Sitting by the fire, and in front of her television, on a cold winter night in Lahore, Huma Munir knits yet another sweater for one of her grandchildren. She is engrossed in her work, moving the needles at lightning speed, while watching a drama serial and talking to her family.
This precision and dedication to the craft has come with years of practice. When she was 16, Munir learned from a cousin and fondly remembers her mother knitting, too. “She would be knitting even when she was laying on her bed,” recalls Munir, now 70.
Munir even taught one of her daughters, Mehnaz Nasir, to knit, though Nasir was not able to pass on the craft on to her own daughter.
“My daughter does appreciate my work but she is not interested in learning it,” Nasir says.
The image of older women knitting for their children and grandchildren is a common one in Pakistan’s colder, northern areas.
As September begins, markets in these parts of the country fill up with winter wear. Yet, the advent of fast fashion has not deterred people who still prefer to knit. Some call it a hobby, a passion, or a habit, and others have ventured into the business of selling handmade items.
Knitting as a necessity
Knitting in Pakistan used to be one of the only ways one could wear a warm garment in winter. Munir remembers her cousin teaching her how to follow instructions in an English catalogue.
“Of course we didn’t have the internet, so everyone either learned designs from their mothers or through catalogues from England,” she says. “The magazine was called Stitch Craft and was popular back in the day.”
For Munir’s generation, learning how to knit was a necessity.
“In the ‘70s and ‘80s knitting was important because either we couldn’t find good quality sweaters in the market or couldn’t afford imported ones,” she says.
Married to an army officer, Munir had to move around the country every few years, and she and her fellow army wives would knit together during afternoon teas. She remembers learning new stitches and ideas from these women that had been passed down from prior generations.
Designing unique garments for their family members, which would become the envy of others in the community, motivated these women to continue knitting. Some knitted woolen garments year round to be ready for the winter.
“Women would come up with new designs and knit them in secrecy,” says Shahnaz Parveen, supervisor of the knitting department at Behbud Crafts, a nonprofit that aims to preserve age-old crafts in Pakistan and empower women, and an artisan herself. They wouldn’t share the ideas with others. It was a competition.”
Behbud, sustaining the craft of knitting in Pakistan
Knitting might be diminishing in popularity as most millennials choose fast fashion, but the craft has a rich history in Pakistan. Sonya Rehman, a writer who recently finished her book, Embroidering Dreams, about the Pakistani nonprofit Behbud, notes that the organization was founded to use craft to empower women two years after the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965. Behbud’s founder, Begum Ahkter Riazuddin, wanted to empower the war widows, gathering them in a garage in Rawalpindi, where they would knit and sew items to sell.
Behbud’s work continues today from an office in Rawalpindi, which teaches women from around the country traditional embroidery and patchwork, such as Kantha and Ralli, cross stitch and, of course, knitting, and pays them to craft items — sweaters, blankets, leggings, caps, and toys — for sale online and at boutiques in major cities across Pakistan. Each knitter earns a minimum of 15,000 PKR (roughly $95 USD) per month, making more for additional items.
“Their knitwear for children remains one of their best-selling items,” Rehman says.
Parveen believes that people would always prefer handmade knitwear for their children over ready-made items.
“The demand for hand-knitted products has increased in the past few years,” Parveen says. “The quality is matchless and keeps children warmer.”
While they even have machines to knit items like leggings for babies, Behbud prefers that home-based workers knit the items themselves from locally-sourced wool.
“While imported wool is softer, it would increase the cost of making and in turn the selling cost,” Parveen says. “Hence, we prefer locally-made wool.”
Wool, or the lack of it
Pakistan is the world’s ninth largest wool-producing country according to industry experts, but it is a neglected sector.
“Wool doesn’t add value for our industry,” says Azizullah Gohir, secretary general of the Pakistan Textile Exporters Association. “Productions and consumption is low in Pakistan. Hence, (it is) not believed to be lucrative.”
Cotton is the main focus of the country’s nearly 450 spinning mills, as Pakistan is the fourth largest cotton-producing country in the world, according to Gohir.
According to some experts, 66% of the wool produced in the country is used to make clothes, 30% to make carpets and 4% is used for industrial purposes. Pakistan does not have modern techniques available to increase the production of sheep wool, or technology to process it into fine wool. Hence, industrialists do not believe it to be profitable enough to invest in. The majority of wool yarn and products — about 7 trillion PKR ($44 billion USD) — are imported from other countries, mostly China.
The decrease in wool production is also political, according to some local vendors.
“It was during Musharraf’s era, around 2001 to 2007, when imports became cheap and extensive in Pakistan,” says Sulaiman Sajjad, owner of The Wool Shop in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. “Wool shops started facing losses and even mills were shut down. People stopped knitting and started buying cheap Chinese knitwear.”
Sajjad’s shop is lined floor to ceiling with a wide variety of colorful wool, knitting needles and other craft accessories.
