Coming Soon! Knitwear from Kulvi WHiMS

I’ve been obsessively tracking a package as it makes its way from a mountain village post office to my doorstep. It’s not here yet, but has arrived in the US. I can’t wait to check out the samples that the knitters of Kulvi WHiMS Self-Help Group have made of socks, scarves, hats, mitts, and more–all from handspun and naturally dyed wool. Here are a few photos from our Whatsapp exchanges–more and better ones to come as soon as the package arrives.

 

Zero-Waste Design

Back in January, a very large piece of cloth arrived at my doorstep. I had asked for one of the blankets that herders sleep inside when camping out with the flocks, thinking that I could cut it up into smaller pieces and stitch some bags out of it. I unfolded the bundle as much as possible within my living room (did I mention that it’s 5 meters long!?) and stood contemplating it. As I considered the possibilities, one thing was foremost in my mind: making use of every last inch of it through zero-waste design.

blanket
Among other considerations: how to photograph this giant thing?

Eco-conscious fashion designers are turning to zero-waste design in order to reduce textile waste that is generated when cutting pattern pieces from rectangular pieces of cloth. When working with handmade material, zero-waste design is also a way of honoring the immense amount of skill, time, labor, and life that went into creating the fabric. Many lives are entangled within the unwieldy piece of cloth lying on my floor: the lives of the ten or so sheep who grew the material on their backs, and of the herders who guided them safely through rugged terrain; of the shearer who carefully cut it off their bodies, leaving them free to grow more; of the women of the weaver’s family who washed the wool, took it to the carding mill, and spun it by hand into yarn; of the owner of the carding mill who, instead of cashing in on the increasing influx of tourists to the region, runs his business to cater to the needs of the local community; and of the weaver who sat at his loom for days on end to produce the cloth.

My commitment to zero-waste design also continues an ethic of reuse present in the communities that are producing the wool I use. Time and again during my fieldwork, I was invited into homes where I was offered a seat on a mat stitched together from layers of empty cement bags or the burlap sacks in which rations of rice are distributed. I would be offered tea with milk from the household cow, who ate food scraps from the kitchen and whose dung was used to plaster the floor over which the mats were spread. If store-bought namkeen (salty snacks) were served, my hosts would carefully fold the empty plastic foil packet and stash it away for later use–in one household that I visited, to make colorful floor rugs.

namkeen packet rug
from top left to bottom right: mats made of burlap, plastic packets, and cement bags covering a dung plaster floor

Although I was delighted with Budhi Devi’s rugs and similar creations, I sometimes found villagers’ zero-waste ethic frustrating in accomplishing my research goals. In order to try out different processing methods or compare wool from different regions, seasons, and breeds, I often wanted to play around with small amounts of wool without any expectation of making anything out of it. This sort of playful experimentation has long been a staple of my crafting and research practices, but was perceived in that context as wasteful. I found it easier to conduct such experiments in private (as much as possible, since a lot of it was messy outdoors work) and ended up doing much less of it than I had originally planned. I’m still puzzling through what this means for my research practice moving forward, and in taking on this project of cutting up a blanket, I feel an obligation to make good use of the thing. That obligation feels almost as weighty as the blanket itself.

But zero-waste design can be a fun puzzle, too! Take, for example, my most recent design–a series of wallets. Cutting across the full width of the blanket, I was able to cut 6 rectangles of the necessary size. To create the wallet pattern, I then cut out one corner of the rectangle. That piece became a pocket stitched onto the larger pattern piece, which then folded up into a simple billfold with a pocket for cards.

wallet open
Best of all, from one cut across the blanket and one basic design, I got three slightly different looks. The pieces cut from the middle of the blanket have clean edges all around, giving a simple and classic look. The pieces from the edges (as pictured above) show off the slightly uneven selvedge where the weaver pulls the shuttle across the loom. And the piece from the very center features the seam that is hand-stitched down the whole length of the blanket to join two narrower pieces into one.

wallet styles

I’m already thinking how this design could be adapted to larger pieces like a handbag. And I’m definitely planning on making a lot more of these cute little guys! I’ll be adding them to the shop as I make more, so check back every now and again.

