Thinking seriously about the cups used for supported spinning in Ladakh, made from the pulp of apricot kernels from which the oil has been extracted. This is a good example of so many things: perishable artifacts made from organic matter, textile-related tools whose purpose would be unclear if the technique were not known, the last stage of a chain of use that extracts every possible benefit from a resource.
When writing about traditional textile production in western Ladakh, I tend to discuss the apricot processing as well, because these are both activities that women work on continuously, more or less depending on the season. Through the spindle supporting cup, or phang-kor, the apricots dovetail with the wool, perfectly demonstrating the integration of different facets of village life, necessity, and making.
This type of bowl and material is also regionally specific, because it is only in the rich valleys of Sham, central and western Ladakh, that delicious apricots or chuli are grown. Delicious and sweet when ripe, the apricots are harvested and dried on rooftops, for sale or later use. Inside the pits of these apricots are another delicacy: almond-like nuts with a rich flavor and dense nutrition. A portion of these are also sold or stored (or eaten right away.) There is a skill involved in cracking open the apricot pits to access the nuts without smashing them. A light but firm tap with a stone pops the shell apart - but tap too hard and the nut is ruined, mixed with bits of shell. Women spend hours on the roof, opening apricot pits and sorting the nuts.
The next stage is extracting oil from the nuts. Ladakhi almond oil is a valuable product, used for health and beauty on hair, skin, etc. It is worth the effort required to access it. The women I knew in Skurbuchan village walked up the hill by the old palace to a large natural mortar and pestle, where they took turns pounding the nuts into pulp.
When the pulp is sufficiently pounded, it is ready to be squeezed by hand to finally strain out the precious oil.
How much? How long? Sorry, I don't have numbers. All I know is that Ladakhi women do this, and it is part of their life. The details of the village economy are complex and shifting, but production of this oil was cited as a women's cooperative effort that brought income (this documentation is from 2007).
Here, at last, is where the textile making comes back in. Those globs of pulp in Dechen's hands are the remains of apricot pulp. Perhaps you have heard that apricot seeds contain traces of cyanide? Once it gets to this stage, with all the oil extracted, the substance is poisonous if eaten. The women said if a goat or sheep eats it they will die. So the nutritional value is exhausted, but it still has a material use as a type of clay or dough.
The substance, called pacha, is molded into bowl shapes, decorated with a few lines or dots, and dried for use as a spinning bowl.
I have two of these bowls, phang-kor, made in Skurbuchan in 2007. I didn't get the chance to watch them being made, but expressed interest and someone got them for me. One of them developed some holes, and I thought it might have parasites, so I put it in the freezer for awhile. However, I now think it is disintegrating because it was not sufficiently dried to begin with. It was noticeably softer and oilier than the second one, and when I spun with it the tip end of the spindle drilled an indentation in the bowl. I don't think that's supposed to happen.
So apparently the pacha must be well-squeezed and emptied of oil in order to make a reliable bowl. They both still smell of apricot, evoking the whole context of their making. As a student of conservation, I can't help thinking about the role of these bowls as artifacts of a society, as well as organic, elusive tools that could easily escape the notice of someone studying that society.