The Importance of Bhimal and Wool in Uttarakhand
The Indian subcontinent has historically been known to be rich in resources and for the state of Uttarakhand plant and animal fibres are presenting a new opportunity for development. The increasing demand for natural and locally sourced fibres have presented a whole new opportunity for various cultivators and herders to provide sustainable alternatives. In response to this growing recognition and importance, the state government has also decided to set up a centre for excellence for Himalayan Fibre in the Almora district of Kumaon. All these proactive steps combined with the increasing opportunities for employment has prompted the creation of an environment which will facilitate the cultivation of the finest quality of natural fibres. But what exactly are these fibres?
Bheku, Bhekua, Bhimu and Bhimal are local names of a deciduous tree species called the Grewia optiva. The tree has been used by natives as firewood and torches historically, but the rough and uneven bast fibres of the tree have also been used to make rope and good quality paper. Mucilage produced by the bark of the tree is also used in shampoos. Pruning and de-leafing is done in the winter months followed by the process of retting for 30 to 40 days depending on the thickness of the branches. This process is used to yield high quality fibres by using bacterial action to rot the pectin or gum that holds the fibres together by weighing the bunches down by stones under running water. Next these branches are thrashed against boulders to loosen the phloem and bark from the wood. Then finally the fibres are separated and dried in the sun to yield Sel which is used by skilled native weavers to weave a multitude of products. As Sel is too dry and weak, spinning it into yarn has not been possible till now to create textiles.
The state has over 4 lakh sheep that yield an estimated 5 lakh kilograms of wool per year, and apart from sheep, there are other varieties of animal fibre that come from goats and other species of sheep.
Most of the sheep and goat rearers have their farms in higher altitude districts like Pithoragarh, Uttarkashi. Previously the Indian industry relied heavily on foreign imports to source its wool but from the year 2020, it was declared that the state would also produce Australian quality merino wool. Around 250 purebred Australian merino sheep valued at Rs 8.5 crore were imported in 2019. These sheep are housed at Tehri Garhwal district for breeding and improving the quality of wool. With an average fibre diameter of 16.88 microns, it is prized all over the world and is therefore a positive development for the Indian industry and the state. It has been predicted that with selective breeding programs, 50% of the textile industry requirements of India can be fulfilled in the next 7 years by Uttarakhand.
The ingenious local women and skilled weavers have utilized these fabrics to make various eye-catching and sustainable products. One such product was sandals made out of Bhimal fibres which caught the eye of ex-chief minister Harish Rawat who prompted the state department of MSME to advise hoteliers to use them. The extremely valuable fibre is not only good for the environment but is also an avenue for the natives of Uttarakhand to showcase their heritage and empower themselves via their natural resources.
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