How Almora Women Wrap More Warmth Around A Humble Craft

 

The rainbow has come full circle. Making the most of Harsil wool, natural dyes, women power, a fusion of hand knitting, handloom weaving and design, Peoli, in Almora, is reviving traditional techniques with its innovative thinking of material, colours and local fibre, says Anandi Paliwal. 

 

The morning breeze from the buggyals mingles with words, whispers and wool. In a room full of women knitting conversations and some giggles into colourful and soft loops and stitches, wool runs into stories. Needle to needle, the loops and stitches multiply, turning and twirling into patterns and designs, appealing and unique. The dexterous hands of women knitting pieces don’t stop at Peoli, in Almora, Uttarakhand. Abhinav Dhoundiyal, co-founder and designer at Peoli, looks at the balls of wool, as they become smaller and smaller, dissolving into knitted patterns, needle after needle, knotting him into memories of his granny.

At Peoli, the lively and warm atelier nestled in the Himalayas, women infuse creativity into the local craft vocabulary. Craftsmen explore their skillsets with pure and natural materials. Here, locally-sourced mountain fibres are handspun into soft and supple yarn, dyed in natural colours, and used for knitting apparel for women and children, along with home accessories. Efforts are being made to revive and modify the eco-sensitive traditional craft techniques adapted from different parts of India.

 

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Soaked in sun

 

Nostalgia stimulates creativity. As a child, Abhinav would watch his grandmother knitting all the time. Playfully, he would try his hands on knitting many times, but never had the patience to finish a piece. At the same time, he was deeply influenced by his father’s interest in botany and the local 4000 species of plants. While studying textile design at the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, Gujarat, Abhinav shared his ideas with Vasanthi, his classmate, who had the same values and felt inspired by plants, flowers, arts, local crafts and cultures. They decided to experiment and create. Abhinav and Vasanthi celebrate the essence of ‘handcrafted’ with their design and technique interventions, elevating local craft skills.

 

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Dyeing with Mallotus seeds.

 

Peoli has room for natural-dyeing workshop and a basic unit for hand knitting, spinning and crochet artisans. A team of 10 women works on a monthly basis, and nearly 100 women are employed, including locals and a few hand-spinners from the neighbouring villages. Today, along with designing, Abhinav and Vasanthi manage production processes, marketing and accounting. They are guided by experience and thorough analysis at every stage of the processes — a framework adhered to during the training at NID.

 

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Blues and bubbles: Indigo in use.

 

Craft-Conscious

Last year, Peoli, now three, created anti-fit oversized cotton knits for summers, cherishing the symbiosis of elements of nature, with colours of river and sun. Organic cotton yarn was procured from hand spinners of Kutch, Gujarat (Kala Cotton from NGO Khamir) and Yoruba, Nagaland (Naga hill cotton from the Jhum fields from NGO Exotic Echo). But with the handspun Khadi cotton grown in Uttarakhand forests and grasslands, they have come full circle. Their uniqueness is in the application of the technique-hand knitting. Being purists, they document and archive the diminishing craft of natural dyeing and other related techniques of the trade. Each product is dyed using colorants derived from natural resources. Beginning with the collection of material, extraction of dyestuff, mordanting, dyeing and repeated-washing procedures — all extremely labour-intensive but environment-friendly and good for skin — of the makers and the clients.

 

Dyeing with Rhododendron flowers (1)
Colour me rhododendron: Dyeing with the flowers

 

Blues, Greys And A Drop of Nature

The dyes produce different hues each time, depending on the variation of the hand-spun fibre, temperature and humidity conditions. For instance, the shades of charcoal range from warmer greys, with rusted iron filings fermented in molasses, to cooler ones, arrived at with energy efficient (cold dyeing techniques) using Brazilwood and Rhododendron flowers. This is all ethically-sourced from renewable resources. It is a lengthy exercise, but positive, as all activities gradually describe sustainable living and building a healthier local economy. There is also an attempt to reduce carbon footprint by altering methods of transportation and energy consumption.

Uniquely Uttarakhand

When “handmade” is nurtured, a culture is cultivated around the regional assets. Chigu, Gaddi, Rampur Bushair are few breeds of sheep reared in this countryside. But, Peoli prefers to use Harsil, a variety of wool indigenous to the state. It gets its name from a place in Uttarkashi district — a well-known centre for textile production and processing. This wool is coarse and scruffy, but valued for its warmth and longevity. It is reared by ethnic groups and tribes — the Bhotias and Jaunsaris in the buggyals. These pastoralists not only earn from their sheep or goat’s wool and milk, but also from trading or transporting merchandise through the extremely difficult Himalayan trade routes on their mules.

 

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Spinning some warm candy floss for knitting.

 

The raw wool procured from them is carded at the local Khadi centers. The carded fleece is then sorted and hand-spun by master artisans at the studio, using a customary foot-operated Bageshwari charkha or a spinning wheel. Peoli makes the most of Harsil wool through a unique fusion of two different textile techniques, hand knitting and handloom weaving. For example, a woollen shawl woven on the handloom is engineered into an overcoat by integrating techniques — hand embroidery and hand knitting. The soft merino or angora wool make the sleeves and pockets, while the Harsil wool is utilised for knitting the remaining body.

The coarseness and itchiness of the wool is reduced by employing various organic washes. One is by steeping the fabric or knitted surface in a solution of cow dung and warm water, for about 48 hours, followed by washing it several times. Another process is fulling, which involves boiling the woven yardage or the knitted surface in water, followed by repeatedly kneading it with a wooden mallet or feet. Infact, a similar technique is also used for scouring or de-sizing cotton yarn and yardage acquired from the weavers and block printers of Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh.

Peoli And The People  

According to the locals, people in the villages who originally lived off agriculture and cattle rearing, have completely disappeared. One particularly understands the dynamics of the workforce, primarily women, who work from their homes. It is easier for them to finish their daily household chores, look after the family, and earn. Keeping certain restrictions in mind, it is a constant effort for the designers to develop lines which are easy to interpret and process. With a lot of hard work, planning and insight, the designers have been able to instil a sense of pride, and confidence in the workers, making the most of a humble craft like knitting.

The need of the hour here is to replicate models of sustainable development and spread ecological consciousness. This begins with creating awareness through conservation and preservation of the community’s habitat and biodiversity with a variety of viable and household practices.

Slow Living, High Thinking

Peoli stands for the life given by the river and the knowledge of the forest — metaphorically. Influenced by slow living, Vasanthi Veluri and Abhinav Dhoundiyal are seeking for a balance through regional aesthetics, practicality of craft, contemporary fashion, and trade. Importantly, the employment opportunities created for women actively respond to the issue of migration, which has left many hill villages of Uttarakhand deserted. Predominantly, this philosophy proposes a locally-driven model of progress. Crafts, apart from celebrating the customs and folk culture, highlight the area’s resources in the most profound way. While on the other hand, the use of synthetic or plastic materials makes the craftsmen a bit insecure, it has restricted their relationship with nature. Here, women, are the empowered ones, known to be endowed with indigenous knowledge and traditional skills. Wool runs into stories. Needle after needle.

 

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Stitches and loops.

 

All pictures sourced from Peoli. 

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