Wool Sourcing, Again

After my first sourcing adventure, it was time to hurry across the mountain ridge to another shearing site. Here, most households own 15-20 sheep which they send with one herder who, with a couple of assistants, manages a combined flock of about 300 for the whole village. Purshotam, who is trained in machine shearing, shears for everyone. He set up in the evening, running a wire from the upper story of a shop, across the road to a pole held in place by chunks of concrete, and down to the field below. I wandered along taking photos of the sheep, who seemed to be doing their darnedest to get as many burrs as possible stuck in their neck wool before shearing started. When it got dark and cold, I headed back home, hoping they wouldn’t get too far into the shearing before the next morning.

IMG_20191023_171931In the morning, I made my way down to the shearing site as early as I could manage. By the time I arrived, there was already a large mound of wool piling up. I pushed up my sleeves and got to work pulling fleeces away from the shearing floor, spreading them out, removing the dirtiest sections from the edge, and checking them for length and strength. I had started off wearing all the layers of clothing that I had brought with me, but soon had to peel them off due to the strong, direct sun. In fact, it was so cold in the morning that my phone battery went from 50% to dead in the span of one minute (hence the scarcity of photos in this post). By midday, it was too hot to continue working. The herders took the flock up the mountainside to graze. I bundled up the wool I had selected, crammed it into sacks, and weighed it with a portable luggage scale. I was set on white wool, and now needed to get some black and gray. There were hundreds more white sheep left to be sheared, though. When would they get to the colored wool? Maybe in another day or two. In any case, the sheep didn’t come back until dark, and shearing commenced again at night. I figured I’d see where things stood in the next day.

The next morning, there were still lots of white sheep left to finish before moving on to the colored wool. Large-scale wool buyers strongly prefer white wool, which can be dyed to bright and consistent colors. For this reason, white wool is usually sheared and packed first, to prevent any darker fiber from getting mixed in. I had already hung around for a few days waiting for this shearing to get underway, and didn’t want to be in everyone’s hair for too much longer. The herders agreed to switch to shearing the colored wool so that I could complete my purchase and be on my way.

There were a few more sheep to get through before that transition could happen, so it was time for breakfast. The shepherd’s son handed me a bowl of halwa, a sort of thick pudding, and explained that it was made from a tree at the other end of the field—khanor. He kicked at a large nut on the ground, indicating that this was what I was eating. It looked to me like a horse chestnut, and I later did a little research which confirmed this. I also found that khanor is related to my beloved soapnut, and like its cousin contains bitter saponins which require 15-20 days of washing to remove!

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Shepherds and sons keeping warm by the fire

After finishing my snack, I jumped back into sorting wool. Whereas the previous day all the wool was being piled up together for sale, once we switched to colored wool I was joined in my task by village women who were selecting fleeces for personal use. Colored wool is considered less valuable (even a contaminant) within the industry, but is prized in local use for making black-and-white checked shawls and gray or tan material for jackets. Once I had selected all the wool I needed, attention turned to the next question: how was I going to transport it?

I had been planning to buy a small enough amount of wool that I could, albeit with some difficulty, carry it on the bus. But as I was packing and weighing my wool, Purshotam kept checking my scale and adding a bit more here and there to balance things out, until between the 2 shearings I ended up with 50 kgs in a rag-tag assortment of sacks. So, how was I going to transport it, again? Turns out it was just barely bussable—with the help of 3 very patient and hard-working conductors who were willing to schlep my haul in and out of the trunk (and, for one leg of the journey, tie it to the roof rack).

Of course, once you’ve acquired 50 kgs of wool, you then have to wash 50 kgs of wool. Check out the next blog post to find out more about that adventure!

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