How the women of Kumaon are saving a dying knitting tradition

Every morning at 9 a.m., Sunita Joshi leaves her home for a 15-minute walk through the alleys of the Almora region in Uttarakhand to get to work. She works as a hand knitter at Peoli, a design studio by textile designers Vasanthi Veluri and Abhinav Dhoundiyal that aims to retain and modernize the traditional woolen craftsmanship of the Kumaon hills with the help of locals.

For Joshi, 40, like the rest of the female artisans working at Peoli, the knitting job has allowed her to practice something she loves. She learned the skill, a trade at home, from her mother-in-law after arriving in Almora as a 21-year-old bride from Kuttha, a village in the hills of Kumaon. Her husband ran a small catering business and she knitted woolen goods to earn 2000 per month. The amount, however, became too low when her husband’s business closed. “Times were tough. Before, I used to worry constantly about how I’m going to pay my children’s school fees…how I’m going to buy books for them,” she recalls.

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For seven years, Joshi struggled to make ends meet until she found work at Peoli, where she was paid up to three times as much for the same amount of work.

Her closest friend, Sunita Tiwari, also enjoys working at Peoli as a dyer, extracting colors from walnut shells, madder bushes and pomegranate rinds. She believes it is the duty of the community to keep the textile tradition alive.

“Craftsmanship is in decline. This is mainly because of the easy availability of ready-made knitwear,” says Dhoundiyal, a native of Almora who grew up watching his mother, grandmother and local women snuggle up every afternoon with a pair of needles and wool during the winters. “We consider handmade sweaters, socks and caps to be warmer. They have a feeling of nostalgia.

Over the past decade, interest in the hand knitting craftsmanship in Almora has waned due to the mass production of cheap woolen garments. Inevitably, this also deteriorated the quality of yarn spun in the region.

“When we started looking for (yarns made from) pure wool on the market, we couldn’t find any. They do it with acrylic material. It is now synonymous with wool,” says Veluri.

Ultimately, the designers opted to spin and dye their own yarn by importing wool fibers from Uttarkashi, Australia and Tibet. To do this, they employ and train 11 local artisans who work in the workshop and 49 part-time knitters who work from home.

Peoli’s knitting is influenced by centuries-old patterns like motidana bunai (Irish moss stitch) and dhaniya bunai (British Seed Point), but their designs strive to “get away from that granny look”. “We wanted to make our clothes more suitable for layering. Not too fitted, not too bulky and neutral, so they can be combined with many options,” says Veluri.

At five o’clock in the evening, Joshi leaves the studio and returns home for a meal prepared by her husband. “And he makes me tea before I wake up,” she said. “He is happy that I won. I’m also happy to make money, but I’m more happy to do something to keep our tradition alive.

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