Normally, a Khampa herder family keeps 20 to 60 yaks. The yaks are the source of almost everything. They provide milk for butter, buttermilk curds, willow cheese, and yogurt; dung for fuel; hair for bags, saddle pads, mats, covers, tents, and sometimes clothes; and, when they die, bladders in which to store butter, leather for bags, boots, straps, and meat for spectacular festival meals — eaten dried, cooked, or raw.
Women do fiber work. Women are in charge of carding, spinning, and weaving. They work on these projects in their spare time, and sometimes even when they are doing something else. On the high grasslands, you might see a nomad woman striding across the grasslands in search of her yaks, spinning as she walks, the stick with finished yarn on it floating up and down beside her like an extra-large yoyo.
The tools are extremely simple. One of the great joys of visiting the high grasslands is how simple most technologies are. It makes clear the reality that humans can live if simply placed down in the middle of anywhere. A spinning needle is a just a stick, about 8 inches long, with a weight attached to the bottom. A woman sits with a broken piece of bowl, or the end of a broken ladle, and spins this stick on that, and slowly adds bit of yak hair pulled out of her sleeve.
Carding is done with a broken piece of comb, though periodically someone shows up in the tent with European style carding brushes, and barters them. These break too, though, and disappear, and then everyone goes back to whatever can be found.
Spinningrequires the stick and weight described above. Usually, it is done in down time, in the evenings after dinner during the winter months. In earlier times, string was fine-spun, which produced a stiff and very beautiful cloth. Nowadays, the spinning is much coarser, and only very few people can do fine spinning.
There are two different kinds of looms for weaving. The most common loom is made of two forked tree branches, another straight branch, two pieces of board, and a complex system of strings. The whole thing takes place outdoors. The weft strings are strung from one post in front of the loom to another in the back. From back to front, these strings stretch 15 yards.
Weaving on this kind of loom is very hard work, physically. A woman straddles the strings, pulls the bobbin through the loom, and then uses a smooth board to jam the string into the weave. Then she switches the upper and lower weft strings, and uses the same board to separate them again. Day after day, she leans over this simple loom, jamming strings, separating strings, making sure each one is in place. At the end of the day, “Ach,” she says,”My back hurts!” and so the next day the family calls down a sister or cousin, and she spends the day at the project. If no one has time, though, her husband will take over for a while.
Every family has this kind of loom available to them. They use it for basic life projects like weaving tent cloth and making saddle bags. But a few families have a more complex kind of loom, which the nomads themselves term a “machine”in comparison, though it is very simple. This loom has a wooden frame about 6 feet long, a system of strings to hold the weaving which hang from the top, a seat, and a system of three foot pedals to work the weave. The bobbin is nicely carved wood with a metal blade to tighten the weave, and the work is considerably faster and easy.
The weave on the simple loom is straight, and on the more advanced loom it is diagonal. Both wool and yak hair cloth is woven on both kinds of loom, but cloth from the latter loom can be washed and worked in warm water, which softens the cloth and makes it fuzzy.
Men’s work includes yak-shearing, dead-yak butchering, tool-making, sewing, and leatherworking. Men generally carry a long sword-like knife,which is used for everything from spinning-stick carving to orange peeling, to fending off attack dogs, to cutting cloth, to butchering. For sewing, they use a large needle and coarse string.
There are two kinds of leatherworking done in Tibetan areas: the older type uses yak butter for the processing, and is entirely worked by hand (and foot when the leather is tougher) manipulation of the leather. This process produces a thick, tan-colored leather, which smells of yak-butter and retains some of the unevenness of texture characteristic of rawhide.
The newer process is the same as modern processes used worldwide, except there it is done on a small scale, in small workshops, largely by hand. Petroleum-based oils are painted onto the cleaned hides for curing, and then they are put into a large wooden drum, which contains many small, heavy rubber balls. The drum is then rotated slowly like a wheel, using either electric or gas power. The hides and balls are tossed this way and that inside the drum, and the leather is worked into softness. Later, the hides are removed from the drum. Their natural color after this process is white, and red and black dyes are painted on by hand. The leather produced is smoother than hand-worked leather, as well as softer and a bit thinner. It has the odor generally associated with new leather worldwide, and loved by many.
Men also do felting. They work and rework wool in water to make a strong, interwoven felt.