Research (it can’t be all trekking all the time…)

Yesterday I spent some quality time with Google Translate, slogging my way through a “sheep calendar” published by the state government’s Wool Federation. I know I could just ask someone else to read it for me in about 5 minutes, but it’s been a good language learning exercise. My already-weird Hindi vocabulary, which included words like “heddles” and “alum,” now also includes “fodder,” “foot and mouth disease,” and “gelding” (which Google also claims translates to “deforestation”–will have to check on that one). Spending a whole day on a one-page document has also led me to some questions about this publication–the biggest one being, who exactly is it for? I don’t imagine any shepherds wonder what they should be feeding their sheep this month, and go look it up online. They know all this, and in greater detail and nuance than the one paragraph per season allotted in the calendar. Besides which, there is no mention of any migratory cycle–kind of a major oversight in a region known for its…indigenous migratory shepherds.

In the afternoon I took a break to go visit the children’s learning center further down the path, where I hung out in the making/science lab for a bit watching one of the teachers learn to throw pots. Among other gadgets assembled out of trash, there was a YARN PEN (!) which was out of commission, but just needed a bit of re-threading. Teacher friends, take note: you too can make a yarn pen for your classroom!

The walk back uphill to the hostel was made somewhat less grueling by the always stunning view, and the promise of tasty future dinners growing in the gardens along the way.

Now it’s on to the 2003 Sheep Census…

Misty Mountain Hop

view from above

OK, it’s more like Misty Mountain Trudge for this flatlander at this point, but the work at least is hoppin’. People keep asking me if I’ll have time for fun while I’m in India, or if I have to work the whole time. This question is nonsensical–my work is fun. So far, research has consisted of:

  • wandering around on the lookout for sheep and goats
found some!
  • trekking up into the mountains and staying overnight at a herder’s dera
5 star accommodations (what you can see is where the livestock sleep–the part for human people is carved out under the rock)
  • sitting around on the gapshap chabutra (gossip bench) outside my institute’s dining hall, spinning on my drop spindle and chatting people up about wool
research assistant
my trusty research assistant

And that’s just the first week. So I can’t complain, really.



Threads of Song is not an official site of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed on this site are entirely those of its author and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.

Why do I mention this, you ask? Because I’m back in India as a Fulbright-Nehru Student Researcher! (no, really)

In a couple days I’ll be heading up to Himachal to start the next round of work with Sambhaavnaa Institute and WHIMS. Stay tuned for 9 months of takli, looms, and sheep sheep sheep.

Catching Up

So I realize that I went almost a year without posting here, and I’m now playing catch up. A lot happened during that time, and I’ll be slowly filling in the gap now that I have a little breathing room.

Last spring I was awarded a grant from the Blum Center for Developing Economies, which allowed me to return to Kullu Valley and continue work with the women’s group there. I didn’t post about it at the time because I was writing for their blog. I just saw that they have put up the first of my posts–please go take a look at it.



I filed my thesis two weeks ago, and walked yesterday. The day after I filed, my housemate asked if I felt different. I was, at the time, applying for a registration waiver to a conference about the roles of textiles in colonialism and globalization while waiting for a call from the wool classer with directions to the agricultural warehouse where I was supposed to meet him for some participant observation (or as I suppose it is called outside of the methods chapter, job shadowing). So no, not so much.

A couple days before filing my thesis, I had one last meeting with my advisor to sign paperwork and double-check details. At that meeting, I confessed to her that I still wasn’t sure what I do. That wasn’t quite true–I had just written approximately 80 pages about what I do, with words like “praxiography” and “oligopticon” that should provoke plenty of challenges if I’m ever able to deploy them in a game of Scrabble. But when it came to picking a category into which to pigeonhole my work in the thesis database, well. On one list, I was pleasantly surprised to find a code for “Interdisciplinary Textile Research”–YES! That is what I do. But on another list, “Interdisciplinary” was nowhere to be found, and the closest options seemed somehow inadequate (I have some weird imposter syndrome around calling myself an anthropologist, even though that’s what my B.A. is in and all my friends in that program think my project is solidly anthro). I handed my laptop over to my advisor, and she scanned the possibilities–“Engineering, Textile Technology” she noted was the only mention of textiles anywhere. I hadn’t even looked under engineering, for obvious reasons…but in a funny way my thesis IS about textile technology…she read out the code, and it matched “Interdisciplinary Textile Research.” So we went with it.

A digital humanist friend of mine thinks this is great–“you’re hacking engineering!”–but I’m not so sure. I’ve spent the past 2 years informing people who ask what I’m studying that my department did not, in fact, merge with engineering and does, indeed, include social sciences under its purview (even if I’m the only social science student at the moment). So to me it feels more like an erasure than a hacking.

Even “interdisciplinary” doesn’t feel quite right, really. “Interdisciplinary” requires the maintenance of disciplinary borders in order to cross them. I’m not interested in that. I want to play in the muddy mess that results when the borders vanish, where craft is chemistry and physics is philosophy and string theory involves literal strings. I’m outside the walls of the academy now, so why should I stay inside the cubicle wall maze? From now on, you can just call me undisciplined.

Questions I Have Asked Myself While Writing My Thesis

Why do I feel compelled to use full names in the first mention of women, but not men? BECAUSE PATRIARCHY.

Should I cite Foucault just to call him out for his inaccurate use of skeining as a metaphor for entanglement? YES. ALSO LATOUR.

How can all these otherwise very smart philosopher dudes think it’s ok to use weaving terminology when they clearly don’t actually know how to weave? BECAUSE PATRIARCHY.

