A Fine Weave

7 min read
26 Aug 2016
7 min read
1700 words
For more than three decades, Nepal Knotcraft Centre has been producing beautiful handicraft items woven by women spread across Nepal’s districts
For more than three decades, Nepal Knotcraft Centre has been producing beautiful handicraft items woven by women spread across Nepal’s districts
After all, macrame was the technique that the business was initially built upon. NKC’s chairman, Shyam Badan Shrestha, had taught it to herself in the library of Budhanilkantha School; she would peruse all the material on the subject—from booklets to big instructional books—during the scant free time she could get from teaching biology. Shrestha, who was adept at crocheting, knitting and macrame, decided to make use of that self-taught skill when she started the company in 1984, with two of her friends. In the beginning, Shrestha focused primarily on using the knot technique (hence, the name Knotcraft) because it was a concept that was still in its introductory phase in Nepal, to make plant holders, belts, bags, jewellery and decorative items, among others.

Today, however, with three decades worth of experience under her belt and the knowledge that Shrestha has accumulated from extensive market assessment, she has considerably expanded the product offerings at NKC. The products at NKC today range from decorative handicraft items such as wall hangings and products such as mats and blinds to furniture pieces— tables, chairs, sofa sets and sometimes beds too. The selling proposition for all of NKC’s products is that they are all crafted using locally sourced natural fibres.

Shyam Badan Shrestha, Chairman of Nepal Knotcraft Centre

The products at NKC are made using more than ten different kinds of natural materials, such as cornhusk, matgrass, sisal, cattail, rattan (pani bet), large cardamom (alainchi), nettle (allo), bulrush (gulgulia) and water hyacinth (jal khumbi), among others. The mats are made from materials such as bulrush (a plant found primarily in the Terai regions), which are woven using methods such as simple one-up and one-down, twine or countered twine or plaited weaving techniques. The weavers also make baskets in the traditional mujela technique, a style popular in the Tharu communities, where colourful munj fibres are used especially to make baskets. Since 1990, the company has also been producing ethnic-doll sets made entirely out of cornhusk, the leafy covering of an ear of corn, and recycled wood. 

Shrestha spends a considerable amount of her time researching lesser-known fibres

Not only does Shrestha, through NKC, promote the use of these popular materials, she also spends a considerable amount of her time researching some of the lesser-known fibres that have great potential for experimenting with. These fibres have to be malleable, durable and available. For example, at NKC one of the highly sought-after materials is large cardamom fibre, processed from large cardamom plants, found in Nepal’s eastern districts such as Ilam, Panchthar and Taplejung, among others. The fibre is used to weave mats or to upholster ottomans, tables and chairs. 

“Nepal exports huge quantities of large cardamom, but the plants themselves are regarded as waste,” says Shrestha. “In some areas such as Taplejung, after harvesting cardamom, the farmers throw away the plants into rivers because they don’t know that there is further use for them. But the fibre obtained from cardamom stems can be used for handicraft, as they are strong and have a natural tint, meaning they don’t have to be dyed.” Among other fibres that aren’t very popular in Nepal that the company uses is of the water hyacinth, ill-famed for propagating fast and ruining paddy fields and fishing ponds. The fibre is processed and woven using traditional weaving techniques used for making Dhaka fabrics and carpets. NKC also uses fibre obtained from sisal, an Agave species whose large fleshy leaves can be used to make strong threads. 

“Nepal is rich in all these natural fibres, but apart from the local communities’ using them, the overall commercial demand for these fibres is still rather minuscule,” says Shrestha. But the abundant availability of the materials here means that companies like NKC don’t have to import them from foreign countries. Shrestha herself turned to using locally available materials as a result of a problem that she had to deal with when NKC was just starting out. During the 13-month-long trade embargo with India in 1989, NKC, which was then producing macrame handicraft, couldn’t import threads and other materials, like owl eyes, from India. To minimise the company’s dependence on foreign suppliers of raw materials, Shrestha decided to look within Nepal, and discovered that the country was a treasure trove of plants whose fibres she could make use of. 

But discovering the materials was only the first step in building her business. The company’s success required that she and her team go through numerous trials and errors. For example, when first experimenting with cornhusk dolls, Shrestha sent 36 samples of the dolls to the US, all of which she was later told had to be scrapped, because there was mould growing on them. She needed quite a few attempts until she could get rid of the problem. Because of these mistakes in the early phase, the company has been able to improve their products. Today, not only has the company diversified its product mix and created an identity for itself in the handicraft market, but in the process, has also created jobs for women from various communities throughout Nepal. 

“From my experience of running NKC, I have realised that any industry works like a chain,” says Shrestha. “It is about more than just making the products; it’s a system that comprises several units—from the supply chain and production to quality control and distribution channels, among others.” When she understood the scale of operations she would need to be involved in, she realised that her company could create jobs for women up and down the production chain. Today, with the assistance of Shrestha’s non-profit organisation, Natural Resource Development Centre, NKC trains women from different communities in some 10 districts—Kanchanpur, Kailali, Bara and Lamjung, among others. The products that are marketed and sold through NKC are also produced mainly by these women, who work outside the factory setting; the company today has a network of 125 women artisans spread across its production centres located, apart from the Valley itself, in districts such as Kapilvastu, Dang, Rasuwa, Sunsari and Morang, among others. 

In these districts, among communities such as the Tharu and Sardar, there has long been a tradition of weaving fibres to make products such as mats and baskets. For example, in the Tharu communities in Rupandehi, women have for ages been producing baskets using fibres, but now the baskets are only made for weddings or other ceremonies. Today, because the younger generation in these communities are looking to work in other sectors, these techniques are slowly dying out. With the market NKC has created for these products and the training that it provides, people from these communities are seeing viable financial opportunities within the handicraft sector, which in turn has helped them preserve and promote their traditional weaving techniques. 

Because the weaving techniques come mainly from the knowledge that the women have received from generations before them, NKC doesn’t have to teach the vocation from scratch and can direct its focus on skill-upgradation. The training sessions can focus on helping the women learn about financing, procurement of raw materials, production management, market assessment, quality check, inventory management and distribution, marketing, and so on. With the skills that they learn, the women besides supplying products to NKC, can also set up their own enterprises, for which NKC provides long-term assistance. These locally produced handicraft items are today finding a market not just within Nepal, but also getting recognised internationally—40 per cent of NKC’s products are exported to countries such as Japan, the Netherlands and the US. Even within Nepal, the market is expanding, as the country’s young urbanites are increasingly opting for decorating their houses with these eco-friendly products.

With the increasing popularity of such products, the abundant availability of the materials and the skills within the country, the possibilities for Nepali handicraft are endless. “That’s why cottage industries are essential in Nepal,” says Shrestha. “With a bankable skill, Nepali women can also find a platform to earn for themselves and support the family.” She is hopeful that NKC’s artisan network will keep growing, and that gradually there’ll be more skilled women working in the handicraft sector. They will, she hopes, use the skill to earn not just money but also respect, and most importantly, to earn their independence—just the way she did.