The Soft Warmth of Tibetan Yak Wool
High in the Himalayas, a small atelier produces a unique wool that has Parisian designers fawning.
Breaking into the French fashion industry usually takes decades, or even generations. But if a brand is born with that Parisian artisanal spirit, even Hermès and Louis Vuitton can’t resist.
“People thought we were a little bit crazy — [the fashion houses] didn’t want to be the first ones to give us an order, because we didn’t have experience producing and manufacturing,” says Dechen Yeshi, cofounder and CEO of Norlha, a company that makes luxurious yak wool textiles and clothing from high up in the Tibetan plateau.
In high school, Yeshi remembers her Parisian mother — with whom she cofounded Norlha — experimenting with different textiles. For example, she tried camel hair, but found it too coarse. However, when her mother read in a history book about someone wearing a beautiful chuba, the traditional Tibetan dress made of yak wool, her mom searched for samples of this fibre, which she was unable find. But she always had a hunch that it would be both extremely durable and warm for the animal to survive such harsh Himalayan winters.
Yeshi’s mom was right about yak wool’s unique properties, but there were reasons no one else in the luxury market was using this rare material. “It’s a really challenging fibre to work with,” says Yeshi, who points out the difficulties cleaning, dyeing and spinning its short fibres. “But if you can get past those challenges, then you get the characteristics of yak wool. It’s just incredibly warm for a much lighter weight.”
The Himalayan village where Norlha set up its atelier also had significant challenges, such as its lack of infrastructure — no running water, steady electricity, nor good roads. In terms of the actual textile, the nomadic people were using yak wool for tents, not clothing, so the quality of the fibre and ways of processing it would need drastically improve.
“We had to use the local raw material, but the techniques we would have to adapt and be innovative,” Yeshi says. “The looms stretched out into the horizon, and the warps were so long and made for a grassland with space, not for indoors where you produce and manufacture.”
The artisans also needed training, so in 2006, a year before Yeshi and her mother opened the atelier, they trained a team of artisans for six months in Cambodia. They continued on to Nepal, discovering weaving techniques and British looms that were brought to India, then Nepal, during the Industrial Revolution. To this day, cashmere scarves from high-end stores are woven on these same types of looms, so Yeshi brought them back to Tibet, to handcraft the world’s finest yak wool.
“The weaving we’ve perfected, and our scarves really caught the eye of the fashion houses. Wherever we felt we could improve a little bit, we would add on other techniques,” Yeshi says. Though similar weaving techniques can be found in India and Nepal, Norlha has added a three-step quality control, undoing knots and re-stringing.
“This kind of quality check makes it so that handmade is not an excuse for badly made,” she says.
Later on, Norlha developed its own yak felting process, combining many traditional techniques, even one from Finland. Typically, only small accessories and products are made with yak felt, but Norlha’s techniques allow it to make much larger items.
“Designers love to buy yak felt for coats, hats, interior decorating or bags,” she says. “The uses are endless, so the yak felt is really our big innovation.”
A year after the atelier opened, Yeshi headed to Paris with Norlha’s first collection. Since her mother had some connections growing up there, Yeshi set several appointments but was faced with a stalemate.
Finally, Arnys, now owned by Berluti, took a leap of faith and ordered one hundred pieces. Yeshi and her mother were so excited — Norlha was a real thing; it was going to survive.
Despite this breakthrough, a few months later, the 2008 financial crisis hit, drying up Norlha’s prospects in Paris, forcing them to sell locally in Tibet just to stay alive. But the hardship of the crash would bring an unexpected change in the market.
“Once the dust settled from the economic crisis, people had a different attitude,” Yeshi says. “They were asking questions about where your product came from; are you socially ethical? It suddenly became the trend to work with smaller factories.”
Now Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Lanvin, Balmain, Visvim and Bergdorf and Goodman were placing orders, as magazines like Marie Claire spread the word about this chic, socially-responsible new brand in Tibet.
“We do try to make ourselves as cool as possible, but at the same time, in a timeless manner,” Yeshi says. “We want our products to be cross-cultural. We want it to be something that somebody from any city, from New York to Beijing, Tokyo, Paris, or wherever, can wear and feel comfortable in, and also have a very socially ethical side as well.”
“I’m a Tibetan Buddhist,” Dechen says. “It’s not the Buddhism that’s based on ritual, but it’s about training your mind. It’s not so much about physically being comfortable. It’s much more about your mental satisfaction of what you’re doing and how you’re using your life. That becomes of bigger importance, and that’s what allows you to get through all the physical discomforts in Tibet.”
Yeshi’s success with Norlha — a journey of forbearance in the Himalayas with “frozen toothbrushes, shampoos, and lack of running water” — started at home with family values that fortified what the brand would become.
“I was encouraged at home to always do something that meant something in your life, to make your life interesting,” says Yeshi.
Yeshi grew up in the U.S. with her Tibetan father, mother and three siblings who would later become a philosopher, a doctor and a designer, whom Yeshi plans to soon recruit for the company.
“[My mother] was surrounded in an environment where her parents believed in investing in things that have a history,” says Yeshi. Her grandfather, for example, loved to collect exquisite tapestries. “She always felt that need to contribute back to something where you’re not just buying a product for the brand name but to have something in your house or that you’re wearing that tells a story.”
When Yeshi graduated college, she was also interested in positively impacting the world, like her mother, yet Yeshi wanted to spur social change through film. Her mother, however, had something else in mind: to gather yak wool with her and her brother in the northern plateaus of Tibet. Sensing her 22-year-old daughter’s boredom with the idea, her mother bought Yeshi a nice camera so she could document her adventure to the nomadic grasslands of Tibet.
“Once I started talking to the people over there, I realized that they were really in need of jobs,” says Yeshi. “[I had a] romanticized view of just how nomads live, and I saw that there was another side that’s very hard and physically demanding. That’s when I started to think that maybe making yak wool really makes sense, if it gives them employment.”
Norlha’s dedication to its artisanal heritage isn’t just about beautiful craftsmanship and quality — it’s about staying committed to the wonderful Tibetans who make this unique, luxury fibre and clothing.
Though the popularity of sustainability and Norlha has been growing, the commodity economy remains the driver of the luxury market, with fashion houses constantly pushing Dechen to lower their prices. In good conscience, Yeshi and her mother couldn’t dedicate themselves to a bottom line that would strip fair wages from their artisans, now their friends, their community.
Now, Norlha is focused on selling online, directly to the customer, communicating the brand’s story as well as a lasting lifestyle.
“It’s communicating that your yak wool scarf or blanket is made with this quality from these nomads who are based on the Tibetan Plateau,” Yeshi says. “We’re trying to reintroduce that concept back into the world where you can have a wardrobe that tells a story of what you support and where you’ve been. It’s not something that’s seasonal or about fashion — it’s about having something that can be your companion.”