Skilled Hands at Work: Nepal’s Handicrafts

By Royal Mountain Travel August 19, 2013

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Nepal’s handicrafts and art have been known for centuries. It is no wonder that even today, a lot of visitors are drawn to visit the country to explore culture and Nepali creations.

1997 to 2000 were boom years for the pashmina industry in Nepal. Markets in the West were so enamoured by the elegance of Nepali pashmina that they couldn’t have enough. According to a leading manufacturer, then, orders doubled and quadrupled every other month. Over 50,000 people were employed by the pashmina industry in its heydays, and pashmina alone constituted 82 % of all handicraft exports from Nepal in 2000-2001. A sector that exported Rs. 3 million worth of pashmina in 1997 was exporting Rs. 5.6 billion’s worth by 2000, and production centres had soared from just 25 in 1993 to 959 within six years. However, by 2002, exports had plummeted to just Rs. 661.37 million, and by 2009/2010, it was only Rs. 437.60 million. The story of Pashmina describes, in a nutshell, the state of the handicraft industry as a whole.

What were the reasons for such a fall from grace? Well, the analysis and the discussions can go on till the cows come home, but there is no denying the fact that the handicraft sector of Nepal holds big potential. This promising sector is categorised broadly as the textile and non-textile sector. The former includes, along with pashmina, wool, dhaka (one kind of local textile), hemp, allo (nettle fibre), felt, silk, and cotton goods. The latter, that is, the non-textile sector, consists of woodcraft, stone craft, metal craft, silver jewellery, leather goods, paubha (religion-based paintings), bone and horn products, handmade paper products, incense, ceramics, bead items, bamboo products, and plastic items. The major contributors to total handicraft exports are pashmina, woollen goods, silver jewelry, metal craft, and felt products.

The fine fur on the neck and shoulders of mountain goats (chyangras) is the source of Nepali pashmina. As can be deduced, this makes it a rarity since such goats are to be found only at high altitudes. One of the major reasons for pashmina’s drastic downfall in the recent past was due to all sorts of unethical individuals entering the lucrative sector and passing off fake pashmina as the real stuff when, in fact, they were being made using materials other than pashmina. In early 2009, the industry acquired a collective trademark under the brand name “Chyangra Pashmina” to protect the image of authentic Nepali pashmina and, hopefully, regain its lost market.

As for woollen products, jackets, pullovers, shawls, mufflers, hats, gloves, and socks are seemingly the most in demand. These are hand-knitted using wool imported from New Zealand and Australia. Yak wool, of a finer variety than the usual, is also used, especially to make jackets. Come winter, and you’ll see plenty of them hanging in shops around Kathmandu, particularly in the tourist areas. Its unique texture and robustness make fine yak wool so popular. However, pure white colour is not found in yak wool, and it does not dye so easily either. That is why both yak and sheep wool are used during the knitting process.

When talking about silver jewellery, one has to look towards Patan (Lalitpur), which has numerous skilled silversmiths, some of whom are highly renowned for the finesse of their works. You’ll find lots of shops selling silver jewellery and many of the shops are owned by Shakyas and Bajracharyas, two clans that have carried on the tradition of crafting exquisite jewellery down the ages. Bu Bahal, a locality within the city, is especially famous for its many establishments making silver crafts, including jewellery, jewellery that has quite a good demand abroad, particularly in some European countries, where silver jewellery inlaid with coral or turquoise stones is especially popular. Silver jewellery with snake designs is also much sought after.

 
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Metal workers making metal items. Image: flickr/Wonderlane

For metal craft too, one has to again look towards Patan, where one will find quite a few establishments located in its many alleys involved in the tedious process of creating works of art from metal. Magnificent metal statues and other metal items have been made here down the centuries. Many of these enterprises mostly make statues of deity figures, with some, like the one at Oku Bahal, making statues exclusively of Buddhist deities meant for installation in monasteries. Metal statues are made using the lost wax method, a process which goes like this: first, a wax model is created; it is enclosed in a clay mould; next, it is fired in high heat; then the wax is poured out through a small opening and replaced by whatever metal is being used (bronze, copper, etc.); this is allowed to set; after that, the hardened mould is broken to reveal the metal figure; and finally,  refining tools and paint are used to give the finishing touches.

As far as felt products are concerned, they are a relatively new addition to the list of Nepali handicrafts. Till 2006/2007, felt had been listed under the category of woollen goods. Felt products are now a significant part of leading handicraft exporters such as the Association of Handicraft Producers (ACP) located at Rabi Bhawan in Kathmandu. Felt is a fabric made of wool fibres or animal hair matted together using steam and pressure. Fibres include wool, fur, and certain other hair fibres that mat together under the right conditions. Felt is used to make products such as mats and coasters, caps and hats, scarves, foot warmers, socks, shoes, key rings, felt balls, puppets, miscellaneous decoratives, and even jewellery.

These, then, are Nepal’s five leading handicrafts; handicrafts that have not only found eager markets abroad but are also in increasing demand within the country itself. They provide employment to thousands and help alleviate poverty, so why don’t you buy a handicraft or two as souvenirs when in Nepal? Your thoughtful gesture is much appreciated.

Title photo of Pashminas by Sara Vascotto/Flickr

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