Kim and Dechen Yeshi: Norlha – Precious Fabrics
Situated in the heartland of the Tibetan plateau, Norlha develops hand-made products using local, raw materials such as khullu, the precious fiber that insulates yaks from the harsh winter. Spinning and weaving is a traditional activity among local nomads. The Norlha workshop provides over 70 nomads with a livelihood through stable employment. It brings economic activity that eases the exodus towards cities, contributes to the reduction of overgrazing and desertification, and gives added value to traditional Tibetan handicrafts. Norlha is breathing new life into traditional skills by making them sustainable: the aim is to build an economy based on small industries that make use of raw materials, and to transform them locally into hand-made products for a high-end market. We sat down with Norlha founder Kim Yeshi, and daughter Dechen, on their most recent trip to Beijing to discuss the project further.
Notes on Design: What are your backgrounds, and what initially brought you to China?
Kim: I am from the US, although I was brought up in France. I also lived in India for many years where I set up sustainable projects involving art and culture.
Dechen: I was, subsequently, raised in India but returned to the US for university. I have been living in Gannan Prefecture in Gansu province since 2005 i.e. when we began to research and set up the foundations of Norlha.
Notes on Design: Why did you decide to set up Norlha?
Kim: I love textiles and knew that, until now, very little had been done with yak fiber. Dechen and I also wanted to set up a sustainable project in a Tibetan region to try and develop its economy. A small enterprise that involved training and employing people in a nomadic village seemed to be the place to start. While the present wave in China is to bring progress through big projects based in urban areas, Norlha focuses on keeping people where they are, and using their own raw materials to set up small enterprises around them.
Notes on Design: What does “Norlha” actually mean?
Kim: Norlha means “Wealth of the Gods”. It is also what the nomads call their yaks, since this animal is the source of all their wealth.
Notes on Design: Can you tell us more about how your products are made?
Kim: The products are made from yak wool that is collected from various areas on the Tibetan Plateau. We have set up our own collection teams, which spread out in different areas where the quality is best. Yak khullu is not shorn like wool. To collect it, you have to wait until it is ready to fall, and when it does finally fall, someone has to be there to handpick it. The best khullu is from two-year-old yaks and it is the only kind we accept. We then spin the wool on charkhas and weave it on Indian looms brought over from Nepal.
Notes on Design: What are you working on at the moment?
Dechen: We release two collections a year, so our team (of 70 people) is constantly manufacturing, producing around 900 shawls a month. We are also developing around 200 different products aimed towards the French and Chinese markets.
Notes on Design: What do you consider to be your biggest achievement to date?
Kim: The biggest achievement is training my own team, all of them originating from local nomadic families. Most of them were illiterate when we started up, but now they independently manage all aspects of running the workshop, such as stock-keeping, budget-making, managing clients and of course, production. I hope that, once this model is well established, it can be replicated elsewhere.
Notes on Design: How do you market your products, and where are they sold?
Dechen: Presently, we are selling in France with companies like Christophe Lemaire, Antik Batik, Juliette Ozouf, Arnys and Sonia Rikyel, but we are also planning to develop the China market.
Notes on Design: Where would you like to see yourself in 3-5 years time?
Kim: We would like to further diversify our products by creating a range of fabrics as well as house wares and, eventually, clothing. First, however, we would like Norlha shawls to become a household name in quality wrap wear: a wrap, blanket or shawl that people have and use for all occasions, but also to collect and keep as heirlooms.
Find out more about Norlha products at eng.Norlha.fr. Norlha also featured on The Guardian website in December 2010, which you can see here: “Yak wool: the new cashmere?”
Designer and writer Kate Andrews was the original editor of Notes on Design blog, founded in 2007.