Every morning at 9, Sunita Joshi leaves home for a 15-minute walk through the bylanes of Uttarakhand's Almora region to reach work. She works as a hand-knitter at Peoli, a design studio by textile designers Vasanthi Veluri and Abhinav Dhoundiyal that aims to conserve and contemporise the traditional woolcrafts of Kumaon hills with the help of residents.
For Joshi, 40, like rest of the female artisans working at Peoli, the knitting work has allowed her to practise something she loves. She learnt the skill, a homecraft, from her mother-in-law after arriving in Almora as a 21-year-old bride from Kuttha, a village in Kumaon hills. Her husband ran a small restaurant business, and she knitted woollens to earn ₹2,000 a month. The amount, however, became too less when her husband’s business closed down. “Times were tough. I used to constantly worry about how I am going to pay my children’s school fees...how I am going to buy them books,” she recalls.
For seven years Joshi struggled to make ends meet till she found work at Peoli, where she’s paid up to three times more for the same amount of work.
Her closest friend, Sunita Tiwari, also enjoys working at Peoli as a dyer, extracting colours from walnut shells, madder shrubs and the rind of pomegranates. She believes it's the community's duty to keep the textile tradition alive.
“The craft is on the decline. It's primarily because of the easy availability of ready-made knitwear,” explains Dhoundiyal, a native of Almora who grew up watching his mother, grandmother and women from the neighbourhood huddle up every afternoon with a pair of needles and yarn during the winters. “We consider sweaters, socks and caps made by hand to be warmer. They have a sense of nostalgia.”
Over the past decade, the interest in the craft of hand-knitting in Almora has faded owing to the mass production of low-cost woollen wear. Inevitably, this has also deteriorated the quality of yarn spun in the region.
“When we started searching for (yarns made from) pure wool in the market, we couldn’t find any. They make it with acrylic material. It's synonymous with wool now,” explains Veluri.
Ultimately, the designers chose to spin and dye their own yarn by importing wool fibres from Uttarkashi, Australia and Tibet. For this, they employ and train 11 local women artisans who work at the studio and 49 part-time knitters who work from home.
Peoli’s knitwork is influenced by time-honoured patterns like motidana bunai (Irish moss stitch) and dhaniya bunai (British seed stitch), but their designs strive to “take a leap away from that granny look.” “We wanted to make our garments more suitable for layering. Not too fitted, not too cumbersome, and neutral, so they can be paired with many options,” explains Veluri.
By five in the evening, Joshi leaves the studio and returns home to a meal prepared by her husband. “And he makes me tea before I wake up,” she says. “He's happy that I'm earning. I'm also happy that I'm earning but I'm more happy that I'm doing something to keep our tradition alive.”