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.


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!

List Post

Things I Miss About Himalaya:

1. My friends there. Duh.
2. Buses. With garlands and music and conductors conducting amazing feats of memory to tell you when to get off and gods with blinking lights.
3. Trucks. American truck drivers: more tassels, please. And more painted-up tigers leaping off the back, and eyes with flirty eyelashes on the front, and horns that full-on play music instead of just honking.
4. Non-ironic use of the terms “ladies” and “gents.”
5. Watching thunderstorms from the front porch.
6. “Hair saloons.”
7. I never thought I’d say this, but: the trumpets blaring off-octaves at any hour. And I mean, any hour. And I mean, the octaves. So close and yet so far.

Things I’m Glad to Get Back To:

1. My friends here. Duh.
2. My spinning wheel.
3. Potlucks.
4. Sarcasm.
5. Sipping dark-and-stormies on the back porch.
6. Dark chocolate.
7. Bougie pizza (although, see #2 below).

Things I’m Having a Hard Time Getting Used To Again:

1. American accents. World, I am so sorry.
2. Prices.
3. Vast, empty streets.
4. Sarcasm.
5. Flatness.
6. Eating with a fork.
7. It’s. So. Quiet.

In Praise of Prinsepia

Fiber arts have been on hold due to more pressing matters, such as trekking in the mountains

There were shepherds!
Oh yeah, and stunning views too.
Oh yeah, and stunning views too.

and eating too many jalebis

One-stop shopping for heart attack AND type 2 diabetes!

and watching my friends dance in the village festival.

They also sang, very loudly and off-key. But they rocked the pom-poms like nobody’s business.

But now things have settled down again, so it’s back to the grind. Nettles take 1 didn’t take, but we’ve seen enough success stories on other blogs to give it another go. Ranbir just rinsed out his experiment and was quite disappointed to find that the color ran out completely. But this is NOT another fail post, thanks to the heretofore unsung Prinsepia utilis.


P. utilis is known in the local language as “bekhali” or something like that (I have a hard time distinguishing some of the sounds, and it’s an entirely oral language so getting someone to write it in Hindi wasn’t much help). It grows absolutely everywhere. Its main utilis seems to be as a natural barbed wire fence–people pile up the dead, thorny branches along the stone walls surrounding their orchards. But it was also listed as a dye plant in some of our sources, and was one of the few that we could positively identify. It produces small purplish-black berries which have only just starting coming ripe. So the other day I worked my way down the path and gathered a small handful for experimentation.*

We didn’t have any idea of how to process them, and weren’t even sure which part of the fruit gives the dye. So I opened them up to see what’s inside. The less-ripe berries contained a bright green goop, while the older, more wrinkly ones were dark all the way through. They started to stain my fingers purple while I was opening them, so that seemed like a good sign. And when I poured hot water over them, lots of color came right away. But of course none of this is a guarantee. I put in some test fiber, some of which was mordanted with alum and some which was not.

And it worked! After a couple sessions on the induction burner, and a couple days just sitting around because the kitchen was rather busy cranking out vats of mattar paneer for festival guests, I rinsed out my little samples and was relieved to see that some color stayed. And wasn’t yellow. I tried out some lemon juice on one piece, and it shifted the color from bluish-purplish-gray to magenta. Not a color I personally would wear, but, decidedly not yellow. Score.

Believe it or not, this is the most exciting picture of this post. Really.
Believe it or not, this is the most exciting picture of this post. Really.

*By the way, while I was collecting berries a local stopped and asked me what they were for, and was very adamant that I shouldn’t eat them. Then he proceeded to try and sell me a 2000-year-old Buddha. Just because.

Wading Through the Tacky in Search of the Takli

It’s “season” now, and the hippies have arrived in force. There’s a group of Russians here to learn yoga, and always a lot of people at and around the castle (one of the attractions in this village, and pretty close to the house where I’m staying). I’ve been trying to stay out of all that mess, but the other day went along on a sightseeing day trip to Vashisht and Manali.

It. Was. So. Touristy. Outside the temples there were all these guys hanging around selling jars of saffron, and old ladies in pattu trying to get you to hold their angora rabbits and take a picture. Old Manali looked like any little hippie enclave in NorCal or Oregon–a cafe with murals of Bob Dylan, shop after shop of patchwork satchels with big OMs embroidered on them. Mall Road was more mainstream touristy, with sidewalk vendors selling wooden keychains with your name carved on it and every shop selling the same array of mass-produced shawls.

