In the Tibetan language, “norlha” means “wealth of the Gods,” and is used by many local nomads in reference to their yaks, which are among the most important resources of the Tibetan Plateau. Referencing this, Norlha is a textile brand that aims to help preserve local tradition and connect it to a greater global market. Founded by US-born and France-raised Kim Yeshi and her daughter Dechen Yeshi in 2007, Norlha works closely with the local community to craft luxurious textiles from yak fiber.
With a background in anthropology and Asian studies, Kim has always had a passion for fine craftsmanship and a strong sensibility for projects at the crossroad of art and sustainability. Fascinated by the exceptional properties of yak wool (also called khullu), which provides insulation for temperatures as low as -30°C, she decided to embark in a new project: Norlha. To set up the foundations of the brand, Kim’s children Dechen and Genam first visited the region on a research trip, spending seven months in China and on the Tibetan Plateau in 2005. They collected two tons of yak wool, and learned everything there was to know about the different grades of wool, which animals yield best, how the nomads collect and which is the best way to get the best raw material.
After researching how to produce the finest yak wool, Kim and Dechen set up a workshop in Ritoma, a village of Gannan Tibetan Prefecture in Gansu province. Working in what is one of China’s poorest areas, the two found a challenge in showing locals that they could find an economical benefit in getting involved in such a project—instead of migrating outside their village to look for other other work opportunities. Dechen’s tells CH, “The difference with Norlha is that the product is not made in a factory in mainland China, but is made locally in the village—at the very source of the wool. In this way, the added value of the product is retained in the village. It is also the first workshop to actually hand-weave yak wool and to make felt out of yak wool, in a quality that takes the product to the fashion houses of Paris.”
In fact, the craftsmen behind Norlha’s excellence are all people from a rural village, and the majority of them used to be nomads—for many, working with Norlha presents their first opportunity for steady employment and income. The raw material—the yak khullu—is collected from a network of nomads operating on the Tibetan Plateau. The only kind of khullu sourced is from two-year-old yaks (meaning the wool is the best quality) and then it gets spun on charkhas and woven on Indian looms from Nepal.
Scarves, capes, jackets, knitted sweaters, textiles for home furnishing and much more can be made of pure yak fiber, or sometimes mixed with other precious yarns such as silk and cashmere. Norlha, as a collective, makes sure to use the best technique and approach, in order to get more variety in weight, texture and color for each product. And while Kim and Dechen keep an eye on the fads of the global fashion world, the Tibetan Plateau and its natural marvels are still the main source of inspiration for their creations.
Norlha stands as an outstanding example of traditional craftsmanship and sustainability, and has been gaining the attention of big names in the luxury world. As well as developing their own product lines, the company creates high-quality products for Louis Vuitton, Balmain, Ackermann, Lanvin and others. Norlha’s creations can be found in China at Beijing’s Aman Resort Summer Palace, UCCASTORE and other stores listed online.
Images courtesy of NORLHA