With ethical and sustainable practices at the forefront, Kim and Dechen Yeshi’s label Norlha makes use of Tibet’s precious yak wool and ancient techniques to make beautiful hand-crafted clothing
- Who is it? Norlha, the Tibetan luxury brand working with nomads who skilfully hand-weave from yak wool
- Why do I want it? The brand places the utmost importance on ethical and sustainable practices, preserving tradition, nurturing a local economy and producing timeless garments in the process
- Where can I find it? At Norlha’s online store and various worldwide stockists
Who is it? 12 years ago, in a small valley hidden in the Amdo region of the Tibetan Plateau, a mother, Kim Yeshi – an American anthropologist married to a Tibetan academic – and her daughter, Dechen, founded Norlha. Today, their yak khullu atelier – yak khullu wool comes from the soft under-down of a yak – produces two seasonal collections a year in a nomad settlement comprising 230 families, 6,000 yaks and 20,000 sheep. “I had this idea to do something with yak wool,” explains Kim of the label’s origins. “I had a friend in Kathmandu who worked with cashmere, and we were always talking about the animals that had precious wools in the region. One was the camel, one was the yak, and I came to realise people knew very little about the yak; it wasn’t something out on the market. The idea was to fulfil the potential of this precious fibre, something that hadn’t been done before.”
Kim encouraged Dechen to pursue this journey into the unknown – her daughter was then a Connecticut College graduate interested in directing documentaries – eventually settling in Ritoma village where Norlha began its life. “I didn’t have a background in textiles and was much more interested in filmmaking,” says Dechen. “I started to talk to young people here and realised that they were very open to having an alternative source of employment and, more than anything, wanted to be more in touch with the modern world. What Kim had told me about starting a business with yak wool, plus the Tibetan’s interest in doing something bigger, suddenly clicked together. Filmmaking became a bridge to ask people questions, and through their answers I realised there was a future for us too.”
Norlha is now home to 120 employees, all former nomads who have spun, woven and felted for generations. “Everything and everyone works in the same courtyard, there’s a mutual sense of responsibility and family,” Dechen explains. Norlha fibres are hand-spun using the finest yak khullu, but unlike other animals that are combed or shaved, the wool of the yak can only be caught as molt when it sheds in late spring. A complex process, one winter scarf could be made up of an entire year’s worth of wool from seven different yaks. The soft wool yarns are then dyed, using a palette of colours obtained by natural pigments made locally by the craftsmen of the workshop.
The resulting clothing – timeless Chuba shirts and dresses, oversized scarfs, seamless vests, felt trousers and shirt jackets – have a precious, home-spun quality. Earthy tones are matched with rich red and indigo, and encapsulate the brand’s strong bond to the natural world and traditions around them, the tundra of winter, grasslands of summer and its many other seasons of colour.
Why do I want it? Norlha hopes to redefine the way we see luxury, making it synonymous not just with high-quality materials and careful craftsmanship, but also an ethical conscience and passionate workforce, with Tibetan culture at the fore (the name itself, in the Tibetan language, means ‘wealth of the Gods’ and is used by local nomads in reference to their yaks, which are among the most important resources of Central Asia).
“We don’t want people buying from us just out of sympathy, because then they won’t come back and it’s not sustainable,” says Kim. “We see this sustainability in the same way with Norlha’s workers. Our artisans need to have a purpose and income to see their worth in the business, to encourage them to stand on their own two feet,” she adds. Employees have learnt not only to spin and weave, but become linked to the world within a familiar environment, one that moves ahead without compromising core cultural values. “Our mission is to attract the younger generation as they are the future,” says Dechen.
Norlha was first founded in the midst of a changing Tibet: the growing availability of the internet in the country, and the introduction of the Tibetan language on iPhones, has help opened to the rest of the world. “This is when we realised it was possible to be a brand,” Dechen says. “We want people to understand Tibetan culture in a different way through our products. We want to tell our story, for the local community as much as for the global community, bringing everyone together as one.”