Cashmere Winter Accessories Create a Future for Panchachuli’s Weavers

Mela Artisans is committed to helping artisans throughout India obtain a sustainable livelihood and improved well-being by bringing their extraordinary products to you. With a massive snowstorm sweeping through the United States, we think it is the perfect time to begin refreshing your winter accessories.

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Our handwoven cashmere and lambswool scarves will fight off the early winter chill, while also supporting an inspiring women’s group half a world away. Read more about Panchachuli Women Weavers below.

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Winter Skyline in Almora, India.

Snow is already falling in the Himalayan mountain ranges of northern India.  Wintry winds blow through the picturesque town of Almora in the forested foothills.  Here, in their simple but sturdy workshops, a cooperative of extraordinary women weavers will be busy all winter long.  During the warm summer days they spun, dyed and prepared the rare wool of Mongolian goats into the finest and softest yarn imaginable.  Now, as the days grown shorter and colder, their nimble, practiced fingers will spend the winter weaving exquisite cashmere and lambswool scarves, shawls and other winter accessories.  Now in its third decade, Panchachuli Women Weavers, continues to provide its artisan members a path out of desperate poverty.  Munni Mehta, Panchachuli’s Managing Director, who has been with the organization from the start, shares her very personal story of hope.

One of Panchachuli’s weavers, Munni Mehta.

“My name is Munni Mehta and I am a 54 year old mother of 3. I have been part of Panchachuli Women Weavers since its inception. I started working with Mukti Dutta (founder of the organization) shortly after I got married. Although I grew up in Almora, I moved to Ranikhet (a nearby village) with my husband after marriage but often returned to visit my family here. It was during one of those visits that I met Mukti and she explained to me her plan to start a women’s cooperative in this area. I loved Mukti’s idea and decided to help her with this project. Very soon, I became so involved in it that I decided to leave my youngest daughter in the care of my husband in Ranikhet and move back to Almora to help set up the cooperative. Today, my husband is still at Ranikhet, my children are all married and I have two grandchildren as well.”

Cashmere wool is spun on traditional “charkha” looms, whose sounds echo throughout the Panchachuli factory.

Laying the Groundwork

We first trained the women in weaving thick Tibetan wool. Over the years, we’ve switched to cashmere and merino. We use merino wool to make a variety of items; accessories and clothing. We also make thick tweed clothing for local retailers because the weather here gets very cold. We use cashmere wool to make scarves, shawls and stoles, mainly for the export market. Our raw cashmere wool actually comes from Mongolia, as it is much lighter and of very high quality.”

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Milk Way Scarf, $69.00 (Lambswool)

A Focus on Quality

“Right from the beginning, we were very strict regarding quality. We started with 2 looms and 8 women in total. We narrowed these numbers down to 5 because we wanted only the most hardworking and skilled workers on the looms. We continued this process with different batches of women at various village centers, selecting only the best workers for further training. The main Pataldevi Center- where we are located now, opened in 2002. As and when women finished their basic training at our village centers, we used to bring them here to hone their skills. Even at the time of transferring women to this Center, we had another round of quality checks and not all of them made the cut. As of today, there are between 300-350 women working here and about another 300 women at various other village centers.”

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Stormcloud Scarf, $149 (Cashmere)

Promoting Real Change

“Most of the women artisans at Panchachuli Women Weavers come from remote rural areas. When they came to us some of the women had never even visited a city! But today, these same women are standing on their own two feet, commuting from their homes to the Center in buses. They have learned to conduct themselves well in public and are paying for their children’s education with the money they make. For all these changes in their lives they have Mukti Dutta to thank. I wouldn’t be lying if I said that the women artisans at Panchachuli equate Mukti with god! She is the reason there is cooking gas in every house, children studying in English medium schools and hospitals and clinics to take care of the health needs of the people in this area.”

Munni manages and trains the Panchachuli women.

“I love working at Panchachuli. Perhaps if we women were still at home doing only housework, we would never have met so many other women or learned so many useful skills. Now we have a community. We have incomes. These things have helped me tremendously. All my children have had good educations, and I was able to provide a safe and comfortable home for my family. And personally, I have benefitted so much. It was my dream to take Panchachuli places and to see it grow and prosper. Today that dream is becoming a reality. And Mukti Datta is the force behind it. She has given us complete control of the organization. I have been working here for almost 18 years. My only hope is that I will be able and fit for another 18 years so that I can continue to work and serve Panchachuli.”

 Click here to view the complete line of Panchachuli fine wool products.

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Panchachuli

When I met Mary King, founder of Panchachuli, we immediately recognized that we share a similar aesthetic and passion for fine quality, luxurious wool scarves, shawls, and home decor blankets. This is a topic I have been thinking about for a long time — looking for special pieces that feel right, with true and timeless beauty. I have seen styles comes and go, but beneath them are certain fundamentals that touch our senses.

