Costing Considerations

No beating around the bush on this one: prices will be increasing soon. There are a few reasons for this:

sheep (and a couple goats)
  • When I was in Himachal last year to purchase wool, I found that the going rates for raw fleece had increased. This is good! Not only does it increase herding incomes, but it inches toward rebalancing the percentages of their incomes that herders make from wool vs. meat. The dramatic shift towards meat in recent years has incentivized herders to keep more goats, and sometimes no sheep at all. Since sheep and goats have different eating habits (sheep graze at ground level, while goats browse shrubby growth), a shift in ratios alters the ecological impact of a herd. Himachali herding practices and landscapes evolved under cyclical grazing by multiple types of livestock. Restoring the balance of animals is one part of the work of restoring Himachali forest ecologies.
Members of Kullvi Whims processing dye materials
  • The members of Kullvi Whims asked to be compensated at a higher rate for the work they do to produce the naturally dyed yarns featured in our knitwear. This is also good! Much of the natural dye work closely resembles tasks (foraging, cooking, washing laundry) that women routinely perform as part of the unpaid domestic work without which their households would cease to function. Supporting women when they demand higher pay for these tasks is part of the work of recognizing and valuing women’s labor as foundational to our economies.
Rally at the local post office, where many aana jaana shipments come and go.
  • Due to the pandemic and, on the US side, to political interference, our usual shipping practices have been disrupted. We typically ship things via the public postal systems of India and the US. In March, India Post temporarily suspended all operations and has not yet reinstated service to the US. So we’ve had to ship the new order via a private courier service, at rates over 25% higher than what we usually pay. This…is what it is. I hope this will be a temporary change in our supply chain, not so much because of the increased cost but because I wholeheartedly support the public postal systems of both countries. Both systems provide vital services to rural communities. I think by now most readers of this blog will be familiar with the many roles of the USPS. In India, post offices also provide banking services, an important function in villages where the nearest bank branch may be several kilometers away.

So for two good reasons and one unfortunate reason, our costs are going up. One of the goals of this project is to demonstrate that our textile supply chains do not have to be as exploitative as they are. Beautiful, handmade, sustainably and ethically produced clothing should be affordable for regular folks–not just for people who can spend hundreds of dollars on a pair of linen pants! So I’ve been working very hard to make sure that our new pricing is fair to both our producers and our customers. Older stock is currently (as of October 2020) still available at the original prices. In November, I will begin entering the new season’s pieces and increasing prices at that time.

The Curve of the Path

2020 is, among other things, the year of the “pivot”—and while I reserve the bulk of my disdain for other business buzzwords (“pain points,” “spend” as a noun, “scale” as a verb), pivot is not my fave. When I hear “pivot,” I picture a squadron of toned Alvin Ailey dancers swiveling in sync, arms angled to one side and chins thrust to the other. 2020 does not feel like that.

The other problem with pivot is that it implies that the trajectories on either side of the shift are straight lines. No business venture that I have ever heard of has progressed in a 100% straightforward path. Even pre-pandemic, this one has had to navigate some pretty big curves—like planning a booth debut at an event that was cancelled the day before set-up due to an unseasonable storm, or having a shipment of goods get chewed up by the postal sorting machine. For starters. Year two started a little smoother, but then, well, you know.

So here I am, sheltering in place (still), figuring out next steps. Upping the social media presence. Developing a new sales model to approximate the craft booth browsing experience at home. Both of which projects involve sorting through hundreds of photos and video clips scattered throughout my hard drive and cloud storage. And so I encountered this enigma:

I remember accidentally finding the “draw on top of your photo” function on my phone camera and thinking that it would be a great tool for jotting textual notes on my photos to jog my memory later. But this techno-ethnographic technique failed spectacularly here, in my first (and apparently only) attempt to use it. Clearly, I had some sort of epiphany about the curve of the path—but I have no idea what it was. Was it an anthropological insight about herding landscapes and livelihoods? Was it design inspiration for a knitting stitch? Safest to guess that it was both, but that still doesn’t get me very far.

And yet, I am drawn to this photo, which somehow encapsulates so much about this project. Not just the symbolically curving path, but also my marginally legible scrawl across it, trying (and failing) to make sense of my surroundings. And everything outside the frame, which is inaccessible to you but comes back to me as a wave of sense memory—the hot sun in my eyes, the distant calls of villagers whistling and shouting to their livestock, the brisk crunching sounds of my hosts’ sickles as they cut grass from the fallow farm plot in which I stood. The smell of that cut grass. The feelings of joy at being back in this especially lovely place with especially lovely people, and of frustration at not being able to help out with this essential chore which shapes so much of daily life in the region.

