“We source wool directly from the shepherds.” What exactly does this mean? Well, here’s what it means for aana jaana, at least this time:
It starts with a phone call from Saligram, who rings me up any time there’s cell signal in his neck of the woods (and I do mean woods). “Han ji Jen ji namaste!” comes his always exuberant greeting. He asks where I am and what I’m doing, and I ask my eternal question—is shearing happening yet? Yes! Ok, I reply, I’ll come tomorrow.
The next day I board the bus only to learn from the conductor that the road to my destination is closed, and I’ll have to disembark at the large-ish town 7 kilometers earlier. There, I find that the road is open but only to small cars, so I get a cab. I could ride the whole way to Saligram’s village but I’m used to taking the bus to the end of the line and then walking the last 2 kilometers, so that’s what I do—I need to stay in walking-uphill-shape anyway, since I know there’s more to come to get out to the shearing site. Plus it gives me the chance to stop and take photos along the way, and check out the haircuts on this group of gals:
As always, as soon as I enter Saligram’s village I run into his father-in-law Sunku Ram, who urges me to stay at his house instead. After a brief chat I continue on, and arrive at Saligram’s house drenched in sweat and quite happy to sit for a while on the verandah with a cup of tea. I help Keshav Ram, Saligram’s brother, slice home-grown potatoes for dinner while he asks about where all I’ve traveled since I was last at their place. After dinner I leave the kitchen of the main stone-and-mud-plaster house for a newer (and much colder) cement bedroom which is currently doubling as a storage unit for hay. I’m grateful for the pile of handwoven woolen blankets on the bed, but even so it takes me a long time to warm up enough to finally fall asleep.
The next morning I’m startled awake by Saligram’s shouted “Jen ji! Aapka time ho gaya!” (more or less, “time is up!”). The dark curtains and now very warm blankets have caused me to oversleep. I hurry to get dressed, eat a quick breakfast of roti with homemade butter, and gather a few reused cement sacks for packing wool. Sunku Ram arrives to accompany me out to the shearing site. I lace up my hiking boots, and he leads the way along the narrow, uneven path in a pair of flip-flops. At every fork of the path, I am dismayed but not surprised that we take the steeper climb. As we pass through mostly-harvested garden plots, Sunku Ram stops to point out a few crops—something that looks to me like turnip greens, and a variety of millet—and describe how they are cooked. I have already removed all my layers, and cannot fathom how he has not spontaneously combusted with his synthetic sheepskin coat over a wool vest over an acrylic sweater over his base layer of much-mended cotton-poly shirt and pants.
Eventually we spot some sheep. They are not the sheep we want. We keep going, and finally reach the pasture where a line of shearers sit on tarps, sheep flopped over in their laps. Many of the shearers are relatives of Biju Ram, whose sheep are being sheared today; on previous days, he has helped them with their own herds. As soon as we arrive, Biju Ram’s brother begins chiding me for not recognizing him a couple weeks back when the herders were picketing at the Wool Federation facility. This is pretty common—I am fairly memorable as the random American who occasionally shows up at their union meetings, so even people with whom I’ve had minimal interaction know me right away. I manage some sort of sheepish (pun intended) apology. With that out of the way, and another cup of chai in my belly, it’s time to get to work sorting fleeces.
Within this flock (as in most that I’ve seen), the sheep grow wool of highly variable quality. Some of it is quite merino-like, owing to the government’s crossbreeding program, and some has more “primitive” characteristics such as dual coats of longer, coarser fibers mixed with shorter, finer, crimpier ones. Some of the sheep have quite soft wool which unfortunately is full of kemp—short, wiry fibers that will poke out of any yarn spun from it, and won’t take dye. Some have pretty nice wool which is so full of burrs that it will be difficult to process. Typically all of this wool gets packed and sold together. While the prevailing industry view is that more merino-type wool is better, I think they’re both good—for different purposes. So I’m interested in both, but in keeping them separate so they can go into different processing streams. And in avoiding kemp, excessive vegetable matter, and fiber shorter than about 3 inches. This is a lot to communicate in my tooti-footi (broken) Hindi, but I try my best. My wool classing skills are rusty, but I feel them start to come back as I get my hands into one fleece after another.
While shearing, sorting, and packing wool is going on, a couple women sit and twist rope from some plant fiber for which they don’t know the name. They don’t want me to take their photos, but do let me document the fiber and rope itself:
There’s also a passel of kids running around, keeping the sheep and goats more or less in line. Every so often someone comes around offering water, chai, or roti. It’s hard work but the shearers are also keeping up a lively conversation over the bright schick-schick of the hand shears, something that’s not possible with mechanized shearing.
By early afternoon, the last sheep are being sheared. The kids start to drive the herd further up the mountain, and the women tuck marigolds and tufts of wool in the shearer’s hats. It’s time for one more cup of chai, accompanied by a hemp seed roti. The shearers who have finished are making a full meal of it with desi rajma (homegrown beans) as well. People start collecting up the hand shears and folding up the tarps and blankets. After the last wool is stuffed into burlap sacks, each one is hoisted onto someone’s back for the walk back down to the village. I carry as much as I can manage myself, which is a far smaller load than anyone else’s. People still keep trying to carry it for me, and I have to keep waving them off. I doubt I’ll ever be able to manage a full 20-25 kg sack, but hope that next time I’m strong enough to carry a bit more. Back down in the village, everyone gathers in Biju Ram’s home for a meal—more roti and rajma. The kids pile onto a bed and watch cartoons. In a few days, it will all happen again, with someone else’s herd.
So that’s wool sourcing—at least, that’s today’s wool sourcing. Tomorrow I’m headed for another village, where everything will unfold differently (except for the multiple cups of chai that I will be obliged to drink).