Home, sweet home: our emotional heartland, a place of comfort, intimacy, and privacy. The less artificial and synthetic your living space, your clothes, your food, etc. the more beneficial it is to your well being. Live naturally!

Jill Heller, PureThread: Do you have a signature style? If yes, what are the hallmarks of the style?

Mary King, Panchachuli: Natural, simplicity, classically beautiful and award winning weaving. Our items, shawls, stoles, scarves and blankets are both classic and traditional and therefore are timeless, such as the herringbone or wave pattern blankets. Although they could easily last a lifetime with proper care, wool is 100% biodegradable at the end of it cycle.

JH: Please tell me the mission of your company.

MK: Panchachuli U.K. supports the Panchachuli Women Weavers Cooperative from Kumaon in N. India. This cooperative provides a livelihood for over 700 women who hand spin, weave and knit beautiful items, made entirely of natural materials. Our mission is to support this community of weavers and to train a further 500-1,000 local people, over the coming years, by the establishment of more cooperatives in other mountain villages.

JH: Now, please tell me your mission as it specifically pertains to your sustainability initiatives and, if applicable, how you intend to be a leader in the field.

MK: Our fibers are totally sustainable. Wool is our main product which grows naturally as well as being biodegradable. The production of wool involves far lower carbon emissions than man made fibers. Our oak silk and Himalayan nettle items are grown and harvested using traditional methods of production. Through Ethical Fashion initiatives we aim to play a pivotal role in enlisting designers and retailers to the cause of sustainable fashion.

JH: I aim to teach the consumer about eco fashion products. Please tell me as much as you would like to share so that I, as a stylist with direct contact with the consumer, can educate my client about your brand. Please tell me a little about your sustainability initiatives are reflected in your products…

MK: Our products, fabrics and accessories are made from 100% pashmina cashmere, NZ wool, oak silk, Bactrian camel wool or Himalayan nettle, and are not mixed with any other fiber.

The local villagers collect the oak silk and nettle in the Spring and process the raw material into fiber in the traditional way. Our ladies trek annually across the mountains to barter with the Tibetans and bring the wool back by mules to be processed by hand. We are just starting training for hand embroidery to embellish our products. We also hand weave carpets and baskets in other villages, and are always running training programmes for the local women.

JH: Materials – Can you tell as much as you can about the materials that you use for your fashion products? What percentage of the materials you use are of the ecologically sound?

MK: 100% Oak silk or ‘Peace Silk’ is harvested after the moths have left the cocoons naturally and are not boiled as in other methods of silk production. Himalayan nettle is harvested by hand and soaked in ash, then washed and beaten in the river to extract the best fiber before being hand spun. Our wools are vegetable dyed or AZO free dyed in a range of over 37 colors, which are collected from the local plants, roots and berries by the villagers.

JH: If a customer were to ask me — why buy organic fashion? Why make the shift in my wardrobe? What are the advantages? — what are the points that you would be sure to tell the customer?

MK: Synthetic fabrics use up vast quantities of petro-chemicals which are polluting as well as non-renewable. Most of the chemicals used are carcinogens or cause other chronic conditions to the people who work with them. Insecticides are also extremely toxic to the workers, particularly Endosulfan which is used as a pesticide in the cotton industry and has been linked to many deaths.

JH: How do you convince the customer to make the changes in her mindset and way of thinking about eco fashion, and thereby form a loyalty to your brand?

MK: EDUCATION. A lot of people are still unaware of the issues surrounding fast throw away fashion. Fact sheets in the store would be one way of informing customers of the issues surrounding labor, land fill, toxins, etc.

JH: do you have any specific labor standards? Do you participate with Fair Trade standards?

MK: Our cooperative is owned and managed by the women themselves. Fair trade in the textile sector is still very difficult, but is gradually changing. A three month study by the World Bank concluded that Panchachuli should be used as a global model for socio-economic change.

JH: Do you ensure that the people involved in growing, harvesting, producing, transporting, etc. your products are in a safe and healthy environment where they are not exposed to toxins?

MK: Absolutely.

JH: Are the farmers and laborers receiving fair market prices for their goods and services? Please explain in greater detail the lives of the farmers and factory workers so that my customers can really feel the interconnectedness of life and how her purchasing your brand affects the lives the others.

MK: Panchachuli Women Weavers is a social enterprise which has provided empowerment and a livelihood for over 700 women and is a remarkable achievement. In just over a decade it has grown from a handful of women who through sheer determination and a lot of resistance have become wage earners in an otherwise very backward and remote region of the Himalayas. Traditional skills have been revived which had all but died out in the area.

JH: May we have the honor of knowing your future plans with respect to your designs?

MK: Fall 2010 – a new range of hand knitted pashmina slipper socks. Also we plan to develop the hand embroidery items.