The farm-to-fashion collective empowering women weavers in Ladakh

“Sustainability”. The catchphrase shows up only twice during my hour-long conversation with Abhilasha Bahuguna. Words have been a big part of the current clothing missive, and she knows that, but her main obligation is to not mistake slogans for solutions. Instead, she speaks single-mindedly on real issues like the practice of slowpaced consumption, and living sustainably by marrying steady employment with homespun solidarity.

Sizing and measuring at Chushul, one of four India-China border posts

The 29-year-old and her husband, Prasanna Ramaswamy G, founded the Looms of Ladakh Women Cooperative, a farm-to-fashion collective that utilises and showcases their adopted region’s rich heritage of wool in all its renditions: pashmina, yak, sheep and camel. All-natural, renewable, warm, odour-resistant, adaptable, non-flammable, soft, wrinkle-free: wool is a planet-friendly fibre with a lot going for it. Yet, thanks to India’s rhetoric and push for home-produced Banarasi brocades, Chanderi silks, khadi or cotton via its politics and policies, there is very little attention directed towards the wool industry. “It’s a matter of perception. Wool may lack the finesse of Chanderi silk, but that can change with government-led interventions of technology and science. I have no doubt that our country’s legacy of woollen textiles—starting with Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand and travelling down to Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh—is on par with our international counterparts,” Bahuguna explains.

Introducing machine knitting at the cooperative

With Ladakh’s new status as a Union Territory, Bahuguna feels artisans and producers will be able to avail the benefits of central government schemes and work towards the recognition of their heritage on the textile map of India. Four years ago, Ramaswamy G, an officer of the Indian Administrative Service, was posted to Leh as deputy commissioner. Here, seeing local women break from housework to vend their stock of sweaters, socks and mufflers became routine. “These artisans had no real market, apart from the local buyers and  tourists, and that was a starting point for Prasanna and me to explore the idea of establishing a business model that would allow them to leverage their skills for a better livelihood,” she says.

Handspun fabrics made of pashmina, yak’s wool and sheep’s wool

Originally from Dehradun, Bahuguna never studied textiles or fashion. She holds a degree in socioeconomic policy from Tilburg University, Netherlands, and gleaned work experience at a policy development think tank affiliated with the Dutch government. “During our courtship,we’d often make trips to Dilli Haat, and deliberate over pashmina and its origins. Kashmir has everybody’s attention with pashmina shawls, but it’s not public knowledge that the raw material comes from goats that graze in the high pastures of the Changthang region spread across eastern Ladakh, between Leh town and the China border (Tibet),” she explains.

Changpas knitting for Looms of Ladakh during winter

The two married in 2016 in Rishikesh, followed by a traditional Ladakhi Buddhist wedding in 2017. Project Laksal, a short-term skill development programme was born in 2016, with the objective to uplift and unify varied skill components in eight villages around Leh.

A peer learning exercise taking place in Leh for Project Laksal

Charkha spinning is a new intervention in Ladakh in the hope of increasing productivity

A year later, it paved the way for Looms of Ladakh, with a renewed three-pronged strategy: to focus on natural dyes using walnut peels, marigold flowers, tree bark and mountain stones, to provide resources and training for weavers to create a value chain and generate income, and to teach managerial know-how (accounting, merchandising and computers) to its staff.

A handspun, machine-knit pashmina sweater by designer Ankit Kajla

Today, the resourceful mindset of an all-woman team of 150—including office bearers, cashiers, product officers and event coordinators—steers the operation, which has clocked a profit of `75 lakh till date. A stable income means that the women have access to healthcare and personal care, money to feed and school their children, and greater self-esteem. Fifty per cent of the profits are taken home by the weavers, while the rest is reinvested into the co-op to acquire raw materials, inventories, upgrade skills and pay salaries. “It has taken six years for things to fall into place,” says Bahuguna, adding that neither she nor her husband take a penny from the profits.

