Old Hands, New Tools


When we began planning Norlha in 2005, we knew that we could not rely on the traditional skills in spinning and weaving of the nomads we planned to employ. A nomad’s life is harsh and they rely on highly honed skills all centered on their animals; managing them, deriving their needs from them, keeping them safe from wolves and from starving in times of insufficient rain.

Nomads made only what they needed; clothing and footwear from sheep skin, tents and ropes woven from yak hair, mats from felt. A nomad wastes nothing, as part of an attitude of respect for nature and for their animals. They slaughtered them for their needs, but used everything; ate every part of the animal that was edible, boiled the bones for stock or used them to make tools, tanned the leather which they sewed into clothing or storage bags, used the horns for vessels. They collected the hair from their yaks to spin, then wove into tent material, the wool from their sheep to weave into thick cloth used for making sacks and saddle bags, or felt for mats to sit and sleep on.Dung was carefully collected and used for fuel.

Nomad looms, used mainly for weaving yak hair, were of the narrow back strap type and simple drop spins utilized, usually on the move, for spinning sheep wool The vernacular objects that came from these simple tools were long lasting and suited to their needs. The means used to their fabrication could not, however, provide Norlha with a base of sustainable and marketable products. We needed to elaborate and innovate, which is what we did.

We were extremely lucky in that the men and women who came to work for us had all, at one time or other, spun, woven, sewn or felted. When given new tools to work on, they quickly overcame their doubts and performed with ease on their charka spinning wheels, their flying shuttle looms or their sewing machines. Spinners took a week or so to spin efficiently on a charka, but later mastered the skill in as little as an hour when seeing other women performing with ease.

Skills can be transformed and refined, people who do one thing well can switch to doing another. Norlha has proven that adaptability is the key to success.