Sajjad is in his late 30s and his family has been in business for three generations. His grandfather, Abdul Ghani, opened their first wool shop in the 1960s in Moti Bazaar, Rawalpindi, one of the nation’s oldest bazaars. Founded at the turn of the last century, today it houses thousands of shops, including a branch of The Wool Shop.
Sajjad’s shop is one of the very few shops that house wool all year round, with others selling wool only during the winter and switching to other products as seasons change.
At The Wool Shop, about 60% of the wool is local and the rest is imported. According to Sajjad, most wool prepared in Pakistan is made in Gujranwala and Faisalabad, the textile capital of Pakistan, though he says the wool made in Gujranwala is of better quality.
“The wool made in Faisalabad isn’t of great quality because the thread is made of cotton and other impurities, while the one made in Gujranwala at least has good fiber,” he says.
Sajjad also houses imported wool, from Turkey, Spain, Germany and England. He notes that the Turkish wool is popular among buyers but is expensive, with a pound costing between 1,600 and 3,000 PKR ($10 to $20 USD). By contrast, a pound of local wool can cost between 400 PKR to 600 PKR ($2.50 to $4 USD).
Sajjad says that customers from all walks of life visit his shop and that the ability to cater to all markets has been his selling point all these years.
“Sometimes women show me pictures of wool I don’t have,” Sajjad says. “Which makes me wonder, even after accommodating so many colors and qualities, why do I not have this item?”
Sajjad can source these yarns them from his vendors or get them locally dyed.
The popularity of knitting and crocheting has ebbed and flowed in the six decades that The Wool Shop has been around, but these crafts have remained important. And with the introduction of social media, it has made a comeback.
“When women started getting an education and did not have time for household chores, the craft took a back seat,” Sajjad says. “But as times change, people have again started to retake interest in the craft.”
While just a decade ago most of Sajjad’s customers used to be women over the age of 50, he says that now teenagers and women in their 20s or 30s are also taking an interest in the craft.
Sajjad points to travelling as one of the reasons for the comeback.
“My clients have said that their kids who have moved abroad have asked them to restart knitting because they saw how it is still a hobby in the west,” Sajjad says.
Social media and increasing small businesses
Samina Zohair, 56, was visiting her daughter in Australia in 2011 when she was reunited with knitting.
“I got arthritis so I stopped knitting, but my daughter encouraged me and bought new catalogues and equipment for me to begin,” Zohair says.
Once back in Pakistan, she started giving knitted items as gifts, starting her online business, Knittens, in 2017.
“My children asked me to start this professionally and through the word of mouth I started getting orders,” Zohair says.
For Zohair, Knittens is purely a hobby and isn’t how she earns a living.
Various handmade knitwear business accounts have emerged on Pakistan’s social media landscape over the past few years. Some makers work all year round, others only during the colder months.
Another handmade business owner is 26-year-old Bushra Shahid. She started knitting for her fiancé after their engagement in 2015 and has been knitting ever since. She set up her business in 2017 and recently revived it with the help of her mother-in-law.
“I found out that my mother-in-law is amazing at crochet and we had finally decided to bring our talent together and continued my page, Snowool,” she said.
Toys are also a popular handmade product. Rafiya Hasan launched HOP, which stands for Handcrafted On Purpose, to sell her knitted bunnies, in 2019.
“Even though I dabble in other crafts, knitted bunnies became a major feature of my page,” Hasan says. “I knitted the first ones for my grandson and then just kept going. That’s when I thought of creating my own Instagram page.”
Hasan understands that hers is a niche market of people who value handmade products over mass-produced ones.
“They understand that there is no substitute for it and that it is time-consuming,” Hasan says. “At HOP, we embrace things made by hand in small quantities and each piece is unique.”
Social media has not only become a marketplace for entrepreneurs to showcase and sell their talent, but it has also opened new avenues for local vendors.
The Wool Shop started conducting Facebook Lives to sell their items at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. Even though their Facebook page has been up since 2013, they only started to receive orders through it recently.
Sajjad’s first parcel went to Karachi, about a 24-hour drive from Islamabad. A famous actress placed one of his very first orders, and her positive review gave the business a jump start. Today about 15% of The Wool Shop’s revenue is made via social media and word of mouth.
“It has bought extra customers to our shops virtually, people I couldn’t have reached otherwise,” Sajjad says, adding that it has come at a cost. “It requires a lot of time and effort from our end. One has to be available on WhatsApp or the phone all the time and take pictures for customers, listen to their issues and be consistent.”
While the popularity of the craft might have decreased compared to its glory three or four decades ago, it won’t die a sad demise in Pakistan.
Rehman, the author, believes that even though people are into fast fashion, and buying and discarding items has become easier, ancient crafts like knitting are always evolving. She notes that there are pockets of fashion labels, nonprofits and individual start-ups that continue to sustain and evolve the craft.
“Knitting isn’t like other crafts, It is timeless, as it has been around for centuries and has managed to evolve and appeal to so many regions, who have incorporated their spin, essence into it,” Rehman says.