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Yak wool, fashion & the Tibetan Plateau – We talk with Norlha’s Dechen Yeshi

Norlha Textiles is a brand that designs, produces, and sells timeless yak textiles made by nomads in the Tibetan Plateau, one of the most remote environments and fragile ecosystems in the planet.

Norlha’s yak wool products range from lush scarves to stylish blankets to amazing clothes. Take one look at their site and — like many of today’s top fashion houses — you’ll be instantly enchanted by their creations.

If you’re a lover of fashion, sustainability, or design, Norlha’s products exude authenticity, spirit, and quality at its finest.

In the following interview, we talk with Norlha CEO Dechen Yeshi about her company and what it’s like living and working on the Tibetan Plateau.

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Dechen Yeshi

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1. How did you wind up in China?

My father is Tibetan and I grew up in a Tibetan household. It had always been my dream to visit the Tibetan Plateau someday. Fortunately, after I graduated, my parents urged me to go and try and make a livelihood out there. I visited and suddenly it made sense that I remain and start Norlha, an atelier that employs local nomads in making high-end yak wool products. That was ten years ago, and I have been here ever since.

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2. How did the business originate? Who saw the opportunity in yak wool?

My mother has always been a lover of textiles. As a child, I remember her always talking about the possible potential of yak wool as a high end fiber. She herself was busy with other commitments, and therefore when I graduated from college, she encouraged me to go to the Tibetan plateau and source yak wool, to first test as a fiber. While at first I wasn’t very drawn to textiles, later upon visiting the plateau, I realized the potential of opportunities in employment for the nomads if yak wool were to succeed as a high-end product.

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Norlha’s Lhamo Tank Top

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3. What are yaks like? Do you enjoy being around them?

Tibetans often refer to yaks as the “jewels” of the grassland. Indeed, the life of a nomad revolves around the yak, from the cheese, butter and meat, to the yak wool tent,s to using them as transportation. To us they are the “Nor”: the wealth and jewel of the grassland. We love being around them!

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4.  Can you tell us what life is like NW China? Are you there all the time? What’s your average day? Is it your paradise?

I live here ten months of the year. Summers are my paradise and winters are cold…to say the least. The pindrop silence of the plateau is pierced by my children when they wake up at 7am.

I juggle between dressing them, feeding them, and washing them, all the while practicing my morning meditation of patience and tolerance. Work begins at 8:30 and then it is a series of different activities that carry me through the day.

On more exciting days I get to work on fashion shoots, fly a drone, and ride a horse. On the more dull days, I do administrative work.

Each day is completely unique and has forced me to be very versatile in my skills. Work ends at 5 when I go for my evening walk; a time to clear the mind, absorb nature, and capture the change of seasons. Dinners are usually at 7 and then once the children are in bed I have time to indulge in a movie, my blog, or just reading.

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5. Who creates the products? The ideas for the products?

My mother, Kim Yeshi, is the main creator behind the products. Recently I have picked up on designing our scarves, and we have designer friends who help with small accessories and simple cut patterns. The heart of the product lies in its potential to be timeless and classic. Every product celebrates the fabric it is made with, without being distracted by too many designs.

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6.  Why should people shop Norlha?

Norlha is timeless. Once you own a Norlha, it is your companion, it will travel with you through your life. It is something that can pass into the hands of your children and your grandchildren. It will come with a story and will enrich with your story and those of your children. Norlha products are about contributing to the life of the maker and that of the consumer.

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7. What’s the best advice that you ever learned from a local or tribesperson?

I have learned to have patience and faith. The fast paced life often strips away any patience that we might have. Nomads are used to waiting, whether it is for the rain to fall, the grass to grow, or the animals to fatten. They still have the ability to have faith without reason.

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8. Are there any native dishes where you are that you can recommend/suggest?

Tibetan food is very “raw.” It is a lot about protein and often palatable only in the harsh environment where one’s body craves it. Tibetan food found in its native grasslands is all organic from the barley that the neighboring farmers grow, to the yogurt and meat from the yak and sheep grazing the plateau. I would recommend trying yak yogurt, Tibetan barley and lamb once on the Tibetan plateau, where it can be most appreciated in its natural form and in the environment that compliments it best.

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Norlha’s Lhamo Waist Coat

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9.  Do you travel around China a lot? What are some of your most favorite cities/destinations there, and why?

Unfortunately I don’t have much opportunity to travel. My friends reassure me saying “the world comes to you, no need to go to the world.” This has been true this past year as more and more visitors from around the globe have come to visit us.

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10. How do you deal with jet lag? Culture shock?

Since I hardly travel, I haven’t had to deal with jet lag extensively. Regarding culture shock, I learned that It is crucial not to be judgmental, and not to bring pre-conceived ideas on people and culture. The differences in the world are what makes it such a remarkable mosaic of culture of mystery. It can be frustrating at times, but if you allow differences in culture to shock you, it is the end of travel, mystery, and adventure.

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11. What’s your favorite movie, album and magazine?

My favorite director is Wes Anderson, I like reading the Times and The New Yorker, and as for music… I must admit that I have found myself humming and listening to, very often, sentimental Tibetan music – I have unfortunately lost any sophisticated taste in music but am eager to re-develop it!

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12. What is something that most people don’t know about you?

That I never studied textiles or management, but studied film in college. I grew up in India and only set foot in the U.S. at the age of 18, although I am a U.S. citizen.

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13. Any tips or recommendations for people wanting to visit China, and its Tibetan Plateau?

If visiting the Tibetan Plateau, bring plenty of sunscreen, dress in layers as temperatures can go from freezing to hot in a single day, drink lots of water, and come prepared for the unexpected.

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14. Is there anything you’d like to add, promote or discuss?

Conscious fashion – buy less of better quality. Own things with commitment and buy for a reason that doesn’t always involve yourself. There is less garbage in the world and better working conditions can be created.

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Images Courtesy of Norlha Textiles