I know, this is a business built around sheep, but hear me out: Himachali wool production is part of a diversified agropastoral system, and understanding how all the pieces fit together is important. And right now, it’s all about the cows. More specifically, this cow:
Meet Jumki. Twice a day, someone (usually Sumnadevi) has to take Jumki out to graze. During the morning grazing, it’s also time to cut grass to store for the winter.
Sumnadevi cuts grass…
…and carries it home.
The afternoon graze is a little more relaxed, allowing for some ambulatory knitting and village gossip shouted from one meadow to another.
Then there’s mucking out her stall, bringing her a bucket full of kitchen scraps, and…probably plenty of other tasks that I don’t know about. All this, and we’re drinking black tea every day–there’s no milk. Why? Because Jumki is pregnant. After she gives birth, I’m told there will more than my host household can use on their own–even after teaching me how to make yogurt, and lassi, and ghee.
Most of the households I’ve stayed in when traveling in Himachal include at least one cow. I’m often instructed that I need to meet the cow, and there’s a certain smile of pride and fondness that seems to always come to my hosts’ faces when I ask what the cow’s name is. The same pride is evident in their voices when they inform me that the heart-palpating quantity of ghee that they are pouring over my plate of food is home-made. It’s a relationship that can’t be summed up purely in terms of production or economics. And it’s not just cows and dairy, either–I’ve been served home-grown rice, wheat, corn, vegetables, kidney beans, tea, and honey, all proudly identified as “desi.” I learned that word as meaning “local” or “native” but it seems to have much more complex connotations, which I’ll be exploring (especially in relation to sheep breed identification) over the coming months. Hopefully over many cups of milk tea and piles of home-grown rice doused with freshly made ghee.
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!