Since learning to spin the other day, Padmini has become obsessed. She was determined that somewhere in this sea of tacky we would find a place selling takli. Of course we thought, what kind of shop would carry such a thing? At one point we were in a shop full of knitted and felted doodads, and I noticed a takli in the display counter. I asked the guy if I could see it, and he took it out for me. The thing was huge, at least a foot long. I twirled it in my fingers to see how it spun, and he started to explain to me what it’s used for. “I know,” I said. “I’m a spinner. We want to buy them. Do you have any more?” No, he didn’t, he just had the one for display, but he pointed us to where we could find them for sale. So off we went, out of the main market, next to the bus stand, up the steps, where we found a few women sitting around knitting and a whole bunch of empty metal frames for small sales stands. We thought we must not be in the right place, so we went back down and inquired at some of the nearby shops, where they pointed us right back up the steps. We went back up and Padmini asked one of the women, who (as usual) at first didn’t understand our request and then expressed disbelief that city folk like us (let alone a foreigner like me) would know how to spin. Alas, the shop was closed that day. We retreated to the relative peace of Naggar, and Padmini’s husband told us he had seen piles of takli in Kullu market.

So the next day we got on the bus to Kullu. The bus did not disappoint, with beaded fringe and tassels across the front window, Hindi music blasting, and a pigeon hanging out next to the driver the whole time. We veeery sloooowly bumped along the 20 km to the end of the line.

There, right by the entrance to the market, we found a no-name hardware and weaving supply store. Sure enough, right up front were two boxes full of roughly carved but functional takli. We sat there spinning them on our palms to find the ones with the best balance and fastest spin. I also picked up some string heddles and reeds to set up a little backstrap weaving, and as we ran back to catch the last bus we found a little pick-axe to help dig up roots for our natural dye experiments. That’s my kind of shopping spree.

Spindle Envy

When we woke yesterday morning, we saw there had been fresh snowfall in the night, quite a bit further down the mountains. So in the afternoon we bundled up and headed towards Rohtang. We pulled off the road and played around in a snowy field until the snow started falling in earnest again—then it was time to make our way back down before the road became too dangerous. While we were driving, some women who are interested in knitting for Nisha’s project called to invite her/us to dinner. Which meant, as these sorts of things do, sitting around a tandoor while everybody is talking around me in languages I don’t understand (if I have enough context, I can usually catch a bit of the conversation in Hindi, but when the locals are all gossiping in Kulluvi, forget it). Luckily I’ve figured out to always have a project with me, so I pulled out my drop spindle and got to work. I have to say, in the last few days since I lent my Tibetan spindle to Tripura I’ve been experiencing spindle envy—the ladies are SO FAST on the takli, and the drop, while handy for spinning while on the move, is not exactly suited to spinning while sitting cross-legged on a floor cushion. But everyone here is fascinated by the drop spindle—apparently even though we saw them in other areas, right here in this neck of the woods it’s not so common and is considered quite difficult.

Before dinner, of our hosts had to go outside to get something, so she put on a pattu over her clothes before heading out into the rain and cold. The pattu is this plaid woven rectangle that women wear here, wrapped in a manner sort of half-way between a great kilt and a peplos. It’s secured at the shoulders with 2 pins connected by a chain. (Sorry to go so fiber nerdy here, but I’m fascinated by the ways people figure out to make a rectangle of cloth fit around a lumpy human body). After dinner we found out that she had woven it herself, and then she went to the cabinet and pulled out pattu after pattu that she had woven, some with handspun wool. They had a variety of twill grounds, and elaborately patterned borders similar to the designs we had seen in Kinnaur. So beautiful! She said that she makes them as gifts for weddings, and only wears this “everyday” one herself (which was still some pretty badass weaving, just sayin’).

Bijli Mahadev Trek

Yesterday we trekked to Bijli Mahadev temple. This “trek” turned out to be basically a 2-mile stair climb to the top of the mountain. Tripura in all her finery didn’t break a sweat while us flatlanders plodded along behind. After a while we got tired of the stairs and went off-roading through the sparse pine forest. When we finally got to the top it was quite windy and clouds were moving in.

(I took a terrible video but can’t seem to post it here)

Brighu explained that people from the surrounding villages bring butter to add to the Shiva ling inside the temple. He said that every year it is struck by lightning and breaks apart. Right about then the rain started….We waited out the storm in one of the tarp dhabas outside the temple, drinking chai and eating maggi while lightning flashed in the distance. When the rain stopped and we ventured back out, the sun was glowing through the clouds with a weird brown light that made everything look like a colorized sepia photograph.