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Jun 27

Handspun Yarn Magic for Tajikistan Women

Last year, I introduced you to Liba Brent and the mohair yarn spinning development project she has been leading in Tajikistan in Central Asia since 2009. Some exciting new developments are underway: spinning cashgora and mohair, as well as producing hand woven blankets from the handspun mohair.

These yearling goats' fiber is used to produce the luxury kid mohair yarn.

These yearling goats’ fiber is used to produce luxury kid mohair yarn.

The original plan was to assist Tajik farmers in raising quality angora and cashgora goats and to work with spinners and knitters in producing luxury mohair and cashgora yarns and knitted items for export. All of this designed to improve the livelihoods of farmers and rural women and to offer consumers quality, fairly-traded products made from these natural fibers.

Spinning Mohair Yarn

Training women in these remote rural areas to make “luxury” yarn and products, an area where there’s no concept of luxury, is fraught with challenges. Suddenly they are being asked to pay attention to details in yarn quality and weight–details they never considered relevant before. But they are learning. Women are spinning high-quality mohair yarn, are knitting socks and sweaters, have started weaving and dyeing this lustrous yarn into blankets, started carpet weaving with it, and in Krygyzstan, have begun felting.

The first handspun, hand-dyed, handwoven, kid mohair blanket.

The first handspun, hand-dyed, handwoven, kid mohair blanket.

Organized by specialty area, the mohair groups of 25-35 women specialize in fiber processing (dehairing, scouring, carding and  spinning), dyeing or knitting.  There is one blanket weaving group with ten weavers trained but only one loom, thereby limiting the amount that can be woven (see my loom request below). In addition, carpets and felt making are underway by two other groups.

Women Gain Ground Through Spinning

Not only has the spinning quality improved, so has the status and self-confidence of the women. Their craftsmanship of spinning, knitting and weaving has made them “famous” in their families and communities. For example, Liba says, “The husband of the lead knitter says he cannot go anywhere without being asked about his wife and if she would be willing to train someone to knit. He himself is also very proud of her. Of course the fact that these women earn income is also a big part of this. Earning their own cash has a huge impact on the self-confidence of the women.”

Handspinning mohair yarn on a hand spindle. (Note the exquisite ikat dress.)

Handspinning mohair yarn on a hand spindle. (Note the exquisite ikat dress.)

Developing Women Leaders

Developing group leaders in the conservative Muslim country of Tajikistan is not without its challenges. It’s a rare woman who has the capacity and capability to be a group leader and manage a small business or cooperative. Women are expected to be subservient wives, mothers and homemakers–not to think and act independently and to lead others, especially when it comes to business. If the woman is young and unmarried, this role is almost impossible as it can negatively impact her chances for marriage. For older women, it is easier to assume leadership positions, but may be more difficult to learn new skills; for example how to operate a computer.

Tajik women shearing the angora goats for spinning fiber for handspun yarn.

Tajik women shearing the angora goats for spinning fiber for handspun yarn.

Also, developing strong leaders is especially important in Tajikistan’s hierarchical culture– without a clear leader, things just don’t get done. Deficiencies in infrastructure are quite crippling. The fiber processors in northern Tajikistan still do not have running water or electricity in winter, a time of year when women have time to spin but no electricity.

Growing and Sustaining the Project

This development project was initially funded through ICARDA (International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas) and IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development). Now another international partner has entered–the Aga Khan Foundation, a private, not-for-profit international development agency with a strong presence in Tajikistan. With their resources, micro-credit help can be given to the groups and, within four years, it’s expected that these groups will be able to continue with little assistance.

The kid mohair handspun yarn is skeined and ready for use.

The kid mohair handspun yarn is skeined and ready for use.

With strong results from the first four years, the groups are highly motivated for success. All groups will probably remain as  family-run businesses or cooperatives employing about 25 to 40 people–a perfect size for the women to manage and maintain control. Presently, they can’t keep up with demand. We have been fortunate to grab a few kilos of their new white handspun kid mohair yarn.  Can’t wait to get the cashgora later this year.

Note: If you have a counterbalance-type floor loom similar to the LeClerc Fanny II with four shafts and at least a 45” weaving width that you want to donate to this project, contact me at murphy@clothroads.com.


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