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Women's livelihoods

Women weave a better future

The ILO has set up weaving centres in one of Pakistan’s poorest provinces to boost the quality of the products, and improve skills and income of the weavers.

Feature | Bangkok, Thailand | 02 November 2015
© ILO/A. Memon 2015
BALTISTAN, Pakistan (ILO News) – In the foothills of the world’s second highest mountain, K2, the women of Baltistan used an age-old method to convert their local wool into shawls, turning a wooden spindle rapidly between their fingers, balancing it on an upturned bowl or cup.

It took about a month to spin one kilogramme of yarn. The quality of the thread was poor because their mountain sheep were kept in dirty cattle sheds and sheared without being washed first. The fleeces were matted with dirt and manure, and had to be beaten with a wooden stick to get them clean enough to spin. But the beating weakened and broke the wool fibres.

Traditional techniques were also used to weave the shawls. But the old-fashioned looms only produced fabric 14 inches wide. Fizza, a 45-year-old mother of six and her family’s sole breadwinner, explained that she had to stitch together two or three separate lengths to make a piece wide enough for a shawl. Even then the poor quality product sold for no more than 1000 Pakistan Rupees (PKR) in Pakistan (US$ 10) a piece.

Strengthening the Value Chain

With technical and financial support from the ILO, the Baltistan Culture and Development Foundation (BCDF) decided to take steps to improve the livelihoods of the villagers, in what is one of the harshest and poorest regions of Pakistan. Through the Strengthening the Woollen Shawls Value Chain project, funded by the Government of Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs Trade and Development, three training, spinning and weaving centres were set up in the villages of Khaplu, Shigar and Skardu, to provide infrastructure, marketing and training for local women.

“By improving the quality of wool and all the subsequent products, and by improving the skills of women and men engaged in the value chain in terms of efficiency, safety and quality, much greater returns could be realised from the woollen shawls value chain,” said Mohammad Nazir, one of the Master Trainers.

More than 120 women and 10 men embarked on a one-year training programme, covering all elements of the shawl production value chain – from rearing sheep to the finished product.

“We wash the sheep like we wash a baby, gently and carefully,” said Yasmeen, a former student who has now become a Master Trainer for the project.

The thread made from clean wool is better quality and easier to weave, and can be sold for twice as much as wool produced the traditional way – PKR1400 (US$ 13) to PKR1800 (US$ 17) per kilogramme compared to PKR300 (US$ 3) PKR700 (US$ 7).

© ILO/A. Memon 2015
BCDF has also upgraded the weaving process, providing semi-automatic spinning wheels and training the women in how to use and maintain them. As a result the time taken to spin one kilogramme of raw wool into thread has fallen from one month to just three days.

Better finishing processes, such as felting and ironing have also been introduced, to make the shawls softer and prevent them from shrinking.

As a result the value of the finished shawls has risen significantly. The old-style products would sell for no more than PKR1000 (US$ 10) each but, for the new, higher-quality shawls, the women can charge between PKR2500 (US$ 24) and PKR4500 (US$ 43). Fizza says that while it used to take her two days to make a single shawl, she can now complete one in three to four hours.

“It is a jump in income for me and my family. We are very happy with this project,’’ she said.

The curriculum is supported by the development, in consultation with experts, of competency standards, covering each stage in the value chain; sheep washing, shearing, spinning, weaving, finishing and marketing.

The use of business tools such as stock ledgers, purchase forecasts and inventory sheets, has also been included in the training. The women are able to apply quality measures such as keeping track of wastage, production per hour and grading, so that they can produce their shawls efficiently, and to a quality the market will pay more for.

Looking ahead

© ILO/A. Memon 2015
BCDF’s ambitions for the Baltistan women weavers still have further to go, with plans to introduce a new activity to the value chain and give the local wool an edge in both national and international markets.
“We have different kinds of natural dyes extracted from apricots, wild rose, herbal teas, mushrooms, and walnut trees,” said Mohammad Nazir. “This will help launch dyeing as an additional activity to wool production. We will be able to compete because if we can’t use chemical dyes like the Australians, we can perhaps still have a niche with natural dyes.”