Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Cashmere and pashmina - Visit to the source

A few steps away from our studio lies the Manali-Leh Highway, a major artery of the Trans-Himalayan route, a branch of the old Silk Road. While today the mules and the traders are gone, it still manages to attract its share of bikers, trackers, photographers, writers, monks, artists and other forms of adventurers and seekers.

Our neighborhood 

Though vastly improved over the past ten years, safe to say, it is not the easiest of roads. What starts out as a casual ride through the hills, more often than not leads onto paths of wonder, tests of limitations, and labyrinths of introspection and self-knowledge. Confronted along the road with the majesty of the Himalayan peaks, the shear bitterness of the arid winds, the deprivations of high altitudes and the horizon-less vistas, one is forced to lighten up, detach ones anchors, dissolve the old versions and aversions, and fall back on the essence of things.

The bare vastness and the colors

Eventually, the road arrives at my destination. Nestled in the middle of nowhere, suspended like an island 5000 m above the surface of everyday life, and protected by some of the highest passes in the world is the vast Chanthang Plateau, the nomadic center of India's meager pashmina production. Which in my experience is the best cashmere available today.

Pitching the tent

Cashmere really is the softest, warmest and finest of all fibers. Yet, who would know that, when guided by 'price' and 'label' alone we buy and the producers flood the market with cheap imitations and blends. Pashmina has become a bit of joke among kashmiri shop owners, as well as western designers and retailers selling silks, mohair, angora, acrylics, merino blends and marketing schemes, such as the so called  'water pashminas' from Nepal under the name of cashmere. On the other hand, our ignorance and  inability to distinguish the real thing from the imitations serves as a sad testament of how we have grown detached from nature that surrounds us.

One of our handspun pashmina scarfs
Might be a good place for a link to our Etsy store

Most of the cashmere in production today comes from China and Mongolia and before it arrives in the hands of the customer it passes through numerous cleaning, dehairing, carding, blending and spinning processes, loosing a piece of itself and gaining lots of fat along the way. Same is true of the Ladakhi pashmina which makes its stops in the mills of Srinagar and Ludiana, with the same final effect, of becoming a shadow of its former self. 
Neighbors taking a peek
The main reason behind all of these shenanigans is the scarcity of the natural product....Like the Koshihikari rice of Japan, the sales exceed the actual production probably by a hundredfold. Since trying to find the real thing in the marketplace is like looking for a needle in the haystack, thanks to my friends from the Chanthang Co-op,  I find myself looking for the essence of cashmere at its source, one of the 30 odd nomadic settlements of Chanthang.

The source
"Be careful of what you wish for" the saying goes. Experiencing the materials we work with at their sources can be a heavy blessing. In each and every case, these adventures of inquiry add a dimension of understanding that was originally lacking. In case of cashmere, it started with a search for purity, which transformed into something richer and more complex, something that calls for commitment and involvement  Since our first innocent trip here in 2007 and after each subsequent visit it became more and more apparent that there are many are other layers to consider. There are the nomads and their timeless but hard lifestyle, there is the fragile plateau reacting to a tremendous increase in tourism and the changing environmental conditions, the animals themselves, the lack of water, the historical and political context, the governmental efforts, the pricing structure and probably many other things that my soul is not sensitive enough to perceive.

As things continue....
Let me leave you here with a few pictures of these underlying currents, some individual other universal, with the hope of picking up on some of these threads in future posts....

ORGANIC: in an ironic twist of faith, Ladakhi pashmina does not carry the 'organic' label...


Pumping water


Boy rounding up the does for milking
Pashmina playgroud 

Carrying the heavenly fiber  for collection

As time stands still

THE LIVING CONDITIONS : for example, during the warm months these tents go down and the settlements move every 2 weeks in search of new pastures



THE CHANGING CLIMATE AND WATER AND PASTURES : these goats and sheep have to traverse 20 to 30 km per day in search of pasture and water

Sick baby in the comfort of the tent

THE GOATS : noble stubbornness, what other creature could survive with such grace in such conditions. But on the other hand, the do benefit from a cashmere undercoat, and don't do too well in more habitable environments.


THE FUTURE: let me leave you with this family, they might be a typical nomadic family with two sons, one of which is studying in Leh and dreaming of a career in the army, and the other who refuses to build a house in the city, since it would mean they would have to sell some of their yaks.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Watch the little foxes

Last three months have been extremely busy and productive. Glad to say that all of our solar mordanting and dyeing is moving along ahead of schedule and, with the exception of minor adjustments for large batches, without any major surprises. The encouraging results will give me a six week reprieve from dyeing during which I hope to catch up on the postings, visit Ladakh again in order to work out some of our recent supply problems, work on design and explore the colors black and green..

