Zay handwoven bags, where it all began... in amazing Myanmar

It’s so hard not to sound clichéd but Myanmar truly changed my life. My family were lucky enough to get the opportunity to move to the fascinating city of Mandalay. We arrived exhausted and stressed and within months we found a new gratefulness, excitement for life and closeness as a family.

Myanmar is complex and the poorest country in South East Asia. It has to be one of the most photogenic countries on earth, but if you are lucky enough to spend some time there it’s the local people with their kindness and generously that makes the biggest impression and stays with you.

I loved our daily life there it was such a change from living on and working on farms in New Zealand. Life slowed down, the green fields of New Zealand were changed for higgledy-piggledy streets, crumbling ancient buildings and golden pagodas.  I swapped out the drudgery of pushing a super market trolley around the supermarket to buying my weekly vegetables, tropical flowers and fruits at my favourite market stalls with the market vendors, shyly getting to know each other.

When I was at the market one of the vendors pointed to me where I could buy a Zay Chin (market bag) that everyone used for carting their goods away. Almost everyone takes their colorful market bags with them to buy their groceries, you can’t miss them seeing them carrying kilos of potatoes and onions balanced perfectly on a woman’s head.

They were so practical useful and strong and I started to use mine every day to carry water bottles and sunscreen and snacks for my children, teaching resources, my paints and then also as storage for books, my collection grew and grew. I started buying them for friends and family back in New Zealand and everyone loved how light, strong and beautiful they were.

I really love artisan craft, any type of beautiful handmade thing. I love to learn how they are made and the bags were so great as they were so beautiful, skillfully made, but also so useful at the same time.

I knew they were handmade but I could not find anyone who made them. I have a Myanmar friend called Ma Thida she told me about a weaver she knew so off we went on the back of her motorbike. This totally cemented my admiration of these bags and the skill it took to weave them. She was using all recycled materials so I was even more in love with the bags and became a little obsessed. I would try to track down the weavers upon seeing an especially beautifully made bag in the markets, tracing the supply chain, searching for their source. I visited their homes to see them made and loved chatting to them and watching their different techniques. My local friends found my interest in them strange but would tell me about the weavers who lived in their local areas. I brought some home to New Zealand and sold them in summer local markets. People loved them, and I started to get messages from people trying to track me down after their mum or friend had brought one.

Back in Mandalay I decided to find the most skilled weavers I could and my search took me to traditional back streets in Mandalay that I never knew existed and into the homes of some of the most wonderful people I have met. I visited them multiple times and enjoyed seeing what they were making, drinking cups of tea or coffee together. I also traveled to remote farming villages that don’t appear on Google maps in the Central Dry Zone, weaving down dusty lanes, slowing to pass the plodding ox carts.

When Prime minster Jacinda Ardern announced New Zealand was going to go plastic bag free I decided with the weavers I had met we could create beautiful bags that would work well in New Zealand. Slowly over a year I continued to build relationships with the most skilled weavers, all of whom run small family home based businesses, and we worked through ideas, designs and colour combinations. Of course, there were plenty of storage, transportation and bureaucratic issues to work through, and here we are!

Zay started as an idea to support the weavers through buying their items and selling them in markets in New Zealand, but this little business grew and some shops became interested in stocking them. Now we are online as well, and hoping to see it grow further.

The most important thing for Zay is to create a business that brings good in the world to all the people we work with - from the weavers to the truck drivers  and on to the customers who will enjoy and use their beautiful Myanmar bag every day. A bag that has been on a massive journey connecting Myanmar to New Zealand, and reducing the impact of single use plastic bags in our environment.