Meeting The Makers Up The Mountain
Halfway Round The World in Less Than 30 Days. Inspiration meeting our makers and hunting out new ones.
The Wool Company was hatched over 16 years ago in our cold and draughty Cornish Farmhouse. The desire for all things warm, practical and cosy became somewhat obsessive on those chilly evenings. With 3 small energetic children, sheep, goats and dogs our love for beautiful textiles began in earnest.
We have always looked further than our shores for interesting natural fibre textiles, which we've been unable to find in the UK. We've also insisted we onlybuy direct from manufacturers. We had begun to import gorgeous wool bedding and home textiles from across the world in our first year. Very shortly after, we introduced pashminas from Nepal. These were an instant success and we have continued to sell the same product for 15 years; the quality never having wavered.
A few years later we were contacted by a very interesting man from Leh. At 3,527 metres (over 2 miles) altitude, Leh is the largest town in Ladakh. Bordered by Tibet to the east, the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh to the south, Pakistan to the West and China to the Northeast, Ladakh (land of high passes) is part of the Kashmir region of India.
This enigmatic man on a motorbike had an intimate knowledge of the region, and each of the processes necessary to create the extraordinary hand-loomed stoles, shawls and hand- embroidered Kashmiri shawls. He was involved in so many areas of the community, having helped set up a school for girls and boys in a remote mountain area, negotiating with teachers to come and work in this very remote and challenging area. His energy seemed boundless, and his commitment to keeping old textile skills alive by being the link between each of the skills, driving the raw combed pashmina wool from the nomadic herders to women spinners in one valley, later collecting it, often on his motorbike driving many hours to take it to dyers in another region, then off to the weavers, and finally to the men who embroider these extraordinary completely handmade items. Most take well over 3 months to finish, many take years.
We had spoken on numerous occasions, so many e-mails and WhatsApps, but never met in person, so we intended to change that. We decided to start our 'meet the makers' journey to India and Nepal with a visit to Delhi where we would also attend various trade fairs, mainly concentrating on hand-crafts and hand-loomed products.
Delhi - Hand-Loom Textiles Fair
So after many years we met him and his partner, who drove down over 900km from Ladakh to Delhi to meet us. She is as passionate as he and is also well educated. She belongs to the Ladakhi Changpa, tribe (Chang meaning East, and Pa meaning family, similar to meaning of Sherpa). This is the nomadic tribe that herd the Changra goats (Capra Hircus Lanigar) that produce the softest, finest, lightest cashmere in the world. Its also known as Lena Pashmina. Having successfully studied zoology, and environmental studies and now studying law, she is planning on opening a farm in Changtang to bring back the skills of her tribe, but with a fresh understanding of the animals and the environment.
Harry and "the Enigma"
They both had a great sense of humour and we all got on like a house on fire. They brought a wonderful and extensive selection of shawls to show us, most of which we have bought - we are very excited to show you these exquisite shawls, wraps and scarves. On our final day at the fair, we were still hard at work as the fair finished packing up around us.
After 6 days in Delhi, mainly inside trade halls, and offices and away from the heavy pollution, we took a flight to Nepal's capital city Kathmandu, which is 1,400 metres above sea level - nearly a mile up. It's home to over 1.4 million people whose homes extend across the huge valley floor and into the foothills of the Himalayas that surround the city.
Kathmandu Valley, altitude 1,400 metres
In 2015, Northern Nepal was rocked by a 7.8 earthquake that destroyed many homes, and businesses and tragically killed almost 9,000 people. Many historic sites were either destroyed or very badly damaged. These buildings are being painstakingly restored and rebuilt, even after so many years.
We decided on an afternoon off, that we would walk up to the Swayambhunath Stupa to get our legs in action for our upcoming trek. 300 steps later we arrived at the top with amazing views of Kathmandhu. Such a mix of so many different religions, pilgrims, beggars, tourists, extraordinary ancient buildings, and so much plastic / Chinese mass-produced figurines for the visitors and monkeys living the life of Riley.
Monkeys ignoring the signs
Stolen ice cream
We visited our first pashmina manufacturer, from whom we have bought our Luxury Pashmina Shawls for over 15 years. The quality is exemplary and we have never found a fabric as light and scrumptious as theirs.
Their hospitality couldn't have been matched; such kindness and consideration extended into all areas of our Nepalese journey. We even met their newest member of the family - 6-month-old baby boy who came to dinner and also enjoyed the traditional Nepalese dancing. We also visited two other factories, one that produces our Silver Bordered Pashmina Shawls and the women's cooperative that make our Wool Dryer Balls.
Sewing on labels to our silver bordered cashmere shawls
Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world with 25% of the population below the poverty line. As they are landlocked and almost completely reliant on imports for all their basic needs, Nepal is still using very traditional methods for making products, mainly by hand. Electricity is not 100% reliable, and most factories rely on very basic but stable equipment, such as wood fires to heat water and dye vats. It is extraordinary that from such very humble foundations that such beautiful, delicate and beautifully finished products can come from here. The pashmina industry is one of the industries that mean Nepal can export its goods and this brings in much needed currency.
