been conducted over three generations.
Textile dyeing is a significant art among the hill tribes of the region. Each tribe possesses one or two good dyes. Superstition and belief also back the selection of colour. Red symbolises blood and the people in this region believe that if a young woman dyes her cloth red, she is sure to die a violent death. Thus only old women dye yarn red. Blue dye is made by boiling indigo in a huge pot in which the clothes or thread to be dyed are dipped and boiled for nearly an hour. Then, these are taken out and dried in the sun and the process is repeated until each cloth takes on the desired tinge.
Textile dress material is called pulusi and is woven by women, deriving designs from graphs. The dress material, noted for its striking colours, is being accepted as fashionable wear in other parts of the country. Kamphie is a rengma traditional dress of Naga women. The collection of raw material for this as well as the dyeing of thread is celebrated as a festival during the first week of December. When the dyeing process is completed, the dress is begun. It takes nearly one mouth to complete. The colour combination in the kamphie is usually red, white, green, yellow, and black. This is used only in marriages and in the rengma festival of Nagada. This is an age-old process which continues till today.