An All-Women Start-Up In Ladakh Is Preserving Traditional Pashmina

Slow textile label Lena Ladakh carries forward the legacy of pashmina, weaving a narrative of tradition, empowerment, and sustainability. The enterprise was started by Sonam Angmo and Stanzin Minglak
Lena Ladakh weaves a narrative of tradition, empowerment, and sustainability
Lena Ladakh weaves a narrative of tradition, empowerment, and sustainability@lena.ladakh/Instagram

In the annals of history, Ladakh stood as a vibrant crossroads of cultures and a testament to the enduring allure of the Silk Road. This storied land, nestled amidst the grandeur of Central Asia, China, India, and Kashmir, served as a crucial passage for traders on their transcontinental journeys. In that bygone era, Ladakh thrived as a flourishing cosmopolitan center. The constant ebb and flow of traders from near and far shaped its unique culture and traditions, an exquisite tapestry woven with influences from distant lands. Amidst this cultural mosaic, there was a treasure, a symbol of Ladakh's rich heritage, pashmina.

The History Of Pashmina

The heart of pashmina's origin lay in the expansive Changthang plateau, stretching across Tibet and eastern Ladakh. Here, the Changra pashmina, an embodiment of luxury and grace, roamed freely. The trade routes of this prized fiber, woven with stories of nomadic life and nature's grandeur, converged in Ladakh. It was during the 18th and 19th centuries that pashmina ascended to unparalleled global fame, primarily due to Kashmir's extraordinary craftsmanship. The nimble fingers of Kashmiri artisans transformed raw pashmina into exquisite shawls, each a masterpiece of artistry and warmth. Pashmina, known for its unparalleled qualities, captured the imagination of the world. The fame and allure of pashmina extended beyond fashion; it became a symbol of power and prestige. Rulers of Ladakh's neighboring countries coveted this precious trade. Wars were waged, and intricate schemes were hatched to claim dominion over the pashmina trade routes.

Using the backstrap loom of the pastoral community from the Changthang plateau
Using the backstrap loom of the pastoral community from the Changthang plateau @lena.ladakh/Instagram

The Story Of Lena Ladakh

Today, Ladakh based slow textile label Lena Ladakh carries forward the legacy of pashmina. it not only crafts exquisite textiles but also weaves a narrative of tradition, empowerment, and sustainability. In the rich tapestry of Ladakh's history, pashmina remains a thread that connects the past to the present, a testament to the enduring spirit of a land where cultures converged, and craftsmanship thrived. The all-woman enterprise was started by two enterprising young women, Sonam Angmo and Stanzin Minglak in 2016. The word "lena" means pashmina in local Ladakhi (bhoti) language.

The signature textile of Zanskar, spuruks
The signature textile of Zanskar, spuruks @lena.ladakh/Instagram

When it started in 2016, Lena had just seven dedicated women artisans. With the support of a government startup loan, the vision was to create high-quality Ladakh pashmina products that would not only make their mark on the global stage but also rekindle the fading art of natural dyeing in their culture. As time passed, our team flourished, and our dreams evolved. Today, the team comprises 37 women, with 13 of them being permanent members of the close-knit team. Together, they form a unique blend of nomads, artisans, and creators, all sharing a unified vision.

The Process Of Creation

Co-founders Sonam Angmo and Stanzin Minglak say that their passion lies in creating products that encapsulate the very essence of Ladakh while embodying a steadfast commitment to sustainability. The primary focus centres on crafting a unique form of pashmina that remains unparalleled in the market. "The journey commences with the meticulous selection of raw pashmina sourced directly from the nomadic communities of the eastern Ladakh region. This remarkable fiber, vital for the survival of Changra goats in the extreme winter conditions of the Changthang Plateau, naturally molts with the arrival of spring. The fibers, painstakingly combed off by the shepherds, serve as the foundation of our creations."