Lovely Reetha: In which I learn about soapnuts (the hard way)

Early on in my Fulbright research, I had achieved my first goal of obtaining several kgs of (very) dirty wool. Having managed to transport it by bus back to the institute where I was staying, I moved on to step 2: washing it. I wanted to test out a variety of methods using locally available materials, including soapnuts (in Hindi reetha, in binomial nomenclature Sapindus mukorossi, and in the local Pahari languages dode–pronounced doh-day). One morning while getting breakfast I asked Saroj Didi, a friend on the housekeeping staff, if she knew where I could get some reetha. “How much?” she wanted to know. I explained that I needed to wash the wool I had brought back. She followed me to my room in the hostel and sized up my collection of cement sacks crammed with fleeces. The next day at breakfast, she handed me another sack–this one full of rattling, wrinkled yellow spheres. I had been expecting that she would know of a shopkeeper who sold reetha powder, which was what I had seen when looking it up online. Instead, she had gone straight to the source and brought me the unprocessed fruits from the tree. She explained that I would need to soak them in hot water to soften them, remove the large black seed from each one, and grind the flesh into a paste.

So I set myself up a little workstation outside the mess hall. Saroj Didi watched as I cracked the fruits open with a rock. After a period of close observation, she offered some advice. My Hindi skills being pretty rudimentary at the time (to be honest, they still are), I picked out from her stream of speech only the words “bitter,” “fingers,” and “in your mouth.” I duly stuck out my tongue and touched it to one finger, only to recoil in disgust.

soapnut workstation

Saroj Didi cracked up. “I told you not to put your fingers in your mouth!” she exclaimed. “Eat some sugar to make it sweet.” She bustled off into the kitchen to fetch me a spoonful.

Months after that bittersweet encounter, I accompanied Saroj Didi to her home in the village of Kandvari after work. As we passed under a large tree, she gestured to the round, yellow fruits fallen on the ground and trampled by the feet of the people, horses, and goats that passed along the path. “Dode,” she indicated. “What’s the profit in picking them up? Now we have soap from the shops.” Another time as we sipped tea on her front step, she described how villagers used to make rag dolls for children out of old, torn clothing. “We would attach dode seeds for the eyes,” she added. But now, she lamented, everyone wants store-bought toys instead of handmade things.

When I left the institute, I passed my rattling sack of reetha along to another soapnut enthusiast on campus. I had used it to wash some of those dirty fleeces and to do many loads of laundry by hand, but still had a lot left. Back in California, I wished I had found a way to bring my soapnut stash with me. So I was delighted to learn about a new business starting up production of laundry powder with soapnuts harvested from small farms in Kandvari. I’m proud to offer their natural laundry detergent through this shop, and look forward to continuing my relationship with the soapnut trees of Kandvari and supporting rural employment opportunities for the farmers of that community.

In Praise of Pattu: Softer Wool is Not Always Better

When I first visited the Gaddi village of Karnarthu, my hosts posed a question: did I want to sleep under a synthetic blanket, or a wool one? Wool, of course! I was there to study wool, after all. Was I sure? It would be very scratchy. I was used to it, I assured them–I sleep under a wool blanket at home. And so I was set up with a brown-and-white checked gardu in the downstairs bedroom.

In the morning, more questions. How did I sleep? Did the blanket itch? Well, I admitted, it did itch some, but it was very warm. Confession: it itched a lot. But it was worth it to stay warm through the night. The heavy, dense fabric (pattu) was produced by rolling a bundle of woven cloth along a wooden trough with hot water and soap (previously from soapnuts, now often with a sliver of bar soap). This process, known as mandai, is also applied to bundles of handspun yarns to create a thick cord, dora, used as a belt. Applied to cloth, as in the gardu beneath which I slept, mandai results in a warm, durable, and water-resistant material.

mandai

In the 1970s, the Indian government began cross-breeding the local sheep with imported fine-wool breeds in an attempt to create a softer wool that would meet the demands of the global apparel wool market. The resulting wool is not as good for making pattu, and yet is still mostly sold for rug manufacture rather than apparel. Over the same span of time, synthetic fibers became readily available in the markets. These days, home knitters shopping in town will find only acrylic and nylon yarns, and itinerant peddlers wander through villages with piles of purple and orange “synthetic mink” blankets.

