Kashmir's Co-operative Communities of Women Weavers

 

“It’s very nice…” said Nuraini. She was looking at the photo I sent her. 

“Yeah… it’s a beautiful place…!” I murmured quietly. It was a view of the Kashmiri Himalayas, mostly bare of snow, but with the tops still lathered with white. “Where the bridge is, this is Dursuma. This is just after Wayul-“

“Wayul? Is that like, a region? or village?”

“Wayul is like a village. I just needed to go up a bit more than Wayul, to Chinaar. The weather was good, and the mountains are seen - so I thought, why not I take this pic.”

I was describing a trip I made to the weaving villages of Kashmir. Dad and my brother handle the Pokhara shop and relationships with the Nepali weavers, but my mother and I maintain the Kashmiri ones. 

I rarely do it now, though, because of my undergraduate studies.

Kashmiri Himalayas on a sunny day viewed from Wayul Bridge

Kashmiri Cashmere Artisans - Female leadership and collaboration

Back when I had much more time, we used to personally go to the villages more often. At the time there were fewer women, so I could handle direct relationships with all of them. Even back then though, they had team leaders, and sometimes they come to us.

The team lead is like the head of the girls. She is the one they appoint to negotiate, and she is the one who travels to see us. We still know them personally, and still talk to them; they come talk to us directly. But in terms of the orders, we rely on the team leaders to manage time.

Just as an example of how it works in the teams, let’s say we give an order to a team who are available. The team lead would divide the fee between the women working on the order, and she would keep, like, 50 rupees for herself since she’s travelling at her cost, and she’s doing the managing work.

She’s also responsible for the quality. For instance, if something is damaged, I wouldn’t go to the artisan who damaged the item. I will talk to her. 

Himalayan Women Weavers - Community teams

Nowadays, because of my studies, the head weavers from the different villages would typically be the ones who come to me to discuss order terms.

A single head weaver normally represents a weaving group of maybe 40-50 women weavers in her village, and negotiates the terms on their behalf. Even at the place where I live now, there's still a girl who manages the team.

They do the work at home, not in any particular place. In this way, they can devote more time, and they can do it whenever they like. There is no expectation that they must come to a place, that you have to do it at such and such times, no.

No, the way weaving is done is within the communities, and it is whenever they feel easy. They can do in their own time, around other things. 

~ Sumi Beigh

Snow-covered Kashmiri Himalayas looming over lakeside settlements

Nuraini’s notes:

It is rare to obtain a completely authentic Kashmiri spun and woven cashmere product. But it’s very special in that the chain of value is entirely female, and female-managed. 

It's different from alternative productions of cashmere, which typically takes this originally community-centric craft and then feeds it into a 20th century mass manufacturing engine.

Although the way of working that Sumi described could be thought of as traditional, communal, cottage industry, rural, much of it can actually be thought of as cutting edge. 

After all, the Kashmiri artisan’s age-old way of cashmere working could equally be described with terms such as gig economy, flexible working, women- and family-friendly, social co-operative, dispersed workforce - all of which are usually thought of as very 21st century themes! 

Indeed, you could say this is the ultimate fashion trend comeback!