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.

Support Spindle Tech Support

The other day a couple of the village women came over for a master class on the takli. I wasn’t actually their main student, but I learned a lot about spindle physics and got some good pointers about improving my technique. For one thing, I realized that my fancy expensive Tibetan spindle is actually not as good as a plain little 10-rupee takli–the whorl is fairly heavy and wide, which makes it spin more slowly. As primarily a drop spindler, I was enchanted by the Tibetan’s ability to spin for days. But you spin the takli in short bursts, so a long spin is completely irrelevant. Speed, however, is crucial. After watching me for a while, Nirmala and Kusum commented on how thick my yarn was (nobody ever says that!) because of the slow spin. Nirmala also showed me how to flick the spindle right at the tip to get a faster spin, and how to hold the fiber between my first and second fingers, using my thumb and third finger to pull excess fiber out of the drafting triangle. It will take me a while to get the hang of it. When they first arrived I had been spinning some sari silk on my drop spindle. At the end of the lesson, Nirmala asked which was faster–the drop or the takli. I had to admit that they can spin much faster than me…

 

Will I ever be this badass?
Will I ever be this badass?

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’).

Cotton, aka “Tiny Lambs”

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So, I’m auditing a class on informal learning, and our first written assignment was to learn something and write about it. I decided to learn to spin cotton on my support spindle (which, despite being a “Tibetan” spindle, looks nothing like anything I saw folks using when I was basically next door to Tibet). I had some cotton bolls that a friend had collected from the university research fields when she was out there for a pest management class. Borrowed some cotton cards from a different friend, and away we go. I was expecting the carding and rolling punis to be the easiest part, since it’s basically the same as carding wool and making rolags. I thought drafting would be tricky, because I am used to two-handed drafting and would have to retrain myself to do it one-handed. I was so wrong. Rolling the punis was trickier than I expected, and clearly the most crucial step of the process- the ones that I rolled well just drafted out all on their own like a dream, and the sloppier ones were much more difficult to manage. While reading up on cotton processing, I saw a couple mentions of a traditional Indian method of using a bow (like bow-and-arrow) to fluff the fiber and roll the punis. What?! But I can’t find any more specific information about how to do it. Grrr…and, another excuse to go back…

And then there’s plying. I realized I had absolutely no idea about plying on a support spindle. I looked up some videos on Youtube, and can I say, people, PLEASE. Let’s get some better instructional videos up there! Here were problems I had with every video I found:

1. The camera was opposite the spinner, thereby requiring me to mentally flip everything I saw. Maybe somehow position it behind you looking over your shoulder, or use a head-mounted thingy? I have seen knitting videos with a head-cam, and they’re great.

2. The camera was focused on the spindle, which had a couple consequences:

(a) The people appeared as headless torsos. It was a little weird.

(b) The hand manipulating the fiber was off-screen, so I was missing out on half the work that was happening.

3. They all started working from a wound ball of singles, so I couldn’t see how they went from the copp on the spindle to whatever they were drafting from for plying. Which seemed like an important intermediary step, and one that I didn’t do so well on my own.

So I muddled through, wound my singles into a sloppy center-pull ball (gotta work on my nostepinne skillz) and plied ’em up. They kept getting a bit snarled and also broke a few times because I didn’t put in enough twist. Eventually things got so knotty that I just decided to cut my losses (literally, and by literally I mean literally, folks). But I do have a teeny little bit of highly uneven, fragile handspun cotton yarn!

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