And yet, especially when traveling in more remote areas, I found that people still rely on homemade pattu for items that will see hard use. On a steep, forested slope, I sat on a carefully patched gardu while watching two brothers lay out another on which to shear their sheep with hand-blades. Visiting a herder-weaver-activist’s home, I chuckled at his long-unused loom which, like mine, had become a storage unit of sorts, the lower beams draped with saddle pads stitched together from several layers of checked pattu. And after hiking up to stay with some herders at their high-altitude camp in the pre-monsoon rains, I was grateful for the pile of wool blankets lining their stone shelter and providing a warm, dry spot for a nap.

Even people who have switched to synthetics insisted to me that wool was better. A friend who has given up professional weaving gestured to his acrylic scarf and declared it “useless,” then described how synthetic mink blankets lose heat as soon as you get out from under them, while a wool gardu will stay warm for a long time. But as herders and weavers leave those livelihoods for service sector jobs and daily wage labor, wool and wool products are becoming more difficult to find for sale. Weavers now often work partially or entirely with acrylic yarns, producing items that are more affordable, if less durable, for local consumers.

By finding new uses and markets for woolen pattu, I aim to support the continuing availability of this material within the communities that make it and that rely upon it for survival. In the weeks ahead, I’ll be stitching up samples of bags, cases, and housewares out of this material, and putting them up for sale here on the website. Check out the online store for new additions, and let me know if you have ideas for what I should make next!

My DIY Business Education

Those of you who know me personally know, and those who are finding this site elsewise can probably surmise, that I am not coming at this venture from a business background. Rather, I’m trained as an interdisciplinary researcher in the social sciences and humanities, particularly within feminist approaches to analyzing and imagining alternatives to capitalism. Opening up shop has been a bit of a stretch for me.

So I’ve been giving myself a crash course in business: reading up on the harmonized tariff schedule and industry-standard pricing markups and minimum viable products. At the same time, I’ve been running searches for things like “anti-capitalist entrepreneurship,” which gets about as many results as you’d expect. There’s a lot of resources out there these days for starting a “social enterprise,” with advice on, say, how to develop a pitch deck to get funding from investors. I’ve found little interrogation of the apparatus of pitches, decks, and investors, or consideration of what types of work are and are not possible within that system. At least, I’m not finding that kind of critique from within the business world.* Instead, I see a lot of advice on how to apply practices from the private business sector to development projects, without much critique of the assumption that what works in one realm will work in another. Or much critique of either realm in and of itself.**

So I’m trying to go the other direction: what lessons from interdisciplinary theory and social justice organizing can I apply to running my business? How can I maintain a critical eye while trying to promote my own gig? What on Earth am I doing here?

As I find answers to these questions, and more questions stemming from those answers, I’ll collect them here under the category of “practices.” Some may seem more theoretical than practical, and items that I gather together here may more conventionally be split up into categories of ethics, operations, finances, etc. It’s all practice to me. I’ll start with this bit from a book on Indian liberation movements which I have yet to read but felt compelled to flip to the end, where I found this:

…if someone puts out a call that you have the capacity to answer, then go, but only if you’re willing to be engaged consistently over the long term. And if you’re able to do so with empathy and respect, without abandoning your critical awareness. Above all look to your own house; work at and from your own sites of resistance. While you do that, connect the dots; make the connections explicit.

-Maia Ramnath, Decolonizing Anarchism: An Antiauthoritarian History of India’s Liberation Struggle, p. 259

I have already read this so many times that I almost have it memorized. I feel like I should keep reading it every time I sit down to do any work, and maybe I will do just that.

 

*If you know where to find this, let me know!

**There is definitely a body of work critiquing development from scholar-practitioners within the NGO world, and maybe some of that is coming from within more profit-oriented projects, but I’m not yet familiar enough with this literature to know. So if you have ideas of entry points there, also let me know!