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.


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.


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.

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.

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.

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

“Shepherds and Shawls” Paper and Video Now Online

I just submitted my proposal for the next Textile Society of America Symposium in 2020. Fingers crossed that it’s accepted. In the meantime, papers from last year’s symposium are now available online in a couple different formats. My presentation was part of a recorded session, so you can actually watch the thing on Youtube. It’s not as multisensory as the live presentation was–my arm will not break through your laptop screen to hand you a sample of wool. But there is some stuff in there that’s not in the written paper, notably the moment when I bust into song.* I’d highly recommend checking out the whole playlist of video presentations–I saw many of them in person and they were amazing.

Even more really excellent presentations are available in written form in the Proceedings (my paper specifically here). And they are all open access! I am so grateful to TSA for making their symposium proceedings available to the public. When I was considering going to grad school, TSA papers were pretty much the only textile research that I could take a look at to see if it was something I wanted to pursue. And now that I’ve graduated and am no longer able to access most scholarly literature, I’m really reliant on the few open access sources that are out there. Thank you TSA and everyone else who makes it possible for me to continue this work outside academia!

*The line that I chose to sing was a bit of a private joke–it translates to something like “it was time for me to go, but I remembered and I forgot the way.” I thought it sort of applied to the situation I was in, of having to give this presentation after my research went in a completely different direction than I expected when I submitted the proposal. In the context of the song it’s from, it has rather a different connotation, as you’ll be able to infer from this somewhat melodramatic music video.


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.

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?