What is Interdisciplinary Textile Research, Anyway?

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.

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.

signal thread
The blue thread marks off the length of the shawl.

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:

Upcoming Events

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!

Six Spring Tips for Wool Moth Prevention

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!

Producer Profile: Mansa Ram and Family

I first met Mansa Ram ji when he spoke at a meeting of NGO workers, researchers, and students gathered to examine challenges and opportunities facing the handloom industry in India. I visited him a few times when I was in the region again for research into wool production, and the first woven items available for sale through aana jaana were created by Mansa Ram and members of his family. Here is a little about Mansa Ram in his own words*:

“I learned weaving in 1975 when I was about 25 years old. My teacher’s name was Sali Ram. Sali Ram knew how to make the handloom from scratch. I was unemployed at that time and there was demand for the woolen products coming out of handlooms. The demand came from shepherds themselves who were plentiful at that point of time and used these woolen garadus, dauds, shawls, and coats when they used to migrate with their sheep and goats up into the higher mountains during the summers and to the forests below during the winters. There was also demand from those people from the village who were working in the defense services since they used to work in harsh conditions and these handloom products are very hardy and warm. I then taught almost everybody in my village the art and the skill of working on handlooms. And Sali Ram made the handlooms for almost everybody in the village and used to repair them also and he taught his skill of making and repairing handlooms to other people in the village.”

Mansa Ram’s daughters-in-law Rekha Devi and Shrehtha Devi at the charkha and loom

“Initially when we started working we used to make hundreds of these woolen products in our homes along with other people in the village and entire rooms would be stacked with them since the demand was so high. The wool used to come in hundreds of kgs also from the shepherds.

Mansa Ram ji

“When I started work the price of honey, ghee, chillies, and wool were the same per kilo but as time has gone by…the price of wool compared to the rest of the three has fallen due to the lack of demand. Now the effort is not commensurate to the reward even for shepherds for the wool of the sheep.

“The demand for our handloom woven products started to drop in the last 15 years when cheap synthetic and machine made garments started to flood the markets. We had kind of lost hope that this enterprise could ever be revived till this year when suddenly there has again been a spurt in demand. We hope that our handloom woven products are liked. This is what we have done for the last 35 years. This is what we know how to do well.”

Mansa Ram and family 2
Rekha Devi, Mansa Ram, and Shrehtha Devi
*Many thanks to Sumant Bhushan of Kandvari for meeting with Mansa Ram ji, recording and translating his words, and taking the photos presented here.

Knitwear from Kulvi WHiMS

The samples have arrived! Here are the first drafts of our knitwear collection. Take a look, and please comment below with feedback.

Classic Kulvi Design: Socks and Slippers

These socks and slippers are commonly found throughout Himachal. The socks, readily available in tourist shops, feature bands of colorful geometric designs across the top of the foot. Designs worked on the heel reinforce that part of the sock, protecting it from wear and tear. Knitters mostly make mojari (slippers) for home use. The clever design is easy to knit on straight needles and stretches to accommodate a wide range of foot sizes.

A California Knitter’s Twist: Fingerless Mitts

After my first visit to Himachal, I was inspired by my newly-acquired socks to learn stranded knitting (the technique used to make the small, repeated designs). I made myself a pair of fingerless mitts, and wore them on the next trip to Kullu. My knitting friends examined the construction details, and a farmer/tour guide friend requested a pair to wear while riding his motorcycle. Here is the result of that collaboration.

Rhythms of the Land: Scarf and Hat

From the first time I saw them, the terraced farms of Himachal reminded me of a knit stitch that uses extra loops of yarn to create an undulating, lacy effect. I taught the stitch to my friend Kusum, and when I returned a year later she had knit herself a sweater vest with that design. Here it is featured in a scarf and beanie, in stripes of soft color created from dye plants that grow in that same terraced landscape.

I’d love to hear what you think of these designs! Leave a comment to give feedback as we prepare to work up a line for sale this spring.