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.


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.

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.