Another sunny Sunday morning in Manali. We have slow breakfast in a cafe and go for a stroll to the original Manali village a little further up the hill from the main tourist hangout. Just 10 minutes later we are out of the area of fancy organic-everything cafes and bakeries, ambient / Shiva lounge / reggae music and many colourful lights. Instead, we’re surrounded by unique traditional Himachali wooden houses, cows slowly ruminating in the shade and local women crouching around a water pump in their colourful dresses to do the dishes or stamping on laundry in large metal bowls with their feet. Our eyes spotted the hand looms situated in the balconies of most houses and a minute later we find a small weaving workshop. The friendly owner with large mustache was happy to explain that this was actually a local weaving coop. The men weave in the workshop, while the women work from home and the profit from the garments made is split between all. I didn’t even hear the last part, because my complete attention was captured by the fabulous patterns coming out of the looms. The shopkeeper, being a man of rapid attention, noticed my distraction immediately and announced that they welcome everyone to come and learn weaving, at a modest daily cost. I was over the edge – somewhere in me the archetypal Lithuanian weaver experienced an awakening. Early next morning I was sitting behind the loom with a burning desire to get started.
Naturally, the art of weaving soon proved to be a challenging affair – when making a pattern, you have to pass each horizontal string through some of the vertical strings, always keeping a count to know where to stop. Just after a half day, my back was aching from the uncomfortable sitting position and my eyesight had deteriorated in the dim lighting of the workshop. Workspace ergonomics are unheard of in this place! After a full day of 9 hours my whole body ached on the way back to hotel. This soon changed and each day I headed off to ‘work’ earlier and earlier. I was really excited to grasp more intricate details of the craft and learn a new pattern. And I’ve deliberately chosen not the easiest of the patterns :) When the week of my study was over, my skills were praised by not only the shopkeeper but by the master too! The master has 24 years of experience and weaves really expensive and beautiful shawls really quickly and never makes a mistake, I’ve got a long way to go still :)
During the week I got to know my colleagues a bit too. It turns out they are all Nepalese and spend 9 months of the year working in India and then go home for the 3 months in winter (Manali is about 2.5km above sea level, winters here get quite chilly and not a single house has any sort of heating system; weaving is likely to be impossible at -20C). For each shawl they produce, they receive only about 20-30% of the price its sold for. Its not surprising then that they work 6.5 days a week, from 5-6am to 8pm, with only Sunday afternoon off. That doesn’t seem like a very honest coop system to me, but the guys explain that compared to working in Nepal, they get very good money here. Overall, it was a great experience to spend a week in a weaving workshop and learn a tiny bit about this wonderful craft. Check out the pictures ;)