Hand woven fabric and clothes are impressive. The amount of time, skill, and attention to detail it takes is awe-inspiring. In Nepal, it is a trade that is learned over the course of years. It involves harvesting natural fibers, dyeing, and spinning the threads into yarn, and finally weaving. This knowledge is passed down in intimate lessons from elders to young students through generations. The Textile Tour of Nepal visits these traditional weavers and explores this cottage industry.
Nepal’s history in the textile industry dates to around 3,000 BCE (best guess). At this time fabric was already being woven on looms and traded throughout the world. This trade predates the Silk Road by over 2000 years. At this stage in the industry weavers probably used a backstrap loom with available fibers like cotton, nettle, hemp, yak, and goat. The backstrap loom is still used in rural areas.
As the industry developed, people learned how to spin and dye yarn, and weave detailed and intricate patterns, like dhaka. It has become fashionable while remaining culturally significant.
In Nepal, the entire weaving craft depends on natural fibers. I believe hemp, and nettle were used before trade routes started bringing in exotic products like silk, bamboo, and most recently polyester. Before these imports were introduced, cotton was imported from Egypt through India, yak was introduced from Tibet, and wool was imported from Pakistan.
Harvesting and Processing Fibers
Traditionally, groups of people will harvest the plants by hand. This could be painful if nettle is being harvested. First, the harvested stalks are allowed to dry. The outer layer of tissue “skin” is then separated from the plants in a process called retting. The skins of the plants are then peeled off. The fibers are then agitated to separate them from each other. The bunches of loose fibers are carded to prepare them for spinning.
Harvesting and processing is labor intensive and normally done by women.
Spinning Fibers into Yarn
Hand weavers and spinners turn the processed fibers into yarn using a spindle. Few people use or have access to spinning wheels. In Kathmandu factories make yarn with machines. Machine spun yarn creates a uniform product.
The carded fibers are wrapped around the spinners hands while he or she turns a drop spindle. A drop spindle is a dowel with a disk at the end. The end of the dowel closest to the disk has a hook to keep the yarn positioned above the spindle. It is normally made out of wood. Fibers are attached to dowel underneath the disk and looped under the hook.
The dowel is then twisted with one hand while the other manages the thickness of the threads being twisted into yarn. With this, fibers such as cotton threads can be turned into yarn for weaving.
Fibers can be dyed before or after they are turned into yarn. They can even be dyed after they are turned into fabric. The dyeing process in Nepal is simple and most of the dyes are natural. Water is first boiled and color is added to it. Different colours can be combined to create the perfect combination of hue, value and saturation.
Material is added to the vat one unit at a time because most batches are small. The units are taken out and strained. They are then put in the sun to dry.
Nepali weavers are as diverse as the styles that are represented in their textiles. These textiles are the palet for Himalayan culture. Ranging from Tibetan refugees in pokhara to the Limbu weavers in the Terai, the variety of art and patterns represented in cloth is amazing. Weaving is even different by geographical area. East Nepal has a more Indian spin where Western Nepal has more of an indigenous design.
The backstrap loom is surprisingly simple. It consists of 6 sticks one rope and one strap. It is very portable and can be set up almost anywhere. Like all looms it is limited on the size of cloth that can be woven. The strap goes around the man or women who is weaving. It is connected to a cross bar that holds the threads. A beater bar and two other rods hold the shed open and in place. The last bar holds the ends of the warp and is connected to a rope. the rope is looped around a sturdy object to make the warp taught. Dhaka cloth for garments and blankets are primarily woven on the backstrap loom in Nepal.
Dhaka fabric was once only made in western Nepal, but because of its popularity, its production has spread internationally. Dhaka topi (hats) are very popular among Nepali men. The patterns range from simple to ornate with ostentatious designs. The patterns are generally geometric but can have swirls and chevrons. Dhaka clothing tends to be made from cotton, while the scarfs are normally silk.
Most rugs in Nepal are made out of wool and cotton. I have only seen Tibetan women weaving rugs in settlement camps near Pokhara. They are woven with a traditional pattern, and spiritual, and coin designs. The women belong to women’s groups that support marginalized individuals within the community. The handweavers tour visits these production facilities and supports their work.
There is a collection of rugs for sale at the studio. They pair well with antique furniture and at a reasonably price.
Weaving textiles like dhaka fabric and rugs provides income for marginalized women throughout Nepal. Many NGO’s have been created to help support women through the creation and sale of textile products. Carpets, rugs, apparel and fabrics can be found in Nepalese stores in Kathmandu and Pokhara. These goods are an expression of their lives, their country, and their passion. We hope you will visit them to learn how to hand weave rugs, dhaka, and other textiles in Nepal.