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Sunday, May 6, 2012

Needles in Nepal

Monkey Temple, Swayambhunath.
Here is an account of my week teaching knitting in Nepal. If you would like to read the supremely detailed story of my trip, complete with photos, videos and sound clips, please visit my new blog at:

Production knitters.

I haven’t slept in two days. I am in the Delhi airport attempting to keep my eyes open after spending the whole night trying to figure out why my booking to Kathmandu, Nepal has been mysteriously canceled. Forced to buy a first-class ticket on another flight, I am now just grateful to have the elusive boarding pass in my hands. I’m tired and hungry, but my only real concern now is whether or not this hostile customs agent will let me through with all of my precious knitting needles.

Two menacing agents comb through my bag and one even pulls a steel double pointed needle right out of my sock project. 25 stitches all dropped in a split second! I gasp and open my mouth to protest, but then I think better of it and keep quiet, glancing at the guards nearby with machine guns casually slung over their shoulders. Luckily, they didn’t dig far enough to unearth my roll of crochet hooks and oodles of double-points, or to discover my ziplock full of a dozen pairs of steel Addi circular needles discreetly tucked into the side pocket of my tote bag. I know, though, that I’m perfectly allowed to carry these items onto the plane. Even still, I would rather not go head to head with these sternly uniformed men. After shooting me many stony glares, they let me through with all of my gear intact.

Drying fibre.

I am on my way to Kathmandu to spend a week doing knitting and crochet workshops with women who will be mass-producing my hat designs…a surreal experience to say the least. I have packed everything I need to teach knitting in my carry-on just in case my luggage is lost between Calgary, Amsterdam, Delhi and Kathmandu. I have needles of all sizes, patterns, tiny "plane-friendly" scissors, tape measure, needle gauge, stitch markers, calculator and, of course, projects to work on while traveling.

I design for a local company, Ambler hats, and will be spending the week at the Everest Fashion house and offices right in Kathmandu. Everest Fashion makes all kinds of knitted, crocheted and felted wholesale items for customers all around the world, including Ambler. Their compound is made up of about four buildings, including the house, offices, storage and production space. While the city is busy, polluted and loud, the Everest complex is quiet and spacious, with lots of vegetation and small gardens. 

 Nepali notebooks.
Yarn swift.

There are about fifteen family members living in the Everest house and during my visit I am treated to a spacious guest room, eat huge delicious meals with the family and get to play with their raucous children (they learned how to play hockey!). I am also able to explore some local sights, like markets, temples, and even get to attend a very interesting festival where I was served a traditional (and questionable) meal of beaten rice, water buffalo organs and homemade rice whiskey and rice beer.

Drying skeins.

The Everest workforce is over 90% female and many of the women knit hats right from home, allowing them to make extra income for their families while still being able to care for their households and children. They are paid more than fair wages and are paid per piece to increase productivity. My main job this week is to perfect specific designs with the “group leaders” who then go on to teach the design to 30-75 women. Although there is an obvious language barrier between us, we get by with exaggerated gestures, thumbs up signs and dramatic facial expressions. They are wonderful, genial women and I love being around their colourful, sparkly kurtas and bright smiles. 

Production knitters.
Group leaders.

During a tour of the complex, I learn a lot about some of their production techniques. For example, they felt small balls by rolling them underneath a large flat rock. For larger items, they felt them by “kneading” them on a tabletop with lots of soap and hot water. I watch them create pom poms in seconds, wind tangled yarn into balls from their ancient looking wire swifts, and haul massive bags of fibre around as if it was no effort at all. The compound buzzes with creative energy, greetings (Namaste), and there are mounds of brightly coloured fibre and projects everywhere.

Felting balls.
Hand felting.

Over the course of another morning, I leave Everest to tour the spinning and dyeing factories. Their wool comes from Australian and New Zealand sheep and is spun with ancient machines in a fairly small space, right in the city. It is quite dark inside and the smell of raw fibre is overwhelming. I have to hold a kerchief to my face. In the dim light, I watch them toss the raw wool into a little room to be carded by machine. Following along, you see the fibre ejected in billowy, fine sheets, which are then drawn upwards and bunched into batts by a second machine. This fleecy substance is then spun into strands by a third machine and wound onto spools. Yet another machine, which runs the whole length of the building, winds the spools into cakes mechanically, or, alternatively, they can be wound from the spools into skeins. This is done by lining up about twenty spools and winding them onto a large wheel-like apparatus and cranking it by hand. The skeins are then weighed and bundled for delivery. 

Spinning yarn.
Packing skeins.

The next stop on the tour is the dye facilities. We drive into a guarded and gated complex and are shown the enormous furnace powered by cornhusks, the fibre storage room (imagine a six car garage full of "blank" fibre!), and the dye works. This area was a long room with large metal vats. Each tank has a hose going into the top for water (heated by furnace). The dye chemicals are mixed into two plastic buckets and passed from one worker on the floor, to the next worker standing on top of the tank. They pour the chemicals into the top of the tank without spilling a drop. Each dye lot takes about 6 hours on average, depending on the colour. It is then partially dried in a large drum, like a salad spinner.

Dye vats.

On another day I visit a home called Peace Rehabilitation Center. This is a home for girls and women who have been rescued from human trafficking (see website for more information and stories). Many of the girls come from small villages and are recruited or bought by pimps who then try to smuggle them into India. Fortunately, some of the girls are stopped at the border before they are lost forever. At PRC, the girls are taught all kinds of skills so that they can one day be independent. They learn things like gardening, jewelry making, cooking and, of course, knitting. I was warned before arriving at the home that their skills are very basic and that teaching them something new may be challenging. 

PRC knitters.

To my surprise, when I arrive, there are about ten girls sitting on mats around a huge pile of yarn, all knitting away like their fingers are on fire. None of them speak English, so teaching without an interpreter would have been fairly difficult anyway, but to my embarrassment, I find that their skills at least match my own. Their technical and finishing skills are outstanding and they easily crank out a perfect fingerless mitt without batting an eye. I am content to sit with them for a few hours and knit away on my own project, exchanging smiles with the girls and nattering to the little 5-year old who attached herself to my side, even though she has no idea what I am saying. I happen to be knitting a loose cowl on 20 mm needles to the amusement of all the girls who have probably never seen such large needles. I also show them how to splice yarn together and they all laugh when I exaggeratedly spit into my palm for demonstration.

PRC knitters.

I have never felt so quintessentially “Western” as I did while I was in Nepal. The smog, garbage and traffic of the city is a major contrast to our open spaces and clean air in the mountains that I'm used to. While attending a full-moon festival, I was clearly the only Caucasian in a crowd of hundreds, although I was graciously accepted. While visiting with the PRC girls who had been sold by their own families, beaten by pimps and worse, I was painfully aware of my own charmed existence. Despite all these differences, I was mostly struck by the similarities between East and West. Namely, the fact that knitting provides a universal language - knits us together, so to speak. Even if you can’t communicate with words, wool is the same, knitting needles and crochet hooks are the same, and even instructions and techniques are the same. A knitted stitch is the same in Nepal as it is in Canada. 

Monkey meditation.