The world of natural dyeing, like a good piece of music, is full of nuance and detail. Water, soil in which the dye plants grew, weather, concentrations, duration, ratios, temperatures, mordants, fibers, over-dyeing, pre-mixing of dyes, double or triple mordanting, modifiers, and a host of other factors that I am aware of or not are the individual notes that play into the final expression, the color.

Pictured above is my little piano on which I try to isolate these individual notes. The right hand section of it is dedicated to my pH level experiments ran at the end of April and beginning of May. After experimenting with about 50 Indian dyes I settled on a dozen or so and tested them at pH levels ranging from 4 to about 8....

A word of caution here. Personally I am not a great fan of  measures and instruments, feeling that they separate me from the materials themselves,  and use tools such as a scale, thermometer, litmus paper, etc. sparingly. In other words, the 4 to 8 pH is only theoretical. The middle line is neutral pH, not 7, but rather the pH of the dye bath without any modifiers. Going from the center to the left you will find progressive lower pH levels and to the right higher.

...and finally the pictures themselves of some selected Indian dyes..They speak for themselves so I will refrain from over commenting and save it for another occasion. Each line is composed of seven samples, in the order of: 1. unmordanted, 2. Al, 3. Fe, 4. Cu, 5. Sn, 6. Cr and 7. Z. All the samples have been light tested for 4 to 6 weeks, and as in all recent experiments it is an angora/merino blend....


1. Madder. I use two species of madder. Iranian and Indian, and they are pictured in that order.

2. Ravanchini or some form of Himalayan Rhubarb. Still not sure of which exact plant this is, but it is a great dye.

3. Patang or some form of Indian Logwood

4. Tesu or Butea

5. Lac


7. Daru Harydra or Berberis

The story is the same for my other 8 dyes....Every mordant, every dye, and every color is to one degree or another pH dependent.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

If it don' ain't....

Let’s take a detour and leave behind this colorful dimension of mordants and dyes.

Welcome to the quest that I have followed over the past few years in search of purity....a search that mixed with arrogance can turn into an obsession for perfection....

It all began in Mysore a while back.... with cashmere, stumbled over sandalwood, angora, lapis, wild silks of India, and other such fine things, propelled me to criss-cross the subcontinent on numerous occasions, and led me to Chidhiari a tiny village on the verge of the Rhotang Pass, where I found myself nose deep in a pool of natural colors........

The beginning is as good a place to start as any. Cashmere, my all-time favorite fiber, was also one of our first products. We worked hard for a few years on creating completely handspun (and handwoven of course), weft and warp fabrics, made of pure cashmere without the addition of any other fiber....The cashmere fiber is one of a kind. Short, full of twists and turns, it is soft, capricious and very active and all it wants to do is to free itself from the prison of the yarn, curl up and fall asleep on the surface of the fabric....The process is called pilling and to an untrained eye, and 'market driven expectation' (thanks again davi) is undesirable. Manufacturers go to great length to eliminate it, but in the process the original is so diluted that it is lost....I myself, in my own dark obsession for perfection, went to great pains to strongly encourage the spinners whom I work with to handspin a yarn that would not pill....It is impossible....If it don’t pill, it ain’t cashmere.

Second example, runs along similar lines, and to make a long story short.......If it don’t shed, it ain’t angora...

The world of natural materials offers many other examples of this phenomena,  but let's take a short cut and  arrive at the end of my quest, my daily world, the world of color....It is a beautiful place, filled with magical processes, a place where I finally feel at home, and am privileged to be a part of...But here too I see the darkness creeping in. Instead of humbly appreciating the brief moment of beauty expressed by natural dyes on my fibers, I want to fix them, and hold on to them forever.....

We have managed to produce carbon copies of true colors, just like the mills in Ludhiana and Srinagar have produced copies of true cashmere, we call them fixed dyes....But they are merely copies, life devoid imitations of true color, with no capacity of evolution and transformation, they are dead.

Hopefully the lessons from the past have sunk in and I can step back with wonder and appreciate the true nature of color and let that nature unfold before my eyes, instead of turning a copy, a cheap forgery, into an ideal....

.....if it don't fade, know the rest......

