Making yarn with a spindle one of many traditional textiles in Nepal
As romantic a notion as this can be there are things that really become obvious when you travel in places like this. Language and communication.
I met this lady traditionally spinning cotton into yarn outside a red-bricked building with a small courtyard in Bhaktapur. It was a fascinating process to see her spin yarn. One that you don’t see so often any more. The problem I had was that I didn’t speak Nepali well enough to ask all the questions I so desperately wanted to ask …
History of cotton in Nepal and making yarn from a spindle
Cotton was first cultivated over 7,000 years ago in western Pakistan. Cotton cultivation then spread out during the Indus Valley Civilization which covered most of North South Asia including Northern India and Nepal.
History first mentions cotton-weaving in Nepal during the Asoka period in the second century AD. Due to the harsh winter weather in Nepal rugs, carpets, blankets and clothes were first described as being woven from yak, sheep and rabbit.
Traditional plying on a spindle back then has probably changed little compared to what this lady is doing today.
Cotton and textile industry in Nepal today
There’s big business in the textile industry throughout the Kathmandu valley in Nepal today. Cotton is largely grown by farmers in Gorkha, Tanahu and the Dang districts of western Nepal. Imports of raw cotton bales are also brought in from India. The spinning, while mainly done by machine, takes place in the suburbs as is the weaving.
Today this industry is under threat from cheap pre-prepared textiles brought in from both India and China.
However there are still come cottage industries out there. Just like this lady who uses a traditional spindle to spin cotton into yarn.
Watching a traditional yarn spinner at work
I stood watching her spindle in amazement. Her hands wove back and forth and worked with her body in a unified swaying motion. A blanket of soft fluffy white cotton was being picked up at the rear of this wonderful old wooden spindle wheel that this lady hand cranked.
The white material spins into loose twine before being pulled along and over the wheel onto another smaller wheel where it was spun tighter. Finally it makes its way along a spindle onto a metal pole where the lady pulled it tightly into what is now spun yarn.
Translating tradition for today
My first visit with this lady was marred by my lack of Nepali. She thought that I, like many other passing tourists, just wanted a photo. And, I did. But I found her yarn spinning to be far more interesting than a simple photo. I wanted to know more. I asked someone to come with me again to help translate. This of course came with a price as it took several visits to locate the lady.
Traditional yarn makers and weavers in Nepal begin at an early age. Fifteen is an average. The caste system in Nepal dictates that this traditional service industry is carried on by members of the same family. So this ladies mother and her mother before her were all yarn spinners. What I couldn’t tell is if this ladies own children were also yarn spinners.
This is the problem with translations. We might know the words, but we don’t know the emotions. Do you press for an answer on the ladies children? Or do you detect a family tragedy. There’s only so much you can do with a third-party translation.
Industrial revolution of yarn spinning in Nepal
One thing was clear. Though work for spinning yarn is available today the methods have changed. Big business in textiles either means mass production via machines or cheap labor. Or highly specialized yarn spinning and weaving for the organic export industry in Nepal.
This lady was reluctant to say who she was making the yarn for. Only mentioning she sells to a local man. I was told later that the chances are a local business man was probably just helping her out with some small jobs.
This is the type of kindness you hear about in Nepal quite often
Visiting other textile factories in Nepal
During my time in Nepal I have visited several very large textile factories. In truth they are more apartment buildings than factories. Filled with women and young men weaving colorful clothes made for export to the USA, Europe and far East Asia.
Are they sweatshops? No. Well not in the horrific sense of the phrase. Would they be banned in a “developed country?” Yes, on many counts. When I asked one person I know quite well if I could document the work in one “factory” there was a frenzy of excitement.
On the day I showed up to document the work I was very nicely told that perhaps it was not such a good idea. Indeed even in Nepal the government does try to enforce good working conditions. Many of these factories are illegal in the sense that they are using residential buildings to work. So it’s all about getting a fine if found out more than anything else.
I understood perfectly. I didn’t see anything bad in the factory. Just a way of life.
The old yarn spinning woman liked the attention
Finally getting fed up with my constant questions the old lady asked my translator why I was so fascinated with this boring work? I replied in kind that such work doesn’t happen much anymore in the rest of the world. It’s all machines now. So she was a very rare lady in the world.
She laughed at this. Finally a good translation had gotten through between us.
I put away my camera and left her smiling as she continued the tradition of yarn spinning that she and her family have been doing for generations.
Faces from Bhaktapur
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