Our time in Kathmandhu drew to a close and we flew a short distance to Pokhara at the foothills of the Himalayas to begin our 5 day Trek to Mardi Himal and the stunning sacred mountain Machapuchare, or Fishtail Mountain, part of the Annapurna mountain range.
The mountain has never been climbed to its summit and is now also prohibited by the Government. Mardi Himal is opposite this iconic mountain and you can climb to what feels like almost touching distance (although its not).
Sarah had 2 new hips in 2017/18 and was nervous about heights and falling off mountains. And is not happy in ice and snow. Hopefully she can meet the challenges head on and embrace walking up into the mountains for 5 - 6 hours a day.
We had our new range of sample Alpaca walking socks in 'toe' and gave them what we considered would be our very best, toughest test. Walking for long days up hill, through wet, dry, snow, cold, very cold, even colder, drying them out over a large wood burner in the communal dining area, alongside everyones coats, trousers, hats & jumpers and then needing to sleep in them at night in unheated hostels, should put them through their 'paces'.
Harry also wore a new sample 100% merino base layer for the entire 5 days walking - night and day and then a bit beyond. He requested Sarah sniffed it (still in situ) to prove "it literally doesn't smell at all". Sarah was strangely reluctant but, ever the dutiful business partner, she took the plunge and was amazed that after 7 days constant wear it was still smelling fresh.
The walk up Mardi Himal was utterly breathtaking; most of it looked like scenes from JRR Tolkien's Hobbit and Lord of The Rings; all the forest trees adorned with vines, orchids, mosses, ferns, and on the ground so many wild flowers. The air was filled with circling eagles and vultures, and assortment of exotic brightly coloured birds called through the trees.
After a final walk out from the forest above the tree-line, we reached our final destination walking through thick cloud which handily disguising the precipitous drops by the path and then into the falling snow - still with strong Tolkien vibes of the mystical.
Sarah's mistrust of all things snowy / icy / slippy meant the 4am push to the "summit" was carried out by Harry, whilst Sarah said she needed to hold the camera to document the morning, so wouldn't be going. But she got to see Yaks walk through the hostel. Video coming soon...
We started our walk back down, which was equally beautiful. As usual the mornings were crystal clear, so we could now REALLY see the precipitous drops next to the paths. But as laden mules were charging up and down the same paths, we followed suit. Sarah got over her vertigo.
The last day of the descent took us off the beaten paths and away from the crowds, and we descended quickly through virtually untouched forest, crossing crystal clear steams, though buffalo nibbled 'lawns' that shimmered with clouds of butterflies.
Walking through a tiny hamlet of wooden homes set into the terraced landscape towards our final stop was a small hostel perched on top of the hill. We peeled off the socks Harry had been wearing for so many days - to reveal perfectly white feet, without any sore areas, certainly no hint of blisters. We did the same with Sarahs - again, all in tip top condition. Video coming soon! After a quick bite to eat, we set off back to the city and a hotel with warm water. A two hour jeep ride back down the hill nearly finished off Harrys last remaining hairs on his head. Sarah sensibly kept her eyes closed..
We slept most of the next day.
Back to Kathmandhu and a final super-fast meeting with our lovely pashmina manufacturers. Whilst we were away they had completed some beautiful samples for us, including a new ring shawl, which we will be introducing in the next few months. We were also very generously given a boxed bottle of a famous Nepalese drink Yarsagumba, (also known as Himalayan Viagra!) Such a lovely gesture, but all our suitcases were packed, and bulging, so unpacking / repacking skills were hurriedly required. It's amazing what can be achieved when you really focus!
Last night in Kathmandhu and then back to Delhi. Spotted slightly worrying duck tape holding together the planes wing, but landed safely.
More final goodbyes and we set off back to Blighty, with so many memories and so many new shawls!
What a lovely tale, told beautifully and evocatively, with telling insights into the quality and love of the products. That this quality, world’s apart from ‘designer’ label products mass produced in China, is still hand made from raw beginning to cloudsoft end is a touch magical. Thank you both, also to technologically-advanced stalwart hips!
Stunning photos, beautifully written – and I can’t wait to see what new amazing things you’ve added to your already wonderful collection.
What a fabulous Indian experience you had… your blog described it in wonderful detail! Thank you for that.
What a fabulous Sunday morning read with a cup of tea. I really love to hear about relationships between retailers and their suppliers and the love and respect that each should have for each other.
I love the duct tape on the wing!
Sunday 16 April my mother’s birthday 1922 I have just quickly read your post. So acknowledge. Interesting pictures and text.especially re Delhi . Will read fully with very special interest. Great trip!
Whst a wonderful account of your adventures! And having seen your gorgeous trekking yellow socks Im not at all surprised they proved positively valiant!
Keep me posted on the merino under shirt please.