Take a Carpet Ride to Khiva or Wrap Up in a Kashmir Shawl
I borrowed an over-optimistic number of books from the library the other day - I always do. As I gathered them together to return some and renew others, I realised there were great similarities between the two that found themselves on top of the pile.
Although one is fiction and the other non-fiction, both books have as a central theme traditional crafts from the Silk Road, from far away and exotic places I otherwise barely know. Reading offers such wonderful opportunities to visit and learn about far off lands and these two books are no exceptions.
Both of them inspired me to find out more about the subjects they cover.
A Carpet Ride to Khiva: Seven Years on the Silk Road
Author Christopher Aslan Alexander travelled to Uzbekistan for Operation Mercy, an international relief and development organisation. The idea was that he would write a travel guide about Khiva and the immediate surrounding area, but in the end what he did was to stay for seven years, setting up a workshop where traditional methods of dyeing and weaving were used to create forgotten carpet designs from the days of the Silk Road.
The book is a spell-binding account of his time in Khiva, of the difficulties and triumphs he encounters as he researches original dyes and patterns for the silk carpets that will eventually be created by local women who would otherwise be unable to work.
We get an amazingly clear insight into daily life in the area, the culture, and the political environment of the area. Christopher Alexander has a real storytelling talent that makes the book easy to read while at the same time being highly informative. In other books I've found those two qualities often seem to be mutually exclusive.
Silk carpets from Uzbekistan - I had to explore the subject further
If you want to make a single silk carpet you will need the silk from millions of silkworms.
Uzbekistan is one of the largest producers of silk in the world, after China and India. The silk worms are really the larvae of the silk moth and they are raised in individual households. They feed on mulberry leaves which have to be chopped when the silkworms are small, until they grow to full size. It is a major undertaking to keep them fed five times a day during daylight hours.
After five weeks or so they are mature and form cocoons which provide the silk fibre. The silk is unravelled and attached to a spindle where it is spun with eight to ten others to make a single silk thread.
The silk has to be washed and then dyed using natural dyes such as indigo, walnut, madder, pomegranate. Then the weaving for carpets or embroidering for suzannis begins.
You can read all about the fascinating processes in much more detail at the website of Kiva Silk Workshops, the very workshops that Christopher Alexander helped set up.
The Kashmir Shawl
Mair, with her sister and brother, are left with the unhappy task of sorting through their parents' possessions as they closse up their childhood home in Wales. Mair comes across a package, an exquisitely embroidered pashmina shawl wrapped in flimsy tissue paper and with it, a lock of dark hair in an envelope. This package leads Mair on voyages of discovery, both geographical and personal, as she tries to find out the story behind the shawl.
We are treated to superb descriptions of Kashmir, both in the years surrounding the Second World War when Mair's grandmother accompanies her missionary husband to India, and the present day as Mair tries to retrace her possible journey.
We learn about the privileged life of the British people in India, and how that changed when the war spread and the men left. We learn in contrast about the much harsher life in impoverished villages where people struggled to continue their traditional ways. We learn, too, about the skills of the craftsmen and women who create such beautiful shawls that take years to complete and so cost a small fortune.
Yes, there are some weak points to the story and it is more of a romance than I would normally enjoy, but the descriptions of the landscapes and people are both vivid and haunting and remain with me even now. I recommend it.
Pashmina Shawls from Kashmir
To make a pashmina shawl, first find your goat. Well, for a complete shawl you would need at least three Changra goats, a breed that lives at high altitudes in the Himalayas. Each spring the goats shed their winter coats, farmers collect the soft under belly wool by combing the goats.
The fibre is so soft and delicate it has to be hand spun and woven. Machines would destroy them. When the shawls have been woven, a pattern is printed on the fabric, again by hand, and then the embroidery begins. Embroidering a full shawl can take over three years and each becomes "like a friend" to the embroiderer. Is it any wonder that they are so expensive?
You can learn much more about the creation of a pashmina shawl by visiting the website Door to the Himalayas
The Silk Road
The Silk Road is a name given to ancient trade routes, really a network of routes, that stretched from the east and China all the way through Asia, to the south into India and west into the Mediterranean and Europe. Both these books are situated on parts of these trade routes.
The importance of the Silk Road was more than just a trade route because it had a huge cultural impact, by allowing exchange of culture, art, architecture, music, and technology.