New Choices

Tajik mohair yarn hand-spinners innovate and adapt to international markets

Tajik women have processed mohair fleece and spun mohair yarns, all by hand, for export to Russia for decades.  They hope to enlarge markets for their work by engaging with US hand-knitters, an audience which has blossomed with the recent revival of do-it-yourself thinking. Liba Brent, Wisconsin-based sociologist, is coordinating a development project to help Tajik spinners earn income, and achieve a degree of hard-won independence. She shares her story with HAND/EYE.

The word mohair comes from the Arabic word for choice.  It is indeed a choice fiber because of its luster, sheen, resilience, durability, warmth and dye-absorbing properties. Mohair is produced by Angora goats that originated in Turkey, but are now raised in countries such as South Africa, United States, Australia and Argentina.  Less known is Tajikistan’s 20th-century role as Russia’s largest supplier of mohair. There are still about 200,000 Angora goats grazing on the Kuraminsk mountain ridge of the Tien Shan range at the northern tip of the country.

The village of Alma sits just below the highest peak of the Kuraminsk.  Most women in Alma have been spinning mohair yarn for decades and selling it to Russia for $10 per kilogram.  This is how Tuiguloi Saidova, a petite, young woman who grew up in Alma, earned her livelihood.  I met her last spring during a training seminar organized by our project, which focuses on helping spinners like her to increase incomes and improve livelihoods.  I explained to her and the other women that if they succeed in spinning fine, kid mohair yarn for the American market, the project will help them market the yarn -- and they will earn much higher incomes.  But in order to succeed, their yarn has to be more beautiful that any other mohair yarn on the market.

I passed around samples of Australian and Italian yarns spun on multimillion dollar machines from the finest mohair fleeces available, and explained that these are the yarns they have to compete with.  Tuiguloi and the other women had only hand-made spindles or small spinning wheels.  The Angora goat fleeces they could buy at the local market were nothing like those produced by Australian or American Angora goat farmers.  I explained to them that our project also works with local Tajik farmers to produce better goats and mohair, but that will yield results only over time.  Until then their only option is to figure out how to prepare and clean mohair fleece and process it into beautiful yarns that would appeal to American knitters.
 

Most of the women thought this was too difficult to do.  They produced mediocre samples and were ready to give up.  But several women, including Tuiguloi, decided that this was an opportunity they could not miss.  They searched for the best fleeces they could find and combed them to separate quality mohair from lesser or contaminated fibers.  Eventually they developed a new technology of fiber preparation that allowed them to spin local fleeces into yarn that was softer and finer than the Australian and Italian yarns I showed them.  All of this is, of course, due to their time-honed artisan skills. Alma and neighboring villages in the mohair-producing areas of Northern Tajikistan have opened a way for themselves to earn much higher incomes from spinning mohair. 

We now have beautiful yarn to offer in United States, but the yarn story is far from over.  We continue to work with Tajik farmers on designing a breeding program and are preparing to import new stock to ensure that Tajik farmers dependably produce competitive quality mohair that can be spun into beautiful yarns without cleaning. Only time will tell where handspun Tajik mohair can go once better raw fiber is available.

Enhanced incomes make for better lives, of course.  But the effect is beyond economic. For many Tajik women, higher earnings bring not only a degree of financial security and comfort, but also self-confidence and self-reliance -- which is harder to earn than money in the context of the traditional cultures of Central Asia.  The vast majority of Tajik rural women depend on the earnings of their husbands, most of whom have to migrate to Russia for work.  In some cases the men do not return and the women and their children are left to rely on their relatives for support.  Yarn spinning is the easiest way to earn income, especially for rural married women who are often not allowed to work outside of their home.   The husbands generally do not object if their wives spin and sell yarn, especially if they can do it from their home and do not have to travel to the market. 

In April 2010 we visited Tuiguloi in her home to buy yarn.   We sat on the floor in her small adobe house decorated, with hand-woven wall hangings made by her grandmother.  The apricot trees were blooming outside and we could hear the mountain stream rushing though her yard.  She made us Tajik plov, fried rice with carrots and meat, and sambusa, a pastry filled with herbs harvested from the slopes of her mountain.  It was delicious.  She prepared about two kilograms of yarn, for which we paid her 550 somoni (about $125).  

Her neighbor stopped over to see who was visiting, and learned that she just sold us yarn.  How much? he asked.  He thought he misunderstood Tuigoloi’s answer.  55 somoni?  She corrected him: 550.  He picked up a skein and looked at her in disbelief.   Impossible, he said.  She just smiled and showed him her money.  “I am going to start fixing up our house,” she said.
 

Brent’s mohair project is funded by IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development) and operated by ICARDRA (International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas). For more information, visit these sites:
http://www.ifad.org/newsletter/pi/25.htm
http://www.icarda.org/cac/livestock.asp
http://www.naturalfibres2009.org/en/stories/index.html

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