Norlha uses its real employees to shoot product photos. Photo provided by norlha.fr
When Farmer’s Market core member Qi Dafu showed off her new purchase – a thick rug made of yak wool – her friends were surprised.
They all knew Qi would spend a lot of money on quality food, but never on fashion.
“I have had four scarves from the same brand,” she said. “They are all so warm.”
The scarves are a specialty product of Norlha, a workshop in the village of Ritoma in Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province.
If you travel to Tibet or bordering regions like Yunnan Province, you will bump into quite a few vendors that sell khullu, or yak wool products, but seldom as exquisite as Norlha’s.
There are dozens of articles introducing the brand and interviewing the founder, which should tell you a Norlha shawl is a wise investment.
While many workshops that have reached out to urban consumers have failed in quality, Norlha has turned the almost-forgotten yak wool into something that rivals the quality of high-end Paris fashion brands such as Antik Batik, Arnys, Juliette Ozouf, Sonia Rikyel, Christophe Lemaire and Balmain.
That feat took two generations of preparation and devotion.
Kim Sciaky-Yeshi, 56, a US-French anthropologist who married a Tibetan man, always had a passion for beautiful weaving.
In 2005, she sent her daughter Dechen and son Genam to Gannan Prefecture to see what they could do with yak wool.
The product turned out to be wonderful, and the mother and daughter decided to start Norlha in 2007 to help the local economy.
To harness the high quality fiber, they sent four people to study weaving in India.
Dechen Yeshi, 31, who planned to become a filmmaker after graduating from an American school, now runs the workshop in Gannan.
She helps train and manage the team of 150 local nomads, most of whom were illiterate when they started.
But once they learned, their speed became faster and faster, the daughter said in an interview.
Now Norlha has four designers, said Thopdan Dorjee, the brand’s office manager in Beijing.
Norlha means “wealth of the Gods,” which is also what nomads call their yaks – the source of their treasure.
Seeing Norlha’s stock in Beijing can be a disorienting experience. None of the scarves are available in the candy colors that have been so popular in recent years.
That’s because yak wool is naturally dark – much darker than cashmere.
To avoid using the toxic dyes common in the fashion industry, brand founder Kim Yeshi insisted on not bleaching the khullu and using eco-friendly dyes made in Switzerland.
This gives Norlha’s products a richer, more natural color. Its shades are forest greens, mustard yellows, Bordeaux reds and deep blues – the colors that suit chilly winter days.
While yak wool is thick and coarse, beneath it is a layer of fine wool. When it is spun and woven well, the scarves are soft and comfortable to wear – and much warmer to cashmere.
As a wearable investment, khullu is much rarer than cashmere. To collect it, the nomads have to wait till it falls and pick it up by hand.
Norlha only collects the best khullu from the two-year-old yaks. Dorjee, the Beijing manager, said that only 28 of every 100 kilograms of raw fiber meet the quality needed to make a shawl.
The workshop produces as many as 10,000 woven shawls, throws and blankets every year. Nearly 7,000 are sold overseas and 3,000 are consumed in the domestic market.
Most are sold at bazaars held in the international community, but Norlha plans to expand its business in the domestic market this year.
798 Art Zone, 4 Jiuxianqiao, Chaoyang District
Aman at Summer Palace
1 Qian Jie, Yiheyuan Gongmen, Haidian District
Shanghai Trio in Sanlitun
NLG-38, ground floor, Village North, 11 Sanlitun Lu, Chaoyang Distrct