Every great piece of artisanal work begins with a fabulous material. Whether it’s wood, metal, textile, or even clay, an artisan lives or dies by the material. Material limits what’s possible, informs and inspires the design, and of course, is the foundation to what we consumers experience. And we are all looking for the extraordinary, both in design and material.
We don’t usually focus on materials, but when we come across a natural material that’s pretty spectacular and combine it with expert artisanship, we have to call it out.
There’s no better example of this than yak wool from Tibet, brought to you by a company called Norlha, which in Tibetan means “wealth of the gods”. Norlha works with the people of the Machu and Zorge Ritoma areas of Amdo, Tibet (on the beautiful, wild and storied Tibetan Plateau) to hand craft ultra-luxurious cashmere from the wool of two-year old yaks, which are the ones that produce the best wool.
While yak wool was used before, it was a commodity product, used by factories in China. Norlha is the first to hand-weave the wool and felt it. The results? Sumptuous, incredibly soft throws, blankets, cushion covers and textiles that have found their way into the runway collections of Lanvin, Céline, Balmain, Sonia Rykiel and Haider Ackermann, making Norlha Tibet’s first luxury brand. The colors are muted, with pops of orange, red and blue to stimulate the senses even further. As the Financial Times wrote of yak wool “think cashmere, without the pilling.”
If the textile itself isn’t enough to make you feel good, the story of how it came to be – and role it plays in making the world a better place – should make you feel even better.
Norlha was founded by an American anthropologist who’d long nurtured a deep interest in the intersection of sustainability and art. Kim Sciaky-Yeshi – married to a Tibetan academic, researched the potential of yak wool for over 2 years, and sent her daughter Dechen, a recent college graduate, to the Tibetan Plateau to investigate the possibility of starting up a workshop to weave the yak wool into textiles. Fast forward through intensive research, teaching, and considerable persuading, and former nomads were trained to create world class, hand spun yak wool. The benefit, beyond the product: bringing economic development to one of the poorest regions of China.
Norlha integrates the many textures achieved with yak fiber using simple but sophisticatedly modern designs created to show off those textures. Combining traditional techniques with more modern technology to create luxurious textiles in an endless variety of patterns and weights, the wool is versatile, refined, and indescribably luscious.
While the world is so visually oriented these days, it’s texture that can have the most profound effect on design, elevating the pretty to the sublime. Afterall, touch is the way we most often know what’s extraordinary. Touch brings back our most primal memories and profound feelings: after all, touch is the first sense developed in the womb and the last sense we use before death.
Textural materials matter, and when something extraordinary comes along, it needs to shared in life, in design, in the home. And what could be better than cashmere to warm up the home? Absolutely.
All images courtesy of Norlha