Woolly wardrobes

New York-born de­signer makes yak-wool fash­ions pop­u­lar

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By PALDEN NYIMA in Lhasa palden_ny­ima@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Born in New York to a Ti­betan fa­ther and an Amer­i­can mother, Dechen Yeshi is the prod­uct of two cul­tures com­bined.

Over the past decade, she has worked tire­lessly to build her fam­ily’s yak wool busi­ness into an in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned tex­tile brand, which also helps im­prove the lives of no­madic com­mu­ni­ties in Gan­nan Ti­betan au­ton­o­mous pre­fec­ture, Gansu province, where her work­shops are based.

The brand, called Norlha, is avail­able through e-com­merce sites from New York to Paris and its prod­ucts have also been fea­tured in fa­mous fash­ion houses such as Her­mes.

Like most no­mads on the Ti­betan Plateau, the in­hab­i­tants of Zorge Ri­tuoma vil­lage in Gansu province have de­pended on rais­ing yaks as their main source of in­come for thou­sands of years.

“With fast-growing ur­ban­iza­tion and an in­crease of job op­por­tu­ni­ties in mod­ern times, many no­mads — es­pe­cially the younger gen­er­a­tions — have been giv­ing up their age-old no­madic life,” said Gon­bokyab, a Ti­betan nomad.

How­ever, Yeshi’s en­ter­prise has helped to keep some of these tra­di­tional com­mu­ni­ties to­gether by pro­vid­ing them with a new means of mak­ing a liv­ing.

The Norlha work­shop in Zorge Ri­tuoma vil­lage em­ploys more than 150 lo­cal no­mads, pro­vid­ing them with train­ing and a sta­ble job.

“We pro­vide both break­fast and lunch at the work­shop and the work­ers are em­ployed all year around,” said Yeshi, 34.

“It has grown to be­come a sta­ble source of liveli­hood for them and we have over a hun­dred peo­ple wait­ing for job open­ings.”

Hav­ing a thriv­ing cen­tral source of em­ploy­ment has boosted the econ­omy of the vil­lage, which can now sup­port ad­di­tional restau­rants and shops due to in­creased lev­els of dis­pos­able in­come, she said.

But the big­gest af­fect has been in keep­ing the lo­cal com­mu­nity to­gether.

“Younger peo­ple now have an op­por­tu­nity to re­main in their vil­lages with their young chil­dren and el­derly par­ents, thus al­low­ing for a healthy fam­ily life,” Yeshi said.

“By pro­vid­ing a source of liveli­hood that is based on lo­cally avail­able raw ma­te­ri­als, and by teach­ing a skill and open­ing a new mar­ket, Norlha has pro­vided new job op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

Of­fer­ing an al­ter­na­tive source of in­come has also led to a re­duc­tion in the num­ber of ac­tual no­mads in the area — re­duc­ing over­graz­ing pres­sures on the grass­land.

In ad­di­tion to Zorge Ri­tuoma, Norlha has work­shops in Ren­tuoma vil­lage and Hezuo city as well as a smaller branch in Xi­ahe county, Gansu province.

“Scarves and shawls are the sig­na­ture prod­ucts we pro­duce, and we are rec­og­nized as cre­at­ing some of the world’s most beau­ti­ful yak wool scarves,” said Yeshi, adding that the com­pany also pro­duces yak felt clothes, bags, home fur­nish­ings, toys, and chil­dren’s ac­ces­sories.

The ben­e­fits of a steady job with week­ends and hol­i­days are not lost on the no­mads that the com­pany em­ploys, ac­cord­ing to Yeshi.

“They no longer have to worry about work­ing days, months and years on end with no hol­i­days, early hours and hard la­bor, some­times com­pletely in vain in the face of an­i­mal diseases and low mar­ket prices for an­i­mals,” she said.

Many of the com­pany’s fe­male em­ploy­ees have also found a mea­sure of in­de­pen­dence thanks to their monthly salaries and are now able to con­trib­ute di­rectly to their fam­ily’s sav­ings, with Norlha seen as a vi­tal part of the lo­cal com­mu­nity, Yeshi said.

Look­ing to­ward the future, Yeshi hopes to col­lab­o­rate with more vil­lages on the Ti­betan Plateau, bring­ing em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties to other ar­eas where they are badly needed.


Ti­betan work­ers works at the Norlha work­shop in Gan­nan Ti­betan au­ton­o­mous pre­fec­ture, Gansu province.

Dechen Yeshi on the grass­land in Gansu province.

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