Nepal’s natural fabric industry, something so in-the-news these days is struggling to make ends meet. With some changes to government policy, it doesn’t have to.
Nepal’s natural fabric industry – weaving, making yarn, stitching and producing garments out of natural fabrics such as hemp and stinging nettle is in trouble. Industry people say that it is mired in numerous problems and with no clear cut solutions. From the lack of textile engineers to improper machinery, the industry is running like most other things in Nepal, in a makeshift manner that does not do justice to its history or potential.
South Asian Association of Home Based Workers in Nepal (SABAH NEPAL) with a membership of over 1000 women, it is one of the biggest organizations in the country. Its organizational structure is as unique as the fabric and clothes prepared by its home-based workers. The organization is made up of women from various social strata and various regions of the country. The cloths these women produce are special, not only because the women represent large parts of Nepal that rarely figure in the nation’s commerce but also and more importantly because their work incorporates cultural influences. The unique fabrics, patterns and methods employed by these women are not learned from outsiders but are art forms passed down from generation to generation.
For many of these women, weaving cloth is something they learned when they were children at home; it has been with them all their lives. Imagine their surprise and glee when someone from SABAH tells them that their skills can get them employment and, better still, a little financial independence. It is tragic that their skills are not realizing full potential, not by far.
Hari Gopal Chyashi comes from a village in Lubhu, outside Kathmandu. When he was growing up, he remembers seeing a handloom in every house in his village. Everyone wove, for themselves and when there was a surplus they would sell it. Fabric was no ‘industry’ then; it was more of a way of life, a self-sustaining method that rid them of dependence on foreign fabric. Chyashi has worked in the sector for almost 20 years. He goes on to reminisce about nearby Bhaktapur, where there was also a loom in almost every home. Today, handloom work is a fraction of what it used to be in Lubhu and Bhaktapur.
“There are two things lacking in the fabric business in Nepal,” Chyashi opines, eyes closed for a moment trying to piece his thoughts together. “Technical know-how is one, and the second is government policy. There is simply no support or encouragement from the government toward this sector, and in its absence, how are we supposed to plan ahead for the future?”
His skepticism is not misplaced. Kathmandu’s natural fabric industry is struggling, to put it modestly. Even with all the hoopla – the few expats opting for the fabric and the fewer Nepalis interested and willing to fork out the extra moolah for the fabric - about natural fabrics and alternative clothing, the scenario is pretty bleak. “The question I get asked is ‘Why is this fabric so expensive? Isn’t this Nepali?’” says Pranidhi Tuladhar, a young designer, fabricating under the ‘Karuna’ label. “The general misconception,” he adds, “is that something ‘Nepali’ has to be cheaper and that foreign goods are expensive and that must mean they are better. Not many people bother asking why natural fabrics such as allo or bamboo or hemp are expensive!”
There are good answers for this question, answers that Pranidhi and other designers and retail store owners must wish their customers understood. For one, when the fabric is local, it means the plants, such as cannabis or stinging nettle (allo) are grown in-country. Processing this - making thread or yarn, then dyeing, designing, cutting and finally stitching it – all happens locally, by local folks, mostly using labor intensive processes. Because the demand is low, there is no mass production and thus each individual piece ends up costing more.
But the fabrics are worth more than say, the price of a branded shirt at the mall. Hemp, a fiber produced using the stalk of the Cannabis sativa plants, is one of the fabrics used to make button down shirts and T-shirts at Karuna in Durbar Marg. It is the most durable of all fabrics. Being water absorbent means that it retains color better than cotton and hemp also softens and improves with each washing. On the other hand, allo fabric is softer than hemp, is anti-allergic and has a natural resistance to fire, and it keeps one warm in the winter and cool in summer. “Once you wear allo, you don’t feel like wearing any other fabric,” says Pranidhi.
Besides buying quality local goods to support the economy, natural fabrics are also eco-friendly. Plants like allo are perennials, take next to no effort to grow and are found abundantly in the warmer areas of the country, making it a greener choice than, say, cotton.
Why then aren’t natural fabrics all the rage in Kathmandu and elsewhere? Their roughness may be part of the answer. Chyashi’s words are echoed by those of Ninu Pradhan, the soft spoken Head of Design at SABAH NEPAL. “There is no technical knowledge on how to soften the coarse fabric that we produce here in Nepal. Many times, we falter during the weaving process. If there was a textile engineer with an expertise in weaving, we could solve so many of these problems,” says Pradhan. In the absence of such experts, many times even an organization such as SABAH Nepal has had to believe foreign and even local vendors at face value when sourcing material from them. “A laboratory is missing here too; someplace we could carry out tests on our fabrics. We are currently using labs in India for testing.”