I wanted to do this before, never really found the chance, but this might be the perfect place to introduce an incomplete list of teachers who have helped me in this quest. First of all there is Rudolf Steiner, whose outlook on life, after years of waiting and long periods of separation has suddenly and unexpectedly woven itself into my work, next comes Sung Hyun Baek, from wherever he is now and whatever and under whatever name he teaches these days, showed me 30 years ago that alchemy and magic are possible even in today's world, then there is Sanjay who alerted me to the problem and set me off on the quest, Sri Kanth in Mysore who showed me my first sandalwood tree, Ric Peigler, in Texas whose love for wild silks is second to none, the numerous dealers of Jaipur who put up with hours of questioning and introduced me to coral, turquoise, lapis and other fine natural fixed colors, Rupindrath in Patan who opened all the doors to the Sacred Art of Nepali gilded bronzes and the magical studios of the craftsmen of Patan, Davi in Mexico whose nose for natural dyeing, and especially for handcrafts in general is so refined that it contributed to my 9 months of hibernation, during which time I tried to come to terms with this calling, and finally babydodo whose love and support have fueled this quest even at the points where it turned into an obsession.

Now we can leave this self-reflection for awhile and make our way back to a happier road paved with light, colors, crystals, metals and flowers. I vaguely hear the bells of a ceremony in the distance, but am still not certain.....

Speaking of angora and cashmere and other soft things, I just could not resist....Here is Eloise, our granddaughter again, she is our star...

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Not to be Eclipsed

....This is a story of our solar-moon baths.....

It was about this time last year, when Dominique said to me: ......listen to this....I had a strange dream....the moon spoke to me and asked,....'what is all this fuss about the solar baths, don't you know that I work as hard and give better colors than the sun'......

.....Not being the type of people who take their dreams lightly, we pondered this for weeks......The moon was not happy and we knew it, but what were we to do?.....Carrying heavy buckets and jars, up and down the stairs to the roof, all night long, and hiding from the sun, just to please the moon, that would not work, there surely must be a balance...

....The answer never came, or so we thought....

In the last post I tried to illustrate the fact that solar mordants uptake the dye as well as yarns mordanted by any other method.....Here I would like to show how duration plays into the uptake of mordants and later into the uptake of dyes by these solar mordanted yarns via a quick hot bath.

The samples below illustrate uptake on selected inorganic and organic mordants. The yarns themselves have been mordanted, left to right for unmordanted, 1, 3, 7, 14 and 28 days....

Himalayan rhubarb 100% wof

Copper at 4%

Amla 100% wof

Tannic Acid 10%

Iron 4%

Pomegranate 100% wof

Now here are some examples of dye uptake on solar yarn, mordanted for different durations, in quick hot dye baths.  (Sorry for the fiber quality, when I was running these comparative dye uptake sample baths I did not pay any attention to the water temperature.)

Illustrated below you will find 25% alum, with left to right, 1, 3, 7, 14, 21, and 28 day exposure to solar mordant.

Madder, after an alcohol soak:

Logwood, after an alkaline soak:

So far we are getting best results, be it mordanting or dyeing at the 28 day mark, a full lunar cycle....but for the most part the 14 day mordant baths also give excellent results.....

....So yes solar works best, but in our experience, only if it dances to some some lunar rules.....

Thank you sweet moon......

Monday, April 16, 2012

Solar Rules

The first thing I did after arriving in Manali, was to open up my mordant experiment box. (The one I promised not to touch for a few years in my previous post.)

I ran over a 100 small baths in the last 15 days to confirm if my initial observations from last year were correct.

Today I am 100% convinced that they were. Solar is better. It is better for the fiber, better for mordanting, better for fastness and from what I see so far much better for the color.

The post from last year that started to deal with this subject is here Solar is better
If anyone is interested in a little more detail, please read the bold text that I inserted into the original post, do not bother with the original. It was an exercise in futility....

Here are a few of many examples of what solar mordanted yarns can do in quick hot dye baths.

All of these are metallic salts, the usual order is unmordanted yarn (the big baby skein) and alum, iron, copper, tin, chrome and zinc (the little baby skeins).

All the skeins have been light tested for a week or two, depending on the dye.

Iranian madder (fresh dye) :
Hope you guys can see how better the colors are on the new dye, than on the 6 month old batch pictured below.......ah...this world of dyeing is just full of wonder.....

Iranian madder (aged dye) :

Manjeet (Indian Madder) long alcohol soak:

Tesu (butea), fresh dye:

Daru haridra (berberis), new dye:

Lac, neutral ph:

Harsingar, new dye:

Lal chandan (Red sandal powder), quick lye soak:

Patang (Indian logwood), quick lye soak:

Rose petals, fresh dye:
I am intrigued by this dye, it has shown a potential for magic under different conditions....If the colors hold for two weeks I will work with it deeper and dedicate a post to it.

Patang (Indian logwood), quick alcohol soak: (the second from right is the closest that I have been able to get to black on angora).

Now that our fibers are happy will be doing lots of solar dyeing this be continued....