Divine Wealth – An interview with Norlha’s Dechen Yeshi
Our very first sourcing trip for …in a strange land was memorable for a number of reasons, all of them good! We met some amazing people and visited some incredible places. We also made some wonderful discoveries, not least of which were the beautiful products woven on the Tibetan plateau by an organization called Norlha.
For Tibetan nomads, the Yak is paramount. As the buffalo was to the Native Americans of the plains and the Water Buffalo is to agricultural communities throughout South East Asia, the Yak is a source of labour, warmth and nourishment. One company is responsibly capitalizing on this symbiotic relationship in order to make beautiful textiles.
We have previously written about them and their work here, but wanted to know more about the people behind the brand. Dechen Yeshi is a true inspiration and the driving force behind the company. She started Norlha with her mother and now lives permanently in Gansu, ensuring that their founding principles are adhered to.
We thought we’d ask her some questions. Here’s how we got on…
Can you give us a brief summary of your background and your links with Tibet?
My father is Tibetan and I grew up in a Tibetan household. After I graduated from college in the US, my parents encouraged me to travel to the Tibetan plateau and try and find a life there. I have been here ever since.
How did you first get the idea for Norlha?
My mother is a lover of textiles. For years she talked about the possibilities of yak wool but she was too busy to undertake a new project in a new area. When I graduated from college, she urged me to collect some yak wool so we could test it in Nepal. We realized that yak wool can be transformed into a beautiful and valuable product, but it also became evident that unless we produced on the Tibetan plateau itself, the nomads would not see any of the added value of the material. And so, not only the brand Norlha was born but also Norlha atelier, the atelier on the roof of the world!
Our grasp of Tibetan and its dialects are limited at best! Can you please explain the meaning of the word Norlha?
“Nor” is the Tibetan for wealth. However, it is not limited to material wealth alone. It can mean a wealth of knowledge and for the nomads it is simply the term for yaks. For centuries, the lives of Tibetan nomads have centered around yak. They eat yak butter, cheese and meat. Drink yak milk, live in yak hair tents and use yaks for transportation. Therefore “Nor” for Tibetan nomads are ‘yaks’ which in turn means wealth. “Lha” is the Tibetan for “God”. Norlha is therefore the God of Yaks / wealth.
We love the feel, warmth and durability of Khullu as a material. Can you please explain what it is and how it is gathered?
Khullu is the fine under fibre that keeps an animal warm. As the new khullu grows each year, it pushes out the previous year’s wool and thus the yak sheds during summer. One can simply comb it out or collect it as it falls to the ground.
At …in a strange land, ethical and sustainable practices are of paramount importance when selecting products. Can you please briefly describe your commitment to ethical and sustainable practices?
At Norlha, ethical and sustainable practices are of the utmost importance. We are unique in Yak khullu companies, in that we have our own atelier where we employ 120 nomads around the year. These people have come to depend upon Norlha as a dependable source of livelihood. Their children would like to learn the craft and we now have a waiting list of up to 100 people, mostly young people who are embracing the opportunity to live in their own village with their families. We are dedicated to continue this mission in teaching people a craft that is based on a locally available raw material and where they are reaping the benefits of the added value. In this way we are commited to being ethical and sustainable.
Through the beautiful photography on your website and marketing materials, we have been introduced to the landscape and people of Kanlho. Can you tell us more about the nomadic people you employ?
Our mission is to attract the younger generation as they are the future. These young adults are mostly nomads with very little to no schooling. For them it is a great opportunity to be able to be surrounded by the nomadic pastures that they are so familiar with, while not having to participate in the arduous life of a nomad.
We understand that to create such beautiful textiles you have had to draw upon weaving techniques from other regions. Can you tell us about this?
Our techniques are largely from Nepal with some influences from Cambodia. We use the handloom for weaving. For felting we use a combination of Finnish felting techniques, local techniques and innovative techniques using machines.
How long does it take to create one of your more complex scarves?
The time is mostly in the spinning. One woman can only spin 3kgs a month and a single scarf can be 0.5kg. Therefore our handspun collection is the most luxurious and takes the longest to create.
What’s next for Norlha?
We hope to be sustainable enough to expand into other neighboring villages.