Home to majestic Himalayan views, verdant valleys, and glacial rivers, the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, India is defined by both staggering natural beauty and extreme geographic isolation. The nearest city, Delhi, is over 460km away, and most villages are inaccessible via road. Today, as this region continues to develop and modernize, one organization is seeking to preserve the region's traditional handicrafts to foster a new generation of artisans.
The People of Kumaon
The Shaukas (or Bhotiyas) are a pastoralist people native to the Kumaon region. Traditionally, the Shaukas were semi-nomadic, and travelled from the Tibetan plateaus to the Gangean plains with their herds. This history of migration is visible in their traditional weaving skills. Their carpets and blankets, known as Chuktas and Thulmas, are made from Tibetan sheep wool and are renowned for their warmth and durability. These would be traded alongside the salt, grains, and other goods the community bartered.
Elderly Woman Spinning (September 2017)Avani Society
When the borders to Tibet closed due to the Indo-China war of 1962, this trade was destabilized. Once Tibetan sheep wool had to be imported through Nepal, the Shauka’s weaving traditions slowly dwindled.
Bora Women Carrying Hemp Sacks (October 2017)Avani Society
Elsewhere in the Kumaon region, the Boras, another community based in these foothills, were skilled weavers and spinners of hemp.
However, when hemp cultivation was banned by the Indian government in 1985, this tradition slowly started disappearing.
Avani, a nonprofit dedicated to creating sustainable livelihoods in this rural region, saw a vital opportunity to foster economic activity that could leverage these existing, albeit declining, traditional skills. Thus, Avani’s textile enterprise was born.
Today, over 1,400 artisans from the Shauka and Bora communities are employed as part of Avani’s textile production cooperative. These individuals use their knowledge of dyeing, spinning, and weaving to produce scarves, shawls, and stoles.
The Production Process
So what goes into making an Avani scarf? The entire process, from “seed to scarf”, is complex, multifaceted, and involves a wide range of skills and players. The common thread throughout, however, is the unparalleled craftsmanship and dedication of all those working with the cooperative, from farmers, to dyers, to spinners, to weavers. Inspired by the cultures and traditions of their ancestors before them, Avani's artisans blend traditional skills with modern technologies to create exquisite, one-of-a-kind creations.
I. The Harvest
The first step in creating one of these unique scarves is collecting and cultivating the materials to produce natural dyes. All of Avani's dyes are sourced from the rich Himalayan landscape, which is composed of pine, oak, ferns, and terraced rice fields.
Dye Plants and wool yarns dyed using natural dye plants (2017-04-08)Avani Society
The Shauka people have long practiced the art of natural dyeing. Combining this traditional knowledge with modern dye extraction techniques, Avani experimented with over 50 plants, ultimately settling on those which are most abundant and whose extraction does not harm the biodiversity of the Himalayan landscape. With the exception of madder root (used to produce red), all of Avani's dyes are sourced from the leaves, fruits, and flowers of plants, rather than roots or bark.
Eupatorium Plants (September 2017)Avani Society
Known as “Ban Mara”, or “Forest Killer”, in Nepal, eupatorium is one of the most invasive plants in Asia. After years of experimentation, dyers from the Avani cooperative found that eupatorium could be used to produce four shades of dye, from a deep olive green to a vibrant light yellow.
Now, local women are able to earn an income by collecting eupatorium, creating an economic incentive to manage this invasive plant.
As the cooperative continued to expand its dye operations, its color palette rapidly increased to include greens from eupatorium, reds and pinks extracted from madder roots and lac, oranges and yellows from flame of the forest and pomegranate peel, and brown from walnut.
Indigo-Dyed Yarn (November 2017)Avani Society
But a major shade was still missing: blue. Here, Avani looked to India's history.
Dried Indigo Cakes (November 2017)Avani Society
The name “indigo” comes from the Greek word “indikon”, meaning “coming from India.” Indigo was first mentioned in writing in the histories of Herodotus, who described its widespread use in Mediterranean civilizations, including the Greeks and Romans.
Indigofera Tinctoria Cultivation in Uttarakhand (2016-09-01)Avani Society
Although Indigo had long been cultivated in India, formal cultivation for commercial use was not truly widespread until British colonial times. Using a combination of violent force and cheap labor, indigo rapidly became one of Britain’s primary sources of income, enabling them to maintain control over the sub-continent. This history of exploitation tainted the cultivation of indigo for many Indians, who came to associate the crop with the abuses of colonialism.
Indigo Cake, Powder, and Dyed Yarn (September 2017)Avani Society
Conscious of indigo’s complicated past, Avani took care when introducing the crop to Kumaoni farmers to ensure that their model of cultivation was sustainable, ethical, and community-led.
Women Harvesting the Indigo, Cultivated Amidst Millet Crops Women Harvesting the Indigo, Cultivated Amidst Millet CropsAvani Society
Today, Avani’s indigo cultivation allows local farmers to earn additional income from their fields to support their families.
Kumauni Farmstead (November 2017)Avani Society
As a leguminous plant, the crop is also highly beneficial for soil productivity thanks to its nitrogen fixation qualities. As much of the land in Kumaon is infertile, indigo cultivation helps reclaim this land for productive use. Last year, farmers who grew indigo for Avani reported that the food crops they grew in rotation with indigo plants had higher yields.
One such farmer, Monhai Devi, has been cultivating indigo for Avani for two years. This year, Monhai, along with her daughter-in-law Kavita, harvested 116kg of indigo, earning Rs. 2,359. Monhai plans to use this money to pay for her second son’s wedding next month.
Monhai and Daughter-in-Law Harvesting Indigo (October 2017)Avani Society
Monhai and her family live in Chachared, a village with just five households. On the day of the indigo harvest, Monhai and Kavita have to wake up extremely early and work quickly; the plants must be submerged in water within three hours of harvesting. Failure to do so will cause the indigo pigment to break down.
