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This presentation examines the living tradition of hand-spinning wool for garment cloth in Ladakh, North India. In the villages of Ladakh, the technology of spinning has not significantly changed for centuries. Villagers typically spin and weave wool from the bounty of their flocks to produce items for daily use: clothing, bags, rope, and rugs. This research focuses on the villages of Skurbuchan and Bodh Kharbu in Western Ladakh, where wool is hand-spun, woven and dyed in a manner representative of the region. Women in these villages grow up learning the art of hand-spinning during the coldest months, when the household focuses on textile work rather than farming.
Sheep’s wool is spun by women with supported, whorl-less hand spindles, called phang, possibly a unique method in the world today. Men weave the wool into narrow yardage, which is then fulled, dyed red or black, and sewn into gonchas, the traditional and identifying Ladakhi garment. So emblematic is the gonchas that the Dalai Lama, in recent visits to Ladakh, exhorted all Ladakhis to wear it as a demonstration of cultural pride. Cheap, ready-made clothing from China has become widely available in the bazaars of Ladakh, causing many Ladakhis to forsake their traditional clothing. However, the gonchas remains not only a symbol of Ladakhi heritage, but a highly practical garment in the extreme winters, and thus there is still a consistent demand for the locally produced cloth.
Through direct observation, participation, and interviews, this research explores the role of hand-spinning in the daily household life of Skurbuchan, where the whirring sound of the phang defines winter around the hearth. Photos and video footage document the entire process of preparing and spinning wool for use in the household and the marketplace, in the context of traditional community. The rhythms of these processes are as important as the finished product: rhythms of an ancient lifestyle that has become increasingly fragile in this world.