Cotton carding was a thriving trade and a way of life at one time. When I was a child I remember how colourfully dressed people, mostly gypsies of Rajasthan, came visiting our homes requesting for work. They were daily labour workers earning a living by undertaking cotton carding, tinkering, sewing, embroidery and other odd jobs for the day.
Back in the 50’s and early 60’s old cotton quilts were carded or pried loose and fluffed by hand. This was a tedious process and was done by grandmothers and other women folks at home. The other option was to wait out each year for the cotton carders. These were mostly gypsy men and women who roamed about the countryside in groups selling honey, tin-wares, intricately beaded artwork, hand polished mirrors and patchwork quilt covers. For a reasonable amount or in exchange for the day’s meals they undertook the carding job.
The men carried a long six to eight feet heavy L-shaped yoke on their shoulders. This was made of heavy wood and weighed about 25-30 kilos. Between both ends of the L-shaped wooden pole was stretched a tight leather string which was unbreakable. This string was made of some animal gut. It could withstand the continuous plucking of it by a wooden dumb bell shaped piece held by the carder in his hand. The plucking made a loud twang sound quite like a guitar string. The bow was hung like an inverted harp with the string side low and within reach for plucking. At one end of the string was a cardboard flap or a wooden slate piece which when the string was plucked flipped the cotton pile. As fast as the string was plucked the cotton pile rose and danced high in the air. When the cotton fell back on the string it was ripped apart into strands. Each twang was a loud and resonating sound which could be heard in the streets around.
From the twanging sound we would get to know which house in the neighbourhood was fluffing its cotton or getting its quilts ready for winter. Some adult member in the family would send word to have that man call at our house too. Some cotton carders set a lively tune while twanging and they would sing along with each twang for the joy of it. As kids we would hear their songs and the string sound from afar and get excited. We would hop around in glee while our mothers called them in. Sometimes our whole gang of kids would simply run out of our houses in the direction of the sound and follow the carder man on his rounds or escort him back to our house.
They often carried a large colourful sack embedded with beads and the famed mirror-work embroidery sewn on it. This sack contained hordes of colourful buttons. These buttons were made of bone, wood, copper, felt and cloth. They were usually used to tack in or keep in place the upholsteries or quilts they were revamping. I remember using quilts in the North Indian cold winter which had cloth buttons or flat large buttons sewn on the upper side of the quilt to prevent cotton from clumping inside the quilt. They even washed and repaired the quilt covers with colourful patches.
Stuffed toys in those days especially rag dolls were common as no electronic or moulded-plastic toys had arrived on the scene. These stuffed dolls and teddies had to be ripped apart, washed and re-stuffed from time to time. They would fluff up the contents of the cloth doll while the dress was washed and dried. After drying they would repaint the doll’s face and attach new buttons for eyes and nose if we wanted. Strings of wool would be wrapped on hot thin rods to make curly hair for the doll and the doll or toy was as good as new.
The women folk were extremely good at darning. With perfect fine stitches they would darn chintz material or heirloom silk saris. They even made ‘Choli’ blouses and did appliqué work earning a little more this way. They were extremely creative folks but very poor and had to leave their homes and states in search of jobs. Sometimes few of them had another trade, scouring for honey and selling small pots of it door to door. Some even worked with bellows to heat coals in large pits dug in the grounds in front of our houses to melt tin pieces with which they lined old pots and pans that needed galvanizing.
These gypsies had a store of stories that children would gather round listening to. One was a hilarious, unbelievable story of how one of them had carded the fur of a pet cat and stuffed it into the quilt or that one stuffed quilt was done so light and cloudy that it flew out of the window like some magic flying carpet. Those were the days. Rose tinted days. Life was simple.
In those days life for the middle class Indian was inexpensive. One could pay the cotton carder a day’s labour charge or at the rate of three rupees per item that had been ripped, washed, dried and re-stuffed. Sometimes they asked for a meal along with the payment. Some of them preferred dry rations to carry home. A lone person would settle the whole day’s work for three meals.
Now life has become too expensive and worse, too hurried. People prefer to buy machine-carded cotton. Every quilt or cushion purchased is expensive and has synthetic fibres in it. This has made redundant such jobs or shops for cotton carding. Unless folks insist on doing it the old way, every drape or quilt is now a ready to buy and easy to purchase item of utility. It is used and discarded as fast as it is bought. If, today one wished to redecorate the house or buy something worthwhile the person has to invest in decorators and plan the budget for the re-furbishings. A simple re upholstering of the living room with new drapes costs a fortune.
These trades people are still in demand in less developed regions of Northern India like Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, snow bound areas and the deserts of Rajasthan. Much local crafts abound in these places like quilting, embroidered table linens, exotic gilding or Zari-work on clothes, stuffed ethnic curios, puppet-making and beadwork. The world renowned Tie and Dye trade is centered in Rajasthan. Metal moulding, carving of wood, mirror work on boxes. making musical instruments, miniature paintings, lace-making and design embossed leather goods are the other crafts still produced by the people of Rajasthan and Gujarat. These crafts are now sold in city emporiums and are priced exorbitantly. Funnily, these folks still remain poor and exploited for they are paid a pittance for their efforts.
Cotton carding and other trades and crafts have centuries of colourful history and represents an uncomplicated way of life that was once prevalent in old India and is now nearly all gone. A life rich in traditions.
In some cities we can still take our quilts to be revamped to some old shops which have the wooden yoke structure still in use. It requires sitting there the whole day till the work is done for fear of the original cotton getting replaced by fibre or getting stolen. It is rare for them now to come home and do the work at your own doorsteps as it was done earlier.
I now wear synthetic saris because darning and repairing original silks is equal to buying a new one, quite unaffordable. Over the years I have grown quite accustomed to living a very gadget-prone life with televisions, electric blenders, electric blankets, and teflon coated cooking utensils. These inventions are great and I shall be the last to belittle or curse progress, yet, I still miss the old way of life. It is deeply linked with the idea that life was simple and at the most got clumped from much use like cotton. Time to time we needed to be fluffed up and lightened. The music that the carder-man made by plucking the string is the music of life that we dance to. To me it is a good enough analogy.
Often, on days when I feel low the mind settles on a happy memory. This one of the cotton carding gypsies and those trouble free days of childhood where we jumped on cotton piles is a happy one. I still have vivid memories of how sometimes we rolled so hard in the cotton pile that we came out looking like fluffed snowmen. We would end up with runny noses and for days we would be sneezing and coughing. We would get to skip school. Those were the days.