Making a Tafta
Your scarf is not the end product of an industrial process, it is one step in a narrative that includes the entire ecosystem of a village, from herders to spinners to dyers to weavers. Whether you are getting it for yourself or as a gift we hope this heirloom item is starting a new chapter in a long and rich journey.
It takes Mohamed Ashraf over five patient days to carefully tie nearly two thousand threads into his wooden loom. Each thread was spun by hand from super fine Kashmiri goat hairs and measures about 1/100th of an inch. These fragile threads are called the warp and will run the length of the scarf or shawl he will weave over the next several weeks.
He built the loom years ago in the basement of his house with his father's help. The warm afternoon sun drifts into the room through dirty windows that separate the room from the public alley just outside. Even with bare bulbs, it isn't enough light for my old eyes to decipher exactly what he's doing. His movements are effortless and quick, but he's not rushing.
When I visit him again a few days later, he's sitting patiently, at his loom again. With a small flick of his fingers, a pair of small shuttles leap from one hand to the other, like watermelon seeds, one after the other. In between each flight of the shuttle, he presses a different combination of pedals on the loom like a barefoot organist. Each pedal press raises a different combination of warp threads so that the shuttle can sneak between them, creating the subtle pattern in the weave that most people will never even notice.
The sound is rhythmic and lazy. Mohamed's 15 year old son sits cross-legged on the floor winding spools of the fine wool onto small wire drums looking for imperfections and repairing them when he finds them. They both conserve their movements. One moment they are utterly still, gazing at small imperfections in their work or the raw materials. A quiet breath or two while they repair small breaks in the threads by magical twists between their fingers, and the rhythm continues.
Compared to my frenetic, Starbucks-punctuated life at home, their patience seems other-worldly. This is the most obvious step in making these baby-soft scarves, but it takes a village, or in this case, a region to bring them to life. These particular fibers start off on the backs, bellies, chins and ears of a goat that lives only in the Himalayas. The local shepherds we talked to call them Khangaru goats.
In the spring, the shepherds shear the goats and separate all the coarse guard hairs from the fine, downy layer that protects and keeps the goats warm in the thin mountain air. The finest, softest hairs are packed into burlap bags and make the treacherous two day journey to the Srinagar markets by truck. Women purchase the spider-web fine hair and, after spinning it into a fine thread by hand, sell it back to the same shops for a profit.
Finally, Mohamed collects the thread and starts the long process of forming it into the freakishly soft scarves and shawls that his family has been making for generations.
Because the setup for each weaving takes so long, Mohamed weaves three or four scarves before harvesting them from the loom and carefully separating them. Each piece is dyed by hand and color-matched by eye. After a thorough rinse, they air dry and finally, are finished with a warm iron and packed for shipment.
"After so much work, are you sad to part with them?" I ask Mohamed.
He smiles gently at me as my friend translates. I can only speculate what he's really thinking as he politely wags his chin back and forth in that mysterious way, possibly yes, possibly no, so common in India.
"No," my friend tells me. "It's just what he does," which I translate to mean that he's glad to be able to make a living.
At this point, I've been traveling through India and China, visiting all sorts of "factories" and artisans.
I'm pretty sure that Mohamed will never strike it rich weaving these beautiful masterpieces. What worries me, however, is that he and his son are finding it harder to find buyers who value the artistry and effort that go into his work. Not everyone appreciates what separates Mohamed's handiwork from the commodity fabrics that the big power looms spit out from commodity materials.
I watch the father and son work quietly for an hour or so before tea and dry pound cake appear from an unseen kitchen. The tea is strong, sweet and milky, with saffron and cardamom. It is delicious. They chat for a few minutes in Kashmiri and soon the two are back at work, Mohamed perched between the loom and the wall, the boy on the floor, the scarf creeping slowly into this world, as if by the force of Mohamed's breath.