In recent years, Ladakh has focused its efforts to reclaim ownership of the pashmina trade following centuries of outside dominance.
At the forefront of this; is the all-women startup called Lena Ladakh Pashmina.
Started in 2016 by Sonam Angmo and Stanzin Minglak. The duo started making apparel in a distinctly Ladakhi manner with a commitment to putting into practice the dying art of making textiles by hand. They were also committed to provide a sustainable and dignified source of livelihood for women from these communities.
Sonam completed her M.Tech in Biotechnology, and Minglak was finishing her master’s thesis on the migration patterns of the Changpas. Minglak says, “Before venturing into establishing this startup, we first spent more than a year seeking to obtain a deeper understanding of the fabric, the local pashmina economy and its potential for income and livelihood generation.”
With the assistance of their fathers, who knew the local artisans working with a pashmina, the duo understood the subtle nuances of the fabric and learned the skill sets while visiting Changthang.
Today the all-women Lena employs more than 58 women, of which 22 work throughout the year, including 6 weavers at their weaving studio on the outskirts of Leh. Most of them work on a seasonal basis, particularly during the winters.
“Raw pashmina fibre is collected from cooperative societies and the process is begun with hand spinning. In Ladakh, the pashmina is handspun via our traditional technique of using a wooden willow spindle instead of a Charkha. Since the length is short, hand-spinning is difficult. But in the past few decades, Ladakhi women have mastered the hard-earned skill of spinning pashmina with their spindles.” says Sonam.
Suffice to say, this skill of hand-spinning the raw fiber is rare and passed on from one generation to another.
“All of our pashmina fabrics are woven on the fly-shuttle loom at our studio situated in the outskirts of Leh. Currently, we have a team of 6 weavers who have received training from the handloom department. We also weave our local sheep wool rugs on the traditional back-strap loom, an indigenous technique, unique only to a few parts of Ladakh.” notes Minglak.
The color combinations come from natural dyes extracted from local herbs like walnut hull, marigold, Himalayan rhubarb, and Arnebia, etc. For red, burgundy, and blue, the natural dyes are sourced from Central and South India.
All these color combinations on their products are inspired by the vibrantly colored murals, frescoes, thangkas, and mandalas in monasteries all over Ladakh. These natural colors have remained intact for hundreds of years on the Monasteries.
Sonam also says, “We are not into mass production. To spin about 30 to 40 gm of Pashmina, it would take about one day, following which there is plying, dyeing, weaving and finishing. To make one piece of Pashmina shawl, it would take about 15 to 25 days from spinning to finishing. However, this time frame depends on the size of the shawl, the type of weave and patterns used. In a year, we only make about 500-600 pieces. ”
“The biggest issue we face, is that raw material is not available throughout the year. They are largely available between July to September and buying them requires significant investment. The production cycle is also really long, but more importantly, the government needs to intervene to ensure raw material is available throughout the year. This helps us balance our costs,” says Minglak.