Charkha spinning in process

The couple left Leh in 2018, when her husband was transferred to Srinagar. “We [artisans and the back-end staff] keep in touch via scheduled telephone calls to discuss partnerships, production cycles, problems and targets,” she adds.

Group activities at the Leadership and Financial Management Training session for members

The story of Looms of Ladakh is as beguiling as its woollen textiles. On the Changthang plateau, at altitudes well above 10,000 feet, life is still largely nomadic. On the lush pasturelands, the men carry out the outdoor activities of rearing and shearing pashmina goats, yaks and sheep during the short-lived summer. And during the cold, glacial season, women immerse themselves in weaving and knitting. Traditionally, the Changpas use ‘nambu’, their local fabric, a plain and twill weave made from sheep’s wool. But nearly every item, from clothing to shoes,
blankets, rugs and even accessories for their horses is handwoven—instantly recognisable by its textural quality, strong colours and simple shapes. “It’s a handed-down skill, so there’s no right way to do it. They just pick up the needles and a ball of yarn, and experiment, ” she says.

Pashmina combing in process. The goats shed their hair every spring during moulting season. The loosened hair is then combed and collected by the Changpas to sell to traders

The toughest part of the job, Bahuguna maintains, is building relationships with the co-op team, whom she calls “achey leys” [elder sister or “didiji” in Ladakhi], aside from working around the timelines of the craftswomen while at the same time cajoling them to look at tailoring and fabric innovations. Now, the attempt is to look beyond Ladakh’s cultural relativism, and entice consumers to buy because of the products’ style and quality.

With a computer or a machine, you can create complex designs, but the loom still has restrictions. WhatsApp has helped a lot, says Bahuguna with a laugh. “I remember we shared an ikat fabric swatch with the master weaver and asked her to recreate it. She used extra weft to create an impression of ikat instead… and that was innovative. The weavers also had no idea about the counts, so if we wanted stripes in the design, they simply wove thicker non-uniform bands.”

Ama Hazira from Chuchot Producer Group, the face of cooperative marketing. Here, she is seen spinning with her traditional spindle, the phang

Rethinking materials and patterns is all very well, but it still does not address the fundamental question as to why clothing that is sustainable can’t also imbue values of fashion-forward sophistication and quality. With Sally Holkar’s Handloom School training, the weavers are now learning their way around professional sizing charts and tailoring. Usha Silai School has also expressed intent, and students from the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) Mumbai 2019 spent three months with the knitters and produced a collection with proper sizes and shapes. “We launch one line a year, inspired by Ladakh, not defined by trends or seasons,” she says.

Each product is weighed for categorisation and costing

Mentorship programmes with designer Stanzin Palmo and NIFT Bangalore alumnus Ankit Kajla have helped motivate the artisans to do things a little differently too, by reimagining the way a garment is tailored. This hands-on experience, coupled with a responsibility for all things handmade (and a swelling awareness of the environmental effects of the textile industry), has inspired confidence.

Pashmina combing in process

Earlier this year, pashmina products received the BIS (Bureau of Indian Standards) certificate, an Indian Standard for Identification (ISI), marking and labelling pashmina products’ purity. But unlike a Geographical Indication (GI) tag, BIS has its minuses. Bahuguna argues, “It is open to mistranslation, since it doesn’t standardise or codifiy the grades of pashmina (grade-1 for pure yarn, grade-2 for pure yarn mixed with nylon, and so on). So, pashminas created on the power looms of Chandigarh also fall under the larger category of pashmina, regardless of the fact that they are mostly grade-2. That’s why a GI tag is crucial for Ladakh’s pashmina. It is, after all, their earned legacy.”

Photographs: Salil Dobhal (Changpa lady with her goats), Skarma Photo Studio (Sizing and measuring at Chushul, Shreyas Lagad (Handspun fabrics made of pashmina, yak’s wool and sheep’s wool, Sanal Kumar (pashmina sweater by Ankit Kajla), Salil Dobhal (Charkha spinning, Pashmina combing, Ama Hazira)

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