In Praise of Pattu: Softer Wool is Not Always Better

When I first visited the Gaddi village of Karnarthu, my hosts posed a question: did I want to sleep under a synthetic blanket, or a wool one? Wool, of course! I was there to study wool, after all. Was I sure? It would be very scratchy. I was used to it, I assured them–I sleep under a wool blanket at home. And so I was set up with a brown-and-white checked gardu in the downstairs bedroom.

In the morning, more questions. How did I sleep? Did the blanket itch? Well, I admitted, it did itch some, but it was very warm. Confession: it itched a lot. But it was worth it to stay warm through the night. The heavy, dense fabric (pattu) was produced by rolling a bundle of woven cloth along a wooden trough with hot water and soap (previously from soapnuts, now often with a sliver of bar soap). This process, known as mandai, is also applied to bundles of handspun yarns to create a thick cord, dora, used as a belt. Applied to cloth, as in the gardu beneath which I slept, mandai results in a warm, durable, and water-resistant material.

mandai

In the 1970s, the Indian government began cross-breeding the local sheep with imported fine-wool breeds in an attempt to create a softer wool that would meet the demands of the global apparel wool market. The resulting wool is not as good for making pattu, and yet is still mostly sold for rug manufacture rather than apparel. Over the same span of time, synthetic fibers became readily available in the markets. These days, home knitters shopping in town will find only acrylic and nylon yarns, and itinerant peddlers wander through villages with piles of purple and orange “synthetic mink” blankets.

And yet, especially when traveling in more remote areas, I found that people still rely on homemade pattu for items that will see hard use. On a steep, forested slope, I sat on a carefully patched gardu while watching two brothers lay out another on which to shear their sheep with hand-blades. Visiting a herder-weaver-activist’s home, I chuckled at his long-unused loom which, like mine, had become a storage unit of sorts, the lower beams draped with saddle pads stitched together from several layers of checked pattu. And after hiking up to stay with some herders at their high-altitude camp in the pre-monsoon rains, I was grateful for the pile of wool blankets lining their stone shelter and providing a warm, dry spot for a nap.

Even people who have switched to synthetics insisted to me that wool was better. A friend who has given up professional weaving gestured to his acrylic scarf and declared it “useless,” then described how synthetic mink blankets lose heat as soon as you get out from under them, while a wool gardu will stay warm for a long time. But as herders and weavers leave those livelihoods for service sector jobs and daily wage labor, wool and wool products are becoming more difficult to find for sale. Weavers now often work partially or entirely with acrylic yarns, producing items that are more affordable, if less durable, for local consumers.

By finding new uses and markets for woolen pattu, I aim to support the continuing availability of this material within the communities that make it and that rely upon it for survival. In the weeks ahead, I’ll be stitching up samples of bags, cases, and housewares out of this material, and putting them up for sale here on the website. Check out the online store for new additions, and let me know if you have ideas for what I should make next!

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