The harvested indigo bundles are packed and transported to Avani's field centers for processing.
Natural dyeing at Avani truly showcases the fusion of traditional skills with contemporary technologies. Avani has collaborated with technicians from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Indian Institute of Technology to refine its dyeing processes, and its dyers have complemented their traditional knowledge with training in basic chemistry.
Woman Drying Harvested Indigo Leaves (September 2017)Avani Society
To begin creating natural dyes, the dye’s raw material is extracted from the plant through a process of drying, boiling, and fermentation. This creates what is known as ‘dye liquor’, which, when mixed with water, will create the dye mixture.
Woman Checking pH of Fermenting Indigo Vat (September 2017)Avani Society
This extraction process is a precise science, requiring constant monitoring of pH levels, the ratio of water to dye material, and temperature. Even the tiniest variations can drastically alter the shade of the resulting dye.
The process for converting indigo into dye pigment is even more complex, and involves several weeks of drying, fermenting, and oxidizing. However, once produced, an indigo vat can be continually reused, as long as it is kept “active” through constant stirring and fermentation.
Kamla, one of Avani’s lead dyers, has been working with Avani for over 6 years. Kamla first joined the cooperative after experiencing troubles with her husband. Desiring an independent source of income, Kamla trained to become a dyer.
Wool Hanks in Dye Vat (November 2017)Avani Society
The dyeing process is physically strenuous, as it requires standing over large boiling pots (which may smell quite foul due to fermentation), and dipping heavy hanks of wool, silk, and linen.
Kamla Dipping Wool Hanks in Dye (November 2017)Avani Society
Kamla is in charge of ensuring that the colors of each final product match exactly- something she says is the most difficult part of her job. Indigo-dyed products are especially challenging, as they emerge from the vat a green-blue shade, and begin to oxidize to the desired shade of blue over time. Judging when the dyed yarn is ready requires both experience and intuition.
While natural dyes are being prepared, Avani's artisans work to spin the raw wool and silk into thread. Hand-spinning is an activity typically done at home, and provides a supplementary source of income to many local community members.
The process of hand-spinning is simple, and requires only two tools: a drop spindle, or "Katua", and raw material (either silk or wool). Using just gravity, drop spindles both twist and pull the yarn downwards. Spinners typically twist the threads with their hands as well to increase its strength.
Elderly Couple Spinning (September 2017)Avani Society
Unlike other handicraft activities, such as weaving, both men and women have traditionally engaged in spinning as a useful means for generating additional household income.
When Avani first started working on textiles in the Kumaoni region, there was already a strong tradition of weaving textiles. In general, however, weaving was done at home, by women, on waist-looms and pit-looms.
A Bora Woman Weaving Fabric on the Back Strap Loom in Digoli (2006-05-11)Avani Society
However, waist-looms are, by design, limited in the size of textile they produce by the size of the weaver’s waist. So, the cooperative began introducing new handlooms and training weavers to use them on their Tripuradevi campus. Initially, the looms were intended to be set up in people’s homes, but they were so large that few had space for them.
Women Working at Avani Weaving Center (September 2017)Avani Society
Weaving centres were thus established in villages across the region. On land donated or bought by local communities, these large, light-filled centres were built as a place where local women could come, train, and weave fabrics.
Women Spooling Thread at an Avani Weaving Center (September 2017)Avani Society
After training for approximately 6 months, weavers typically earn Rs. 6,000 per month. These centres have rapidly become not only places of work, but also forums for women to gather, relax, and socialise, away from the prying eyes of their husbands, in-laws, and children.
Digoli, an Avani Weaving Center (November 2017)Avani Society
One center, in the small village of Digoli, employs 10 young women, all of whom are unmarried. Through weaving, these women are able to earn an independent source of income, giving them the leverage and stature to postpone marriage until they feel ready. When Avani first started working in Digoli, most girls were getting married at 15 or 16. Today, the average marriage age is closer to 22 or 23.
In its simplest form, using a handloom involves interlacing two sets of thread: the warp, or the length, and the weft, or the width, using a small wooden device (called a shuttle) to carry the weft from one end of the fabric to the other.
Woman Preparing Handloom (November 2017)Avani Society
Preparing the loom for weaving is the most time-consuming step in the entire process, often taking 2 to 3 days. During the process, the weaver must attach the warp to the loom, determining the desired size and pattern of the finished scarf. "Heddles", or rods, separate the two weft layers, ensuring that the warp can pass through easily.
Feet on Handloom Treadle (November 2017)Avani Society
Once the warp has been attached, weaving can begin. Pedals at the weaver's feet, known as "Treadles" are used to separate the upper and lower threads through which the weft is woven. The pattern of weave can be determined by the sequence of pedaling, and women at Avani's weaving centres can often be heard calling out numbers to remind each other of the treadle sequence for the day.
Woman Working on Handloom (September 2017)Avani Society
A simple scarf may require up to 1,800 threads on the warp, so the weaver has to keep track of twice that number of threads. Moreover, warping may vary according to designs, and some designs require a significant concentration and math skills. For example, the ‘Almora’ design works on a 96-thread pattern, so the weaver must keep track of which thread they are working on. Every 97th thread is the beginning of a new series. Getting confused or missing one thread will endanger the whole design.
V. The Finished Product
Once fully woven, each scarf is sent to Avani's finishing room, where the scarves are checked for quality, stitched, washed, and ironed before they're ready to be worn.
Finished Avani Scarves (September 2017)Avani Society
Avani Society/Kumaon Earthcraft Cooperative
Text: Camille Parker, Emilie Thevenoz
Images: Emilie Thevenoz, Camille Parker, Avani Society