The approach to the village where I took this photo snakes alongside the Uhl River, hairpin turn after hairpin turn. Around one bend in particular, the whole valley opens up in a glory of water rushing over boulders, crazy quilt farm plots, and centuries-old houses of weathered wood and stone. Every time I go, I spend the bus ride in anticipation: is this the bend? Is it this one? I always try to catch the moment with my camera as far out the window as I dare, and never quite get it.

So here we are at another curve in the path, a path which is nothing but one curve after another. I’m hoping that around one of these bends, the view ahead will open up gloriously. Is this the bend? Is it this one?

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!

Wool Sourcing

“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:

sheared herd

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.

Sunku Ram

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.

shearing

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:

plant fiber

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.

bori

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).

More Cows! And Grass

After plans fell through to trek to a herding village that’s accessible only by foot, I decided to go visit some folks in a slightly less remote area (2 hours by bus from the main highway, and for one village, another 2 km walk past the last stop). Since this is a higher altitude area than I was in before, it sees less rain during monsoon, and heavy snowfall in the winter. So whereas life was slow and mostly home-bound when I got on the bus, by the time I got off it again, I was in the midst of hustle and bustle to prepare for the winter. On the bus we passed trucks packed with cauliflower and cabbages making their way from the distributed patches of smallholder farms to the vegetable market where individual harvests would be combined and redistributed to roadside sellers. But as important as the cash crops were, the organizing force structuring the day’s work was, you guessed it, the household cows.

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Mangla and Purshotam on their way up for an afternoon of mountainside ruminations.

Every morning in the household where I stayed, the adult women would be off at sunrise to go cut grass from fallow farm plots. Purshotam and I would spread out the previous day’s grass to finish drying on every flat surface available in the courtyard outside the house, and then he would cook breakfast for the kids and get them off to school. By the time we finished that, Budhi Devi and Mohini would be back with enormous loads of more grass. After a rest, it would be time to fluff up the drying grass, prepare lunch, and maybe for someone to sling a conical basket on their back and head out to another farm plot to harvest cauliflower, or to the horse stables to gather manure for fertilizer. After lunch Purshotam would hike up the mountain to take the cows out to graze, and after some domestic chores, Budhi Devi and Mohini would sharpen their sickles for another round of grass cutting. If the sky threatened rain in the afternoon, whoever was still at home would run outside to quickly pull the grass under cover before it got wet. All this grass, once dry, would be bundled up and stored in the attic to feed the cows through the winter, when they all (bovine and human) might be housebound for days at a time depending on snowfall.

Why do I keep going on about cows and grass? Well, as I mentioned in the last cow post, wool production is part of a whole ecosystem, a web of relationships among plants, animals, and human caretakers. A tense or broken strand in one area can affect strands that are not visibly connected at all, through the redistribution of tension across the whole web. So for example, farmers who have started applying chemical fertilizers to their crops no longer welcome herds of sheep and goats to chomp and poop in their fallow fields. They may, in fact, not have fallow fields at all, as they may be planting crops continuously with no break for regeneration. This reduces the amount of grazing grounds available to herders and changes the nutrient mix that the animals are metabolizing into wool.

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Kidney beans and grass grow at the edges of plots of cilantro and cabbage.

And participating in non-wool tasks within people’s daily routines never fails to teach or remind me of something related to wool. Even something as seemingly simple as spreading out grass to dry actually involves a fair amount of skill and detailed environmental knowledge. As I untied bundles the first day, Purshotam demonstrated how to hold them from one end and thrash them against the ground to separate out the longest and thickest grass, the most nutritious of the grasses growing close to the village. He pointed to a slope where lots of it grows, and said that the cows run when they know they’re heading up there to graze. That kind of grass-knowledge is also crucial for shepherds (and I should mention that Purshotam is also a shepherd, and a sheep shearer—I just happened to be visiting when another aspect of his multi-faceted livelihood was predominant). Many herders I’ve talked to have mentioned particular types of grass that grow in the high-altitude pastures where they take their herds during monsoon. They’ve told me things like, an animal eating its way across a field of neeru grass will be noticeably heavier when it reaches the opposite side, or a sheep that eats neeru grass once will not get sick for the whole year. That grass is one of the reasons why the wool from the fall shearing (which I’m still waiting for right now) is the most valuable of the 2-3 yearly shearings.

While I seriously considered chucking it all and becoming a cabbage farmer on those slopes, I did eventually decide I needed to head back down to home base. When I called to let Babli know I was on my way, he sang “we have a surprise for you!” While I was gone, the long-awaited new member of the household had arrived—Jumki’s calf. So my new tangentially-wool-related lesson is how to make ghee, and what to do with all the by-products created along the way. It will certainly prove to be, if nothing else, a tasty tangent.

calf

I’m tasked with naming this little one–any suggestions?