Although grammatically correct, does this sentence, with its qualifiers, subordinate clauses, and three or more items in a list, perhaps contain too many commas? PERHAPS.

Should I switch to decaf? NOT JUST YET. MAYBE GREEN TEA THOUGH.

What if my committee asks me to explain what a “flat ontology” is? LET’S JUST CHECK FACEBOOK REAL QUICK IN CASE THERE ARE ANY NEW PANDA VIDEOS.

On “Divers,” when Joanna Newsom sings, “recall the word you gave,” how brilliant is it that she can mean it both as “remember” and “take back”? VERY BRILLIANT.


If I quote somebody who uses British spelling, like “valorising,” and then I want to use that term again outside of the quote, do I have to keep using their silly spelling? Or should I change the spelling in the quote, like, “valori[z]ing,” or does that make me look more pretentiously pomo than I really want to be? HM, THAT’S A TOUGH ONE.

Is there too much alliteration? PROBABLY. How can I get rid of alliteration when I have to write about flinging fleeces so they retain the shape of the sheep? YOU CAN’T. JUST ROLL WITH IT.

Should I change out of my pajamas? IT IS NOT EVEN NOON FOR ANOTHER 32 MINUTES YET.

Why can’t the subtitle be “Breaking Binaries Left and Right”? BECAUSE PATRIARCHY? OR MAYBE BECAUSE EUROMODERNITY.

Should I have put the question mark inside the quotation mark there? NO, I THINK THE BRITS HAVE GOT IT RIGHT ON THAT COUNT.


No More Pencils, No More Books

Well, a lot more books, actually. But no more teacher’s dirty looks for sure. Thank goodness.

So far I’ve spent my free time on this bizarrely rainy first day of vacation:

1. marveling at Michael Taussig’s whacked-out, genius take on the origins of organic chemistry (in What Color is the Sacred?–amazing book. Read it.),

2. trying to talk myself out of re-reading Gravity’s Rainbow (somehow I feel like after the Taussig it’ll suddenly all make sense, but somebody please slap some sense into me),

4. bugging my Himachali friends with weird requests to save up berries and ashes until I get there in August, and

5. playing with lichens!


These are turkey tail mushrooms, oak galls, and three types of lichens that Kim and I collected from under the oak tree where we ate lunch every day at shearing school. We’re going to try them on a fleece we got from a school sheep. We weren’t sure if the lichens are the right kinds to make dyes, but I figured it was worth a shot. I put them in a dilute ammonia solution to extract the color, and…


Yes! It’s hard to see, but the one on the left is a dark orange. They’re supposed to ferment for a month before we use them, but I think it’s gonna work out.

Busy Busy Busy

It’s shaping up to be an exciting spring and summer. I’m about to head up to Hopland for a week of sheep shearing school and wool classer certification. That’s right, I’ll be able to fondle wool professionally.

I’ll also be using what I learn there as the basis for a paper on “The Life of Wool,” which I’ll be presenting at the November conference of the International Textile and Apparel Association. It’s my first academic presentation!

But the biggest news is, I just received grant funding to go back to Himachal, play around some more with my human and plant friends, and interview folks about traditional craft knowledge and forest ecology. Time to really buckle down on learning Hindi!


Yesterday was a play day. I spent most of the day with members of the Meridian Jacobs Spinzilla team, learning about production spinning from Stephenie Gaustad. I am so glad they let me crash the party as a rogue spinner. I learned many things, but what I want to share with you all today is my new-found love for the weirdo fiber that we started off with: Herdwick.

I’d been reading about these guys in this paper, which has the best opening lines of any academic paper ever: “It is a sheep. You can see the photo.” Plus, the Herdwick pictured in the Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook is the darn cutest sheep you’ve ever seen in your life. I mean, I don’t know anything about your life, but this is objectively the cutest sheep in it.

singles on the bobbin
singles on the bobbin
2-ply on the niddy
2-ply on the niddy

I spun my lil’ Herdwick sample in my usual semi-worsted draft, which really highlighted the crazy kempiness. I think I was also spinning from the wrong end of the sliver, so the kempy bits were basically sticking straight out of the main line of the yarn. The pictures definitely show how hairy it is, but don’t really convey how charming it is, too. The kempy bits are crimped in this way that makes the yarn look like some kind of novelty confetti yarn or something. I think next time I might ply it with something else to highlight the novelty effect.

So it’s obviously not next-to-skin wear. It shed a lot (a LOT) while I was spinning it, so I’m a little worried that it will continue to make a big mess wherever it goes, in whatever form it eventually takes. I’m thinking to weave a little mason jar cozy…



After the shearing, I headed to Pt. Reyes for the 10th Annual Fungus Fair. One of the talks was on mushroom dyes, so of course I had to go. I brought along a couple test skeins in case I’d get a chance to pop them in a dye bath, but unfortunately it was really a talk, with slides, in an auditorium. Not really that unfortunate, though, because I did get the chance to meet and chat with Dorothy Beebee, scientific illustrator, natural dyer, and all-around cool lady.


She worked with Miriam Rice for over 40 years developing several crafty uses for mushrooms, including dyes, watercolors, paper, and crayons.


Once we found her table, my friends and I just kept hanging around it, like to the point that I hope she didn’t think we were stalking her or anything. My  new obsession is to find these guys…


…which make reds that she claimed were more light-fast than the aniline dyes. Check out the International Mushroom Dye Institute for more awesomeness.