Wild fibers in history - and in Nepal today...
A thousand years ago, European nettle gave birth to Muslins: see-thru, sheer, and the finest of cloths; Crepe: ultra fine and textured cloth; Satin: brushed till it shines; Lace: intricate designs knotted with high quality threads, and of course Velvet: a micro-carpet weave. The extreme high quality of the nettle fiber and the possibility of spinning finer and finer threads gave rise to an elite fashion which only the very wealthy land owners, feudal lords, aristocrats and royalty could afford.
These textile traditions demanded hundreds of hours of skilled craftsmanship per square meter. The quality of one's clothes and the ability to change them frequently set the status quo for society throughout the dark and middle Ages, where nettle was the true king. For example, when Marco Polo introduced silk, and when the silk route opened up to supply european nobility with status clothing and accessories, nettles of all sorts were refined and rarified right along with silks.
In Nepal, nettle spinning is an unbroken tradition since before written history. Today in very remote Nepal wilderness, we find men, women and children wearing nettle clothing, school bags and grain sacks are made from nettle, and the the traditional rice matt & ropes used to hold together the roof and the walls where people and animals live side by side is also made from nettle. In Nepal, the giant nettle fiber still reigns King.
The crazy math...
Giant nettles and hemp grows wild in the remote jungles of Nepal. These plants produce well over 10 million tons of wild fibers every year, yet less than 1% of these fibers are collected each year. And only about 0.1% of this 1% makes it into the cash trade. In other words, a valuable Nepali resource is going to a tremendous waste.
1% of the potential 10 million tons of wild hemp and nettle fibers is used in Nepal for ropes, mats, housing structures, grain sacks, and local garment production. This national consumption comes to about 4.3 kilos per capita per year per person (estimated). Then some .01% (of the 100,000 kilos of raw materials) is transformed into cloth and threads, and 35,000 kilos are brought to Kathmandu for sale to handicraft manufacturers. Only about 30 tons of finished product are eventually exported from Nepal. That is only 30 tons of the potential 3,000,000 tons that could be used for export each year.
These wild fibers (take nettle for example), can be wild-crafted and cultivated much closer than the current 6-hour walk from the village to the source. This could bring an estimated 5 million tons of free raw materials into easy reach of remote villages across Nepal. These wild fibers would not infringe on cultivatable lands used to support food production - nor would they compete with food or fodder crops. In short, wild fibers are a free resource with no impact on cultivated land when harvested.
The carpet connection...
Carpet is Nepal’s largest export - about 30,000 tons per annum - yet 95% of the raw materials needed are imported from New Zealand. And Nepali wild nettle carpets are being sold in Switzerland for $700 or more. New Zealand wool carpets are selling here for $30 and nettle carpets for $60. Currently there are standing orders from many international carpet buyers to many Nepali carpet producers for full containers of nettle carpets, all totaling 50 tons, but the threads are not available on the market. If the threads were available, the orders would triple.
True wildfiber carpets are attractive to the natural product oriented consumer; and these carpets are knotted and exported without dyes, all in a natural color. This is also a relief for the waterways of Nepal, and to those people who wash and cook direct from the rivers. All of the processing of wild fibers can be done in the remote mountain areas, and only the ready threads for carpet knotting needs to be transported to factories in urban areas.
The biodynamic processing of the fibers using microorganisms can be realized without firewood or chemicals, and on a micro-village level. The overflow of these low-tech fiber-processing plants makes excellent fertilizer, and the processing plant is usually situated at the top of the best food land close to the village. This process does not pollute or deplete raw materials - instead, fertilizes the growth of more and better food, without the extra work of feeding cows for dung everyday.
The harsh reality...
There are more than 10 million people living in Nepal without roads or electricity, and the lack of commerce and development means they have nearly zero cash flow; everything moves with barter and trade, not only for commodities but also for labor. Due to the absence of any transportation infrastructure other than rugged foot paths, any sustainable market trade can only be established with labor intensive products worth a minimum of $1.60 per kilo; with the average 50 kilos getting $80 on the local market.
Many wild fiber sources are currently located far from a farmers home; an 8-10 hour walk is common. A lot can be done to bring wild fibers sources closer to villages without infringing on the food chain. However, for these very remote villages, nettle is often the only thing they have which all their downstream neighbors don’t have - in short - the wild giant nettle of has the potential to end poverty in the very remote jungles of Nepal, since today a kilo of this fiber, knotted into a carpet, sells for about $125 in developed countries.
Nettle carpet yarns are easily sold in Kathmandu (the capital city of Nepal) for $3 to 5$ per kilo; and this leaves easy access for traders and middlemen touring the mountains to collect (by going door-to-door) the fruit of thousands of women's part-time labor. Yet, the remote footpaths and roads must be safe and secure first, which traditionally they have not been. However, with the end of the People's Revolution now almost a decade past, and new infrastructure projects building new roads and bridges throughout the country, the potential for getting the wild fibers to market has never been better.
Nettle threads mixed with cotton for textiles is another avenue of development, and this manufacturing was pioneered by the the Wild Fibers Company in Thamel, Kathmandu. This is another potential export boom (if availability and quality could be improved). Development of the nettle textile industry in Nepal is another way of improving exports, as well as keeping more of the industry's profits here at home.
But currently, the two largest industries of Nepal - carpet and garment - have their raw material sourced outside of Nepal, resting securely in the New Zealand wool and Indian cotton trade. All Nepal can add is labor. The reality is that exiled Tibetans have given the labor in the carpet factories to impoverished Nepalis; and the garment & textile industry is mostly dominated by Indian companies. From a development perspective, this makes little sense. Why import raw materials when perfectly good materials are growing wild? And if the Nepalese are the cultivators of the raw materials, it makes sense for them to be the industrial leaders as well.
From our perspective, the development of the nettle fiber industry in Nepal could double the national GNP in just 4 years and perhaps quadruple GNP in ten years. Not only could this development provide more and better paying jobs using traditional skills, but this industry would have a lower impact on the environment than the alternatives, as wild fibers are freely grown without pesticides. (See http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2008/feb/28/ethicalliving.fashion)
The best hope for poverty alleviation is using local raw materials (from outside the human food chain) for remote manufacturing into export products. The key may not be the electrification and road expansion of Nepal, but instead the development of an industry that produces a sustainable, low-impact, and natural product worthy enough to walk out of the jungle on foot. In this regard, the cultivation of raw wild fibers and ultimate manufacture into hand-spun yarns and textile threads makes the wild fiber industry the perfect solution for Nepal.
The fiber-market and the future possibilities for Nepal...
If this wild fiber market were properly developed, Nepal could become a world leader in the following areas: 1) the export of machine-made nettle textile threads and textiles, and 2) the export of nettle and hemp paper and pulp. We here at Wild Fibers want to help make this happen. What about you? Sound off in the comments section below, and let us know about your interest in wild fiber development in Nepal.