When Jen isn't spinning, knitting, weaving, or dyeing fiber, she is reading, writing and thinking about it. She holds a B.A. in Anthropology and M.S. in Textiles, both from UC Davis. Her research examines clothing production through multiple theoretical lenses including feminist science studies, animal studies, and new materialisms. In her practice, she seeks to use textile crafts as tools for community building and decolonization.
One question I get a lot every time I am getting ready to come to India is, “when is monsoon?” And since 4 out of 5 trips I’ve come in August, the answer is usually “now.” As evidence, I present the view from the verandah:
Apparently it was dry for a few days right before I got to this village, which is fortunate because it meant I was actually able to get here. The afternoon after my arrival, Sumnadevi and I stood on the verandah and watched the courtyard become a pond. “How will I go to my maika?” she asked, as she was preparing to go visit relatives a 2-hour bus ride away. “Swimming!” I replied. “Yes! I’ll go by fish!” she laughed.
So for the moment I’m mostly house-bound, both because there are only a few hours of clear sky per day in which to get out and about, and because with Sumnadevi gone (she did eventually catch a bus, not a fish) I’m tasked with rolling out the morning roti and keeping an eye on Jumki the cow while she grazes the slope just above the house. I don’t mind—it’s still a few weeks to go before the herds come down for shearing, and learning how wool-producing households function is part of why I’m here. Plus I have ample opportunity to ponder non-capitalist engagements with time as I make and drink chai, weave in the ends of yarn on hats I’ve knit to give out to folks, and pull drying clothes off the line and then hang them back up again. That’s totally standard business practice, right?
It was like a game of musical chairs in reverse, only with no chairs. And no music except for the chorus of cheerful namaskaars that erupted each time another woman entered the shop, causing whoever was sitting on the one cushion to shift over onto the floor, imploring the newcomer to sit on it. The resulting volley of refusals led to a second chorus of laughter, the whole round beginning again when the next woman arrived.
This was the beginning of my meeting with members of the Kullvi Whims Self-Help Group to debrief with them after our first round of developing knitwear for sale in the US. We gathered in the small shopfront from which one of the members teaches sewing and custom tailors clothing for local women. When I arrived before the meeting, Kusum was assembling coin purses made from tailoring scraps while her youngest sons tried their hands at the sewing machine.
After all nine women had arrived, we passed around my phone to show photos of the craft booth I had set up last month, discussed customer feedback, and planned for future orders. Tea arrived from a nearby snack stall, and talk turned to a proposed day trip up the mountainside to harvest dye plants. The conversation unwound into multiple strands of chatter as Lata outlined the medicinal uses of a tea made from tree bark that also produces a salmon pink dye, Sapna schemed to collect a particularly prized mushroom while we were up in the jungle, and Mamiji mused about what refreshments to bring along.
Eventually, everyone got up to leave–they were needed at the temple, where preparations were underway for an evening celebration. On the way back down to my homestay, I stopped to snap a few more photos of them, now circled around hot griddles flipping roti after roti and laughing just as much as before.
I returned a few hours later and squeezed into one of the rows of villagers seated on mats, waiting to be served by men and boys roaming the area with kettles, pots, and ladles. My out-of-practice fingers struggled to scoop up soupy kheer (rice pudding) and tear off pieces of roti with which to enfold bites of aloo and chana. I thought about the skilled hands of my friends, grateful to be included in their circle and looking forward to learning more from them in the days to come.
When people hear that I have a degree in textiles, they usually assume that I’m a designer. Actually, I study practically everything about textiles except design–from the hands-on understanding of how to do each step of the process, to the material properties of the fibers, to the ecologies of fiber production, to the uses of textile metaphors in philosophical theory.
Starting a business has pushed me even further into the interdisciplinary tangle, as I now also need to learn how to navigate the import regulations and labeling laws. And in order to comply with them, I need to know the exact fiber content of all the materials I’m importing and selling. For a lot of it, that’s easy–it’s wool! I know because I’ve met the sheep, visited the carding mill, and chatted with the spinners as they cranked their charkhas. But for the commercial yarns that some of the weavers purchase, I need to conduct chemical tests to figure out what percent is wool, and what percent is something else. Time to put the “S.” of my “M.S.” to the test.
The basic idea is to take a sample of your fiber (yarn or fabric swatch), weigh it, dissolve away one component, and then weigh what’s left. In the case of a wool-acrylic blend, the wool is dissolved in an alkaline solution (lye or bleach). Pretty easy, but to get accurate measurements the fibers have to be completely dried out before weighing them, and you have to drain off the solution without losing any of the remaining fibers. The drying out I figured I could do in my home oven, but the filtering equipment was going to pose a challenge. As was finding a balance sensitive enough to register the minute changes in weight in a one-gram sample. I thought about who might have access to the equipment I would need, and contacted an old college friend who works in wastewater treatment. Yes, he said, he had it all–I should just bring my samples to his home lab and he’d help me out.
