As any of my colleagues conducting interviews or participant observation in India will likely agree, drinking tea is a serious part of the research process here. Since my home institution’s campus happens to include an organic tea garden, I’ve also been able to learn about the process of tea cultivation first hand. (What does this have to do with wool research, you might ask? Well, it’s one of the multiple intertwining agricultural cycles that any local wool value chain intervention will need to accommodate. Plus, it’s just cool!)

Late January-Early February: pruning


Institute programming takes a winter break during this time, so the housekeeping staff spent most of their work days hacking away at the “grass” (this term refers to any plant, whether it’s a botanical grass or not, that grows up in untended patches of land) and pruning the tea bushes. After several days of insisting that the work would be too difficult for me, they finally let me take a turn with the loppers. “Kaisa lag raha?” (“How do you like it?”) they kept asking, until I finally announced to everyone’s astonishment that I have in fact done yard work before. I found their disbelief simultaneously exasperating and hilarious, as pruning camellias is probably the most middle class, suburban American activity I could possibly undertake in rural India.

Late April-Early May: harvesting

Once the new growth came in, it was time to pluck tender leaves and buds. Each bush can be harvested 3 times, and harvest days had to be planned around the intermittent thunderstorms that have started up in anticipation of monsoon. Most of the tea has been sent to be processed by machine, but some has been processed in-house (like, literally in the house that I live in) and by hand.

After harvesting, the leaves are left to wilt for a day and then are kneaded by hand to squeeze out moisture. With musical and dance entertainment.


Finally, the leaves are left out to dry in the sun (assuming there is any…).

Then, after all that, it’s time to sit down and relax with a cup of Kangra tea!


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.


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.

Living “The Good Life” in the Himalayas

People often wonder how I ended up this weird. My best guess is that I was deeply, subconsciously affected by the BBC show “Good Neighbors” (original title “The Good Life”), in particular this episode.

So it was with barely contained mirth that I helped my new BFF Nirmala collect stinging nettles from the footpath to test out a green dye bath. She and Tripura found a suitable pair of grinding stones and set them under a tree, cued up some tunes on her mobile, and got to work.


She demonstrated grinding up the leaves “like chutney” to extract the pigment, and directed us to add lime juice and salt. We put bits of carded, alum-mordanted wool in, and also some unmordanted wool yarn.


Ranbir and Tripura were very excited and started plucking flowers to test as dyes. I’m 99% sure they won’t work, but I figure they have to experience that for themselves before they believe me. All the neighbors that passed by were quite entertained watching our mad scientist laboratory in action.

100_1994So far results are inconclusive. My brother may still have to wait a while for his nettle suit.

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’).

As the Whorl Turns

This morning I was working on one of my interminable spinning projects—some naturally dyed merino I bought a couple years ago and have been slowly converting to frog hair ever since. Ranbir decided he wanted to try, so I got him going on Nisha’s spindle. He had a bit of difficulty because it’s quite a heavy spindle, and the wool he was using has a fairly short staple. Eventually he flipped the spindle over to use as a takli, which he had learned a bit as a child. He and Brighu were surprised that we use the same name in English.

Later a “sister” stopped by for a visit and admired the wool I had. I handed it over so she could examine it more closely. She looked at my top-whorl spindle, made some comment about the hook (in the local language, so I could only guess from her gestures), and then also flipped it over and started spinning. I have noticed that the ladies here seem to think nothing of taking whatever I am working on and trying a bit themselves. I brought out my support spindle, and we both sat and spun for a bit.

In the afternoon Tripura decided she wanted to try, and by the end of the day had a nice fat copp wound on. Shabash, Tripura!


Chai. Tandoor. Takli. What more could you want? कुछ नहीं.
Chai. Tandoor. Takli. What more could you want? कुछ नहीं.

Adventures in Ethnobotany, aka Bungle in the Jungle

Yesterday morning I sat down with Ranbir and showed him a list I had of potential dye plants. He thought he might recognize a couple of the local names, and consulted with a neighbor sitting on the roof next door, but we didn’t get very far. We thought it might help to look up pictures and see if he recognized the plants by sight, since the lists I had were from different areas of the Himalayas and he might know things under different names. This was much more successful, and we came up with about a dozen matches. The neighbor kid was over, and every so often would run off to grab a sample of a plant he recognized out in the yard. I was the most excited about locating a local indigo, Indigofera dosua, known here as “kathi.” So in the afternoon, we took the goats and headed up to the jungle (which is actually a pine forest above the town). Ranbir was sure we would be able to collect leaves, but his sister said the leaves wouldn’t come until next month. In the jungle, we stopped to ask villagers gathering firewood if they had seen any kathi growing. They pointed us to some trees, which hadn’t yet leafed out. I was skeptical–I was pretty sure we were looking for a small shrub, not a tree. But everyone kept insisting yes, this is kathi. When we got back home I looked it up again, and found that there is another indigo (I. heterantha) which grows 2-3 meters tall. In the evening, a “brother” (actually cousin) stopped by, and we told him about our kathi quest. He happens to work in forest conservation, and was able to tell us some plants which produce dyes. He said that the leaves of the kathi will produce greens, and the flowers will produce purples. So…maybe promising? But we’ll have to wait a month or 2 to try.

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.