Discovering Peoli: A Craft Enterprise in the Himalayas

Images: Shine Bhola

Shubhangi Kothari travels to the Himalayas to visit a social enterprise and design studio working to empower local women while preserving traditional handicraft techniques. She shares her discoveries along the way.

Travelling from west to north India through the humid forests of Corbett National Park, I found myself amazed at the stark contrast that this verdant region offers compared to the sights of the over-populated and polluted cities we crossed earlier. Fresh air and limitless lines of bamboo, sal, khair and sissoo trees were a welcome antitheses to the suffocating atmosphere created by the factories and landfill mountains that we passed in Noida.

While plastic waste and pollution from vehicles and factories are perhaps the most obvious polluters, we often forget that the very clothes we wear also have a tremendous environmental impact. Short fashion cycles, irresponsible manufacturing, and the ready-availability of cheap and ephemeral clothes have colossal environmental consequences. Lately, fashion has been at the forefront of the ‘sustainability’ conversation and I have found inspiration in the way the industry is trying to negate its effect on the environment. The ideas of ‘natural fabrics’ and ‘slow fashion’ are taking root in consumers’ minds – especially for millennials and Gen-Z.

To me, slow fashion is inextricably linked with the traditional handicraft industry where garments and accessories are produced by human hands using natural materials, often unaided by machines. This not only makes the production process unrushed and gentle, but also adds a unique character to each product that an artisan creates. Taking flight from my belief, I have started a journey to understand how these handicraft techniques can contribute to the fashion industry’s concept of ‘sustainability.’

My explorative journey began in Almora on the southern ridge of Kumaon Hills of the Himalayan Range. As the cultural capital of the region, the town is popular for its cultural heritage and unique handicrafts. What was once home to hundreds of deodar trees is today, in the name of development, overrun by malls, theatres, hotels and the like. Like the rest of the planet, this region is facing first hand the repercussions of climate change. Frequent forest fires, erratic weather patterns, increasing temperatures and depleting natural resources have adversely affected not only the biodiversity but also the very survival of the natives. Not being able to pursue their original livelihood, Almora and the villages around it have seen their population migrating to bigger citiesin search of work – leaving behind a string of ghost villages. 

Peoli’s founders, Abhinav Dhoundiyal and Vasanthi Veluri, embarked on the design studio’s journey with the thought of preserving the indigenous craft of Uttrakhand while keeping their impact on the environment to a minimum and giving the people of Almora and neighbouring villages an alternate livelihood – and ultimately, a reason to stay. They grew ‘Peoli’ as a social enterprise in a town that is a far cry from modern cities with ‘modern conveniences’.

Peoli’s journey was an onerous one, and there has been a constant tussle between the need to produce ethically and keep the business afloat. The market doesn’t always understand the true cost of producing ethically and often displays an engrained unwillingness to pay a premium price for such products. With the given state of affairs, it is solely the zeal of the founders and the enthusiasm they inculcate in their artisans which has assisted Peoli in sailing gracefully in the face of unfathomable challenges.

While walking through a protected army territory (thanks to which, there still exists a green zone in Almora), Abhinav introduced me to an array of sources of natural colours– from bright red of madder to the warm yellow of kilmora. Using only organic dyes extracted from walnut hulls, brazilwood, indigo and rhododendron, Peoli has produced an extensive colour dictionary. Vasanthi and Abhinav explain that “though laborious, the natural dyeing process, unlike chemical dyes, leaves a negligible footprint on the environment and the health of workers.”

The pair explain that with a rainwater harvesting system in place, the water purified after dyeing and repeated washing is released back into the earth. They have committed to work only with organic raw materials such as wool, cotton, silk and low-impact materials like Himalayan hemp and nettle. Amidst the clack of the traditional ‘Bageshwari Charkha’, where women artisans are spinning wool, the two say that “the concern for Peoli is the lack of transparency in sourcing raw materials, especially in the absence of certifications.” Limited local knowledge about ethical practices attached to rearing sheep or growing cotton makes ensuring raw material is ethically sourced extremely tricky. 

As Peoli is still a young brand without much of a say in overhauling the wider systems in place in the fashion industry, the team try to control their carbon footprint in whatever ways they can – be it operating a manual spinning wheel, harvesting rainwater or setting up ways to harness solar energy. They have also associated themselves with organisations that are working towards creating a positive environmental impact. The packaging boxes used for their organically dyed wool balls are made from water hyacinth, an invasive aquatic plant which slowly suffocates and kills the water body in which it grows.

Like any other manufacturer, Peoli has to also deal with deadstock, offcuts and tiny pieces of yarns that cannot be used to produce an entirely new garment on their own. To do so, the unsold pieces are unravelled and knitted back into another garment while the offcuts or tiny pieces are stitched together to create something new or used to create tassels. Not only does Peoli use up its own waste, but they also source waste raw materials from other organisations in the vicinity and transform them. 

Abhinav and Vasanthi are not only working to preserve indigenous crafts, but they are also empowering women artisans who work with them. While some come to the studio to work, many women work with Peoli on a decentralised basis so that they can work while taking care of their family. Knitting comes naturally to the women of this region and by giving them an opportunity to utilise this skill, Peoli is trying to ensure that the talent of these women generates an actual livelihood. They are also supporting the artisans in expanding their existing skillset. Apart from knitting, they have trained women to spin and dye, and are also attempting to instil administrative skills.

Vasanthi explains: “These women are often sole earning members of their family and providing employment to them gives their family financial stability.” The status of these women has improved remarkably within their family and they now participate confidently in the family’s decision-making process. Peoli gives them a strong foothold through which they can improve their living conditions and provide good education to their children. The satisfaction of these women was evident from their animated conversations and the happy hum of the folk songs they sang while knitting and spinning. As a part of the Peoli family, unlike many apparel-manufacturing factories, these workers are treated with dignity and respect.

For Peoli, the journey towards setting up and maintaining a sustainable enterprise, and an ecosystem that benefits society and the environment while trying to uplift the value of Indian handicrafts, has not been a simple process. But, regardless of that, Peoli has carved a niche for itself. Despite all the challenges and frustrations, it has stuck to the core values of its co-founders, producing responsibly and positively channeling the renewable resources provided by the environment, while giving women artisans of the region sustenance and confidence to take pride in their work.

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