The industry standard method for getting a random sample assumes that I have multiple cargo containers full of identical merchandise, and can pull one garment out of each load and cut test swatches out of them. I have maybe one dresser drawer full of merchandise to test, no two alike, all precious to me for their sales or sentimental value. So I carefully snipped one strand at a time out of the fringe ends of the shawls, and trimmed the fraying edges from inside the seam allowances of some material I had started stitching into wrap skirts. I managed to scrape together enough fiber for three samples.
collecting samples from the seam allowance
weighing samples on my kitchen scale
Handling the material brought back memories of my early trips to Himachal. During one of those trips, I sat side-by-side with the weaver of these shawls every day for a month and learned from her how to count off warp ends for the interlocking design, how to pull loops of contrasting colored yarns through each other to make a braid across the cloth, and how to tell her in Hindi that I had made a mistake and needed her to fix it for me. One of the shawls she sent me recently was a piece that I had worked on with her.
I examined the border to see if I could find the mistakes that I knew I had made–5 years later, I can’t find them (so I guess they weren’t as bad as they seemed at the time!). While snipping bits out of the fringe of another shawl, I found the colored streak that comes on the pre-measured warp that she buys, which is marked off in shawl lengths so she knows where to finish one piece and start a new one.
So when I brought the samples to the lab, I also brought along, embedded in them, those experiences. Being directly involved in every loop of the supply chain allows me to recognize and act on connections that are obscured in larger operations. For example, knowing how Kamla manages her warp allows me to understand how difficult it would be for her to weave a slightly longer or shorter piece of fabric. So that’s something I know not to ask of her–and if I want different sizes (like for the wrap skirts which I can currently produce only in size “skinny”), I’ll need to work things out in some other way.
But anyway, back to the chemistry! While I’m glad I don’t work in a textile analysis lab and have to do this all day every day, it was fun to learn. I look forward to practicing this new textile skill and bringing the information gained from it back to the weavers, so that they can better understand the requirements of the export market. For the true fiber nerds in the audience, below is a pictorial summary of the process:
It’s Spring–time for the herds to start moving up toward the high pastures where the sheep can graze on the most nutritious grasses and grow their best wool.
Things are starting to get moving here in California, too. We’re gearing up for our first craft fair booths at the Himalayan Fair in Berkeley in May, and Black Sheep Gathering in Albany, Oregon in July. Both are free events, so I hope to see some friends stop by!
Spring has sprung! It’s time to start putting away the winter clothes. Here are my tips for keeping your woolen items moth-free while in seasonal storage:
1. Wash your woolens!
Moths are more likely to attack dirty woolens than clean ones. And the washing process also helps remove critters who may be in your clothes waiting for a snack. Dry cleaning is not necessary–people had been wearing (and washing) wool for thousands of years before dry cleaning was invented. Some care is needed, however–use cold water, a mild soap, and as little agitation as possible. Washing wool with soapnuts is especially effective as they have insecticidal properties.
2. Dry them in sunlight
Wool moths and caterpillars prefer dark, undisturbed places. After you’ve washed your woolen items, air-dry them in a sunny spot. Spread large or heavy items like sweaters out on a clean surface to dry. Even if you haven’t washed your items recently, getting them out of storage and airing them out in the sun helps encourage moths and caterpillars to move along.
3. Harness the power of herbs and oils
Lavender, rosemary, and cedar all repel moths. They lose their effectiveness as the scents wear off, so use freshly dried herbs and replace them periodically. If you’re lucky enough to have inherited a cedar chest, I am envious! But the oils that deter moths need to be refreshed periodically by lightly sanding the inside of the chest to expose new wood surfaces. You can also purchase smaller bits of cedar to put in the drawer with your woolens. These also need to be replaced or refreshed as the scent wears out. Herbs can be placed in sachets and layered in with your wool clothing. And, remember those soapnuts I mentioned before? I read that you can place whole soapnuts in with wool clothing to deter moths. This year I’m planning to make some herbal sachets with lavender, rosemary, and soapnut powder. I figure I can put them in with my wool clothing for storage, and then use them to wash things when I start wearing them again in the fall.
4. Store wool and silk separately
Wool and silk fibers are both made up of chains of amino acids, so wool moth caterpillars will eat them both. But only wool contains the amino acid cystine, which gives off a sulphur smell that moths can detect. So moths are attracted to wool, but not to silk–they’ll just stop by if it happens to be in the neighborhood. Storing silk items away from woolen ones can prevent them from becoming collateral damage.
5. Store woolens in airtight containers
Plastic bags or bins are not airtight! Moths can chew through plastic, and they will if they can smell a snack on the other side. If you’re lucky enough to own a beautiful, well-crafted cedar chest with tight joins (see #3), use it. If not, try using a vacuum sealer. I’ve been vacuum sealing almost all of my wool for the past 3-4 years, and it has helped tremendously in reducing both moth damage and storage space. From raw fleeces to skeins of yarn to almost-finished sweaters, I vacuum seal it all. I find that a vacuum sealer intended for food works just fine. Sealing things in smaller, separate batches also helps isolate any existing infestations, preventing them from spreading to other items.
6. Love your woolens!
The best way to keep your woolens moth-free is to wear them on a regular basis. If you do have to put them away in storage, do so carefully and check on them periodically. If you notice any damage, caterpillars, or moths, take action immediately to prevent the damage from spreading (I’ll write up my tips for managing an active moth infestation in another blog post). Even taking all precautions, it’s likely that a few moths will still take a nibble. If you can, try to appreciate a little bit of moth damage as a reminder that your clothing is part of a complex, ongoing web of life.
Do you have successful strategies for dealing with wool moths? If so, please share them in the comments!