Herdswoman Jomo always takes a spindle with her before heading out into the morning chill to herd her sheep. She feels the spindle makes her daily routine of herding less boring, as she can knit wool scarfs and bags while tending the animals.
Once every month, the 46-year-old herdswoman from a small village in northwest China's plateau province of Qinghai gathers with 14 fellow villagers to sell handicrafts to a Dutch couple, owners of a handicraft company based in Xining, the provincial capital.
The couple, Klaas Steendam and Pia de Vries from Amersfoort of Netherlands, have been training the village's herders to make handicrafts since 2007 to help them out of poverty.
"We first came to Qinghai in 1998 to study Chinese for two years. After that we started to teach English in a rural school in Qinghai at the invitation of a local friend," Steendam said.
He recalled that many local herders made yak hair tents and wool slings, a tool used for herding sheep and yaks, in their free time but couldn't earn much from raising animals.
"I started to think what I can do to help them make more money with their handmade articles," he said.
The couple set up a small handicraft company in 2007 and started to provide dozens of herder families in Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture with knitting tools and training so that they could weave wool and yak hair into colorful and marketable handicrafts.
The prefecture has an average altitude of around 3,000 meters, and is a major pasturing region and among the most impoverished areas in Qinghai.
The handicrafts, ranging from wool laptop bags, cellphone pouches to yak hair scarfs, are sold across the country and overseas by over 40 retailers.
"The products combine traditional Tibetan weaving and braiding skills with modern designs," Steendam said. "They have won the hearts of many domestic and overseas customers."
Jomo, a matriarch of a family of five, said her family can make up to 15 wool bags each month, worth 1,000 yuan (about 148 U.S. dollars). "That almost doubles our annual income," she said.
"I can make the bags while herding my sheep, and I can also do that at home with my mother, sister and two daughters," she added. "It's like a family workshop and has become an enjoyable experience for us."
Steendam said the sales of handicrafts have been growing thanks to the development of local tourism in the prefecture.
"More and more tourists are buying the handmade bags and scarves as souvenirs," he said. "This may further increase the local herders' income."
He added that he would maintain the small scale of his business instead of building a large factory that employs the herders.
"I hope they can spend more time with their families while making money rather than stay in a factory," he said.