Unruly Edges in Pattu Selvages

I am obsessed with selvages. As a novice weaver, I devote a lot of energy to achieving a consistent edge to my work. Of course, as with so many things in textiles (and life), the more I worry over them, the worse my selvages come out. Case in point: a selvage from my first weaving class.

Himachali weavers of pattu, on the other hand, don’t seem to be too much bothered about their selvages. For one thing, they don’t really affect the functionality of the fabric, and pattu is above all else an extremely functional textile. Perfectly even selvages would also be almost impossible to achieve within the spinning and weaving practices that create pattu. Weavers use handspun wool warps which are not starched or otherwise treated for ease of handling on the loom. For a blanket such as the multi-purpose gardu, the warp may be ~15 meters long. Wool is an inherently elastic material and the firmly plied warp yarn emphasizes this characteristic.

What are selvages?

the self-finished edges created by the weft looping around the warp threads at the sides of the weaving. literally “self-edges.”

As the wool stretches during weaving, slight differences in tension across the length and width result in wavy edges which echo the mountainous landscape in which the cloth is produced and used. This irregular edge not only visually represents the landscape, but is also a direct, tangible sign of the handmade nature of the cloth.

While I appreciate pattu’s irregular selvages as a charming feature of the cloth, they also frustrate my attempts to repurpose the material in products for a consumer market. “Just try and get a straight cut across us!” they taunt as I attempt to line up my quilting guide. The same uneven tension that results in wiggly selvages is released when the material is cut, transforming a straight edge into a curve. Pattu is, in the most literal sense possible, unruly.

Anthropologist Anna Tsing uses the term “unruly edges” to attend to the margins where the really interesting stuff happens—the biologically diverse ecotones between different environmental niches, the “seams of global capitalism” where market logics break down, the interspecies relationships within with life flourishes.

All these unruly edges are present within pattu. The wool is a product of the relationships between sheep and their human herders, as well as of the interleaved skills of craft, agriculture, and pastoralism that are necessary to survive in the marginal environment of the Himalayas. Marginal in the sense of “not great for farming” and marginal in the sense that as one traverses the landscape, one is continually crossing a boundary into another climate zone. And herders do traverse the landscape—from high altitude grasslands through pine forests to subtropical plains.

In my wool sourcing adventures, I’ve found that this material also resides in the economic margins between market commodity and local use. The black and gray wool that is considered a contaminant in the industrial processing stream is highly prized for personal use. Nobody much cares if I buy a few kgs of white wool that would otherwise go to a larger buyer, but as soon as I set my eyes on a colored fleece, the serious negotiations begin.

One last unruly edge: the zone where theory and practice overlap. Tsing’s unruly edges popped into my head as I was wrestling the unruly edges of some pattu under the presser foot of my sewing machine. Rereading her article of the same name allowed me to release my perfectionism and appreciate the off-kilter squares not as evidence of my poor tailoring skills (I swear, I know how to cut a straight line!) but as one more embodiment of the beautiful, messy complex that is wool production in Himachal.

Thinking with: Anna Tsing, “Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species”; Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think; Aniket Alam, Becoming India; and, obviously, pattu

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