A small help could do much good in such dire situations, as shown by the work of Graham Hollick, a British textile designer who spent some time with SABAH Nepal employees, training and guiding them, especially working with dhaka cloth - a traditional design made of cotton and used for the national dress and for formal occasions. With the sentimental attachment that most Nepalis have with dhaka, it is no surprise that the fabric sells the most. Dhaka, worn as national attire, is essentially all about the arrow-like design, which has traditionally been made using the same colors. Hollick however, played around with more muted colors, giving it a fresh look and allowing it to be used in more contemporary designs. Since he’s left, SABAH’s designers have given these color combinations continuity, and what was meant for export purposes have been selling locally well beyond expectations. Last year’s Ananta show organized by SABAH Nepal, which attracted members of Kathmandu’s business community, socialites and fabric industry professionals, was a testament to what Nepali designers can do with Nepali fabric.
Emotional attachment however, only goes so far. “With limited designs and a rough fabric, how many shirts can we expect to sell to a local – one, two?” asks Pradhan. “There is a huge demand for our allo fabric in India too, but again until we sort out our limitations, how can we expect to take advantage of this situation?” he adds. Machines that weave yarn such that the fabric is much softer are available, but very expensive. The reality is that until the industry here upgrades to such machines, their development will be stunted. Who should this help come from? “I have never even thought about asking the government for help regarding this,” says Pradhan, smiling softly perhaps at the absurdity of such an idea.
As a veteran in his field, Chyashi has time and again knocked on government doors only to be disappointed by their apathy. The way he sees it, the government does not even have to lend any monetary support, but only make a few amendments in some simple policies, for example, the uniforms of college-going girls. It used to be mandatory for girl students at colleges like Padma Kanya to wear locally made cotton saris. Chyashi remembers how busy the weavers were attending to this demand. How practical can wearing a sari be today though? “It’s not about the sari really,” he explains, “But if only school uniforms in the country, or at least in the capital, were to be mandatorily made from Nepali fabric, imagine the number of jobs that it would provide – from farmers to weavers to designers to tailors. The interest and encouragement by the government just isn’t there.”
In such circumstances, it’s no surprise then that talented manpower is fleeing the country. It’s particularly discouraging when people who could have a career working with natural fabrics are ‘forced’ to migrate for ‘better’ opportunities. Sarita Tuladhar who has run ‘Swoniga Designs’ for 21 years, warns of worse labor problems in the future. “If we are to continue this way, with all the bandhs and the load shedding to top the government’s apathy towards the industry, in a few years there won’t be any weavers,” she says. Chyashi adds to this prediction when he says, “If this is the way we run our weaving industry, in a few years, we’ll be on the way to losing our natural fabrics and the art forms associated with them.”
This is the current situation: The natural fabric that so many people are talking about is selling poorly. Its potential is obvious to all, but without proper investment in this sector nothing is going to change. The Nepali fabric we proudly flaunt is often made from Indian or Chinese yarn and sometimes even the fabric itself is imported from aborad, with locals only adding the finishing touches. Most fabric producers have now resorted to becoming garment factories – taking orders from markets in Europe and elsewhere for shirts, pants and woolens. This is better than letting go of their staff, they say. Power looms are expensive, hand looms are not, but the efficiency of the latter is low - a few meters a day, depending on the design. The irony is that given the objective to support home based workers (mostly women), most fabric producers prefer handlooms. In the process, however, they sacrifice efficiency, which in turn is one reason why the natural fabric industry is suffering. Most help, and most fabric and yarn comes from India.
Pradhan says that one of the best ways to promote natural Nepali fabric is through exhibitions. SABAH has the advantage of having their SAARC affiliated stores in all South Asian countries where their fabrics are easily available to interested people. But this doesn’t seem to have increased much. Other opportunities for exhibitions, exposure and training require funding, something most privately run fabric companies cannot afford.
Not everyone is as pessimistic or mad at the government, however. Ninu Pradhan is happy that she chose a career working with natural fabrics. “Not everyone can work in the handicrafts field,” she says. “It takes someone who really loves their work to do this. I am proud of the fact that my work aids so many home-based workers.” Sarita Tuladhar learned the basics of design and fabric in Japan at a time when career women in Nepal were frowned upon. Her’s is one of the oldest boutiques in Kathmandu. Her identity is so interwoven with her product that many people think her brand name ‘Swoniga’ is her first name. She is proud that many of her clients are regulars.
In sharp contrast to Ninu and Sarita’s story is the story of Tara Karki, a 22- year-old employee at SABAH Nepal’s Kusunti office. Tara started work in Homenet South Asia, an INGO that supports home based workers much like SABAH does. At 17, Tara got the opportunity to train in Ahmadabad, India, with Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). There she learned much about her trade and did so well that back home in her village of Dolakha, five hours northeast of Kathmandu, she was able to run a month-long workshop to train other women about allo and cotton. She’s also run training programs in nearby Kavre District and as far west as Myagdi; the latter for 40 days.
Tara is happy that she is more independent today than she has ever been before and she says she owes this to her skill in weaving Nepali cloth. She takes trides in having helped give new meaning to many others like her. When I asked her what complaints she has, something that might help the natural fabric business, I expected to hear about load shedding and political instability. But her answer was more personal and revealing: “I wish I was educated. If I was, I’d have been able to learn more. We have to do a lot of calculation in our work and I sometimes struggle with this.” It was a simple comment, but one she has obviously thought a lot about. In saying it, she did not stop for even one second to look my way. She kept working on her loom.