Loved by all and claimed by many as its own, Kashmir, with its unsurpassable beauty and highly cultured people who create intricate crafts, makes a poet of one and all. A little-known art of Kashmir, the namda or sheep wool felt carpet, is slowly gathering headlines. In Kashmiri life, a namda is layered atop the gabba, an everyday rug made of old blankets, and both items are an integral part of every household.
There is no weaving involved in making a namda; instead, there is a whole lot of entangling, washing, pressurising, and embroidering. Wool is first washed in water and soap so the fibres are ensnared with each other thoroughly. This wool is spread in layers over a level floor, soaked with water once more, and then pressed on with the pinjra. This can be a large hand-held, forked, flattening device or a grass or jute mat, which is rolled up, tied, and put aside till the wool dries. The skill of namda-making is passed on in families who have been in the trade for generations. The namda is decorated in two ways. It is either embroidered upon or has a felt-on-felt pattern. For the needle-worked version, the thread is hand-dyed by the master dyer, metre by metre. After this, the women of the household step in to assemble the thread for use. Kashmiri aari embroidery techniques are used to create complex floral patterns typical to the region. The non-embroidered but patterned namda is made using dyed wool, which is placed by hand, in design, on the bleached or non-bleached wool base, and the process of moistening, flattening, and drying is done all over again. Wool takes on a different texture when it is felted. It is softer and, therefore, more malleable, but it can also come apart if folded harshly, pulled at, etc.
Nomadic tribes of the Central Asian steppes reportedly invented the technique of felting. Even today, the felted carpets are part of the culture of countries such as Kirgizstan, Uzbekistan, parts of Pakistan, and even Turkey. In India, the namda took off during the time of the Mughal emperor Akbar. It is said that he was so impressed by a man named Nubi, who gave Akbar, a namda to shield his horse from the cold that the emperor granted the namda-maker large swathes of land.
Today, even though the art of namda-making is also being used to make jackets, bedcovers, and indoor shoes, the artisans have not come out of their dire straits. Resistance to new techniques and technology, lack of wool carding machines, largely ineffective marketing, and traditional namda-making families moving away from the craft due to lack of economic stability have led to the slow-down of the resurgence of the namda. Recently the government, through the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship (MSDE), has started a pilot project to promote and propagate the craft. The initiative is expected to benefit around 2,250 artisans of the 30 namda clusters from six districts of Kashmir. The artisans will undergo industry-based training programmes and exposure to the international markets.