Angmo and Minglak say that they embrace Ladakh's time-honored traditions, beginning with the handspinning of pashmina using local spindle phangs crafted from willow wood, grown locally. "The Ladakhi method of spinning, which employs a supporting cup on a willow spindle, is a unique practice in today's world. This method ensures the delicate pashmina fiber remains intact throughout the spinning process, yielding exquisite fine threads that are woven into our products."

Natural colours are used to dye the wool
Natural colours are used to dye the wool@lena.ladakh/Instagram

Preserving Traditional Heritage

Each piece is handwoven on a fly shuttle loom. This method not only preserves Ladakh's cultural heritage but also imparts their products with a distinctive drape and fall when worn. It is an art passed down through generations, and the women artisans who uphold these traditions now find economic independence and empowerment within their families and communities. "To enhance the uniqueness of our creations, we place immense importance on the details and craftsmanship that go into each piece. Every product becomes a meaningful and functional heirloom, carrying significance for both the wearer and the maker. Sustainability is not just a buzzword for us; it's a way of life. We use sustainable colors like marigolds, walnut, rhubarb, and arnebia for dyeing, ensuring that our products are not only visually striking but also environmentally responsible. This also allows us to keep the innate quality of pashmina intact."

In addition to pashmina, they also craft a range of home accessories using local fibres like sheep and yak wool. These products are woven using Ladakh's indigenous backstrap loom technique, predominantly practiced in Changthang, eastern Ladakh. After handspinning and plying, these yarns are transformed into an array of home textiles, including traditional rugs, meditation cushions, bed-runners, cushion covers, and traditional Ladakhi fleece. "Our commitment to sustainability extends beyond our products; it's a way of honouring Ladakh's cultural heritage and supporting the communities that call this remarkable region home. Each purchase from Lena Ladakh is a piece of Ladakh's essence, a tribute to tradition, and an investment in sustainability and empowerment. In conclusion, our journey is about much more than fashion; it's a celebration of culture, heritage, and sustainability, all woven into the fabric of every product we create. "For us different fibers have different purposes, but pashmina definitely bears majority of our focus. Currently, other than pashmina, Changthang lamb wool is our new favourite."

At a workshop with local communities in Changthang
At a workshop with local communities in Changthang@lena.ladakh/Instagram

The organisation has hosted workshops in Ladakh, including ones in nomadic regions of Changthang, where they collaborated with the UNDP Secure Himalaya project. The workshop taught the basics of natural dyeing to the people of the nomadic communities to develop and revitalise the sheep and yak wool-based value chain in Changthang. They worked with local plants like walnuts, marigolds, and with madder, myrobalan and rhubarb, creating shades of yellow, browns, reds and greens.

The Sources Of Inspiration

Angmo and Minglak say that their cultural and indigenous ways of being and making things have always been an inspiration and motivation. Another source of inspiration has been the spectacular landscape of Ladakh. "We think we are fortunate to be surrounded by awe-inspiring landscapes- our snow-capped mountains, our bluer-than-blue skies, our vast open plateaus. One naturally finds oneself in joy and inspiration when surrounded by nature."

As wonderful as their beautiful landscape is, it can be equally challenging to get on with their lives in the winter, they add, when it becomes highly inconvenient to carry on with day-to-day work at the same pace. But the stark emptiness of the winter landscape is at times, soothing in its own way, they explain. "The silence and the stillness of our winter landscape sure do bring forth the stillness in our minds. You know how they say, that the harshest of environment makes the plants produce the most vibrant of colors, which can literally be seen in our high passes where the rich flora exhibits the most vibrant and rarest colors in nature. Figuratively as well, this holds true in our lives, where the challenging terrain and harsh environment build and nourish us a little stronger, a little grounded."

Working with an idea first or with materials works both works for them. "Sometimes it's much easier to transform an idea into a fabric, sometimes the fabrics themselves have such beauty and relevance that they become inspiration for ideas."

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