BACK TO YAK
Using the down of the Tibetan yak, Norlha makes scarves and accessories that are as beautiful asthe material’s land of origin
“Norlha in Tibetan means wealth of the gods,” explains Kim Yeshi, President and co-founder of luxury textile brand Norlha. “The yak is the nomad’s nor, or wealth, the answer to all his needs. It provides him with milk, butter, meat and, of course, khullu – the warm layer of down that insulates this great animal from the cold.”
Kim, who was raised in Paris, France, but always dreamed of faraway places, met her Tibetan husband, Kalsang, in New York in 1974 before relocating to India a few years later. Her abiding wish was to create something that would give the local people of the Tibetan Plateau an opportunity – something that might help to raise them out of poverty in an ethical and sustainable manner.
But it wasn’t until she sent her daughter – Norlha CEO and co-founder Dechen Yeshi – on an exploratory mission to the northeast Tibetan region of Amdo in the summer of 2004, that she discovered the natural wealth and resource of yak khullu.
“I’ve always been interested in textiles,” says Kim, “but yak khullu has special properties. This is the undercoat of an animal that lives at over 3,000 metres above sea level, where winter temperatures plunge far below freezing, so naturally it is very warm. The fibre itself is precious but difficult to work, so we are careful to process it in the best possible way. If we mix it with other fibres, then we only use silk or cashmere. Yak khullu is lusciously soft, but it’s a softness different from that of cashmere. It is more rugged, very sturdy, and it doesn’t pill. If treated properly, it can last forever.”
In the spring season when the yaks begin to moult, their khullu is collected by the Tibetan nomads and cleaned in a factory as a raw fibre. This fibre is then woven into Kim and Dechen’s designs by the team of 120 local people they employ.
“The employment opportunity is the biggest thing,” says Kim. “A lot has changed on the Tibetan Plateau in the last 50 years, and the old ways of people living with the rhythm of nature and their herds has been jeopardised by the emergence of a new cash economy. Norlha’s role is to make young people feel that they are part of something meaningful, where their cultural heritage will be the basis for their economic success. By creating meaningful opportunity in the village, people can earn a livelihood while remaining in their cultural sphere, and learn to integrate new elements into a world that is theirs.”
The design element of the business, meanwhile, is led by Kim and her daughter, who have experimented with, tested and refined many of their collections over the years to better understand what people are looking for.
“Our scarves come in different thicknesses, depending on the season,” says Kim. “Those that are 100 per cent yak khullu are incredibly warm and brilliant for winter, whereas for summer we make lighter scarves that are blended with silk. We also produce homeware textiles by traditional nomadic methods such as felting, which was not previously considered possible with yak khullu. By using modern equipment, we found that we could combine technology and craftsmanship to create the first high-quality yak felt. It’s wonderful how this precious fibre keeps on giving.”