Sometime in the early 2000s, when Ghayur Alam was researching biodiversity conservation in Uttarakhand, he saw that many medicinal plants were becoming extinct because locals were recklessly harvesting them without permission and selling them to contractors in Delhi. He thought if there could be ways of providing alternative employment to these people, they would, perhaps, not harvest the plants, helping in biodiversity conservation.
“We found some of these people were shepherds and also worked with wool. We thought if we could help them sell woollen products at better prices, perhaps they would have less reason to go to forests to collect medicinal plants,” says Ghayur, a PhD from the University of Manchester, UK, in technology policy.
Local wool, local weavers, global product
Interested in rural development, mountain agriculture and in the use of environment-friendly technologies, Ghayur and his wife Patricia decided to create a website for selling the products woven by the locals. They set up their base in village Masrana, which is between Dhanaulti and Mussoorie in Uttarakhand, and thus was born their eco-friendly enterprise - Himalayan Weavers - in 2005.
Bhotia community, which takes sheep and goats higher up in the mountains during summers and comes down in winters, process wool and spin yarn.
It is at this time that sheep are fat with a lot of wool, which is removed for making yarn and weaving. Uttarakhand’s major weaving centre is Dunda, near Uttarkashi, where local men and women weave shawls, carpets and other items.
When Patricia and Ghayur tried to sell the locally woven products online, the duo wasn’t too successful.
“They don’t use many colours and if they do, most are chemical, synthetic dyes. We saw that the wool was rough, not resulting in fine woollen shawls and scarves, which are liked by customers,” says Ghayur.
By then, the couple had developed a keen interest in wool, the dyeing process and its weaving. “We learned through the internet how to dye using natural colours and began dyeing in small amounts in our kitchen. There was a weaver nearby and we got a few pieces made from him. So actually, we didn’t set out to start a business, it just happened,” says Ghayur.
The couple works with 25 people, of whom 10 are weavers, 8 women are involved in hand spinning and the rest in selling and processing of the finished products. The weaving is done using traditional pit loom, frame loom and handloom.
For making their products, Himalayan Weavers procures sheep and yak wool as well as handspun yarn from Bhotias in Dunda village as well as from the wool sellers in Mandi, Himachal Pradesh.
Contemporising traditional weaves
All the designs for stoles, scarves and shawls are made by Patricia, who taught Drama and English in the UK and the British School in New Delhi before settling in Masrana.
“She has a good idea about colours and patterns and we try to make very simple designs as they are aesthetically appealing. Moreover, the weavers are also comfortable with simple designs,” Ghayur says.
It is this contemporisation and use of natural dyes that has created a global market for Himalayan Weavers’ products, which have buyers in the US, Europe, Australia and many other countries.
“We sell a lot through our website. Roughly half of our products’ buyers are overseas. During winter, we sell a lot in India and the overseas demand remains throughout the year,” he says.
Himalayan Weavers has an outlet in Masrana and another in Rajpur in Dehradun. Their products are also bought in bulk by retail outlets in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
Its hand-woven pashmina scarves with natural dyes start at Rs 3,500 while a piece woven with handspun wool starts at Rs 1,300.
The wool is taken from their sheep and is handspun and hand-woven to make these shawls. “They are not as soft as our other shawls but they are very warm and have a lot of character,” says Ghayur.
Himalayan Weavers also sells products hand-woven using Eri (ahimsa) silk, which is processed without killing the silkworm.
Eco-friendly and energy-efficient dyeing
But the couple’s biggest contribution has been in promoting the natural dyes in the Himalayas, which save the environment from synthetic colours.
“A lot of people thought natural dyes would be dull and boring. But they now see that the natural dyes give vibrant colours,” says Ghayur. Himalayan Weavers uses natural items like tea, harada herb (chebulic myrobalan), lac, tesu or palash (flame of the forest), indigo and madder flower to make dyes.
“We dyed the wool red with madder and took the dyed yarn to a weaver in Dhanaulti and got a few scarves hand-woven as per Patricia’s designs. Encouraged by our success with madder, we tried other materials including tesu flowers, henna, pomegranate reed and catechu,” he adds.
To make dyes, we buy flowers and other herbs, boil them, extract the colour and use drums to dye. “We have done an innovation to the dyeing process by making it energy-efficient,” he says.
Most of the dyes in all the craft clusters of India are made on open fire, where water boils in huge vessels to which yarn is added. They are continuously stirred with hands to ensure even dyeing.
“This is very energy inefficient as you are losing a lot of heat in the open pan and open fire. It is not good also for the person who is sitting in front of it. Most importantly, the water is thrown away after every batch, creating the problem of effluents.”
“So all the heat goes into the water and since blankets use very little energy, our system is very energy efficient. Plus, we don’t throw away water; we keep adding more dye to it and use the same water for almost six months without throwing anything. So our effluent production is very small.”
It also helps in water conservation. The wool is put on hangers and left inside the drums so no one has to stand and stir them. “It is a low temperature and slow process; so the dyeing is very even. The blanket is on most of the time and the water is hot. So we just dip wool and the next day we take it out and wash it,” he says.
The eco-enterprise has no plans to scale up operations. “We don’t want to change. This is the right size for us and we keep the people fully employed,” Ghayur adds.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in financial, business and socio-economic reporting)