Karma Sonam Bhutia, a 33-year-old textile designer, has an infectious passion for nettle-weaving. Sikkimese by birth, she grew up largely in Rajasthan and Delhi, but now lives in Gangtok and is working to revive the traditional textiles of her home state. Nettle-weaving is a high point of the multidimensional textile work in her ongoing project, Kuzo, which means body in Sikkimese.

One of the many species of nettle, plentiful in the region, is the Himalayan variety. The plant has been a source of fibre for centuries; the stem is cut, the bark removed and peeled, and the fibre extracted. In countries like Nepal, where nettle-weaving is common, it is traditionally converted into cordage for string, ropes and fishing nets. It is also spun into yarn for garments, mats, bags or blankets, either in its natural colour of brown-green straw or blended with ramie, cotton and wool.

The nettle plant.
The nettle plant.

It could be raw material for home décor products or yarn for woven drapes, stoles, shawls and ready-to-wear garments. Crafts practitioners and fashion designers can help it become the next big fashion fibre.

Easier said than woven.

It is a cold March morning in Gangtok, and after a hot breakfast of steamed chicken momos, Sonam Tashi Gyaltsen, a product designer and Karma Sonam’s senior colleague, escorts us to the studio of their organization, Echostream. Launched eight years ago by four designers, Echostream is a collective of 15 young designers from different fields, including an anthropologist, an ethnographer and an architecture expert. Through self-sponsored projects and sub-grants from various institutions, Echostream works on multidisciplinary design interventions.

Their studio is an inspiring space—colourful posters of ongoing projects, cards on walls, mugs of green tea being passed around, softly lit lamps, stacks of neon highlighters and pencils, large tables in natural wood that would be the envy of many an urban designer, an air of informality, and friendly stray dogs sauntering in and out.

It can be embellished, embroidered, appliquéd, woven with denim and silk...

Karma Sonam’s Kuzo project is primarily an enquiry into the revival and sustenance of Sikkimese attire, called bokhu (bakhu in Nepalese), commonly referred to as kho in local parlance. She has created reversible jackets in Chinese brocade, with one side decorated with colourful Buddhist cultural motifs and the other with modern patterns, so that the same garment can be used for formal and casual wear. She is keen to recreate bokhu (or parts of it, like the fitted blouse on top or the wrap skirt below) using nettle. “There is continuity in our local costumes because the working-class women wear bokhu as an everyday garment and almost all classes wear it ceremonially and for weddings," says Karma Sonam.

A representation of Sikkimese costumes, including the bokhu, on the campus of the directorate of handicrafts and handloom.

Karma Sonam has woven samples from pure nettle and experimented with mixing the fibre with cotton, Angora wool and hemp for different textures and thickness. “Nettle is a naturally coarse fibre, slubs start forming in the yarn and it requires patience and intervention for consistent weaving," she explains. Though its antibacterial properties ensure it’s good for draping next to the skin without an inner slip or middle layer, its gunny-sack-like coarseness is a deterrent.

To make it to mainstream fashion, it will need design interventions and blending with other fibres to ensure it’s both durable and softer. For fine quality and softness of touch continue to be part of the evolving luxury story globally. Even in slow fashion.

Nettle has several advantages, says Karma Sonam. It lends itself easily to the natural dyeing process, so it is open to colouring and fashion interpretations. “It can be embellished, embroidered, appliquéd, woven with denim and silk to fine-tune or change its material quality, and even used for upholstery," she says.

Natural fibres are one way to reduce dependence on synthetic, industrially developed products, the manufacture of which create a variety of environmental pollutants. Garments made with these extraordinary raw materials provide natural ventilation and insulation against the cold. Reports, including the ones on the website of the UN, which declared 2009 as the international year of natural fibres, list their antibacterial qualities.

Local communities use natural fibres to treat skin ailments and localized infections.

Gyaltsen, a persuasive advocate of Sikkim’s status as a state specializing in organic produce, says any marketing of nettle products made there must harp on the traditional ecosystem. Sikkim is known for its organic farm products, rice, cardamom, natural wild honey or pickles of the fiery chilli called dalle (cherry pepper). “The local society here has always depended on herbs, natural medicines, home cures and steadfast consumption of home-grown vegetables and other pure foodstuff as a way of life," he says, arguing that the weaving tradition would fit well into organic fashion.

For the moment, the state’s handloom sector is known largely for hand-knotted and woven carpets, with patterns of mythical birds, flowers like the lotus, snow lions, and Buddhist lucky signs. The soft and luxurious rari rugs and shawls, woven from sheep wool in grey, black and white by the Gurung tribe, are less familiar to mainstream urban markets.

Nettle certainly gets a clear vote from some of India’s well-known crafts experts, though nobody really seems to have a clear vision, or plan, to take it forward.

They all agree on the need for marketing strategies to popularize it. “Global markets are consciously promoting natural fibres and environmentally friendly products. Nettle, though rough and difficult to reel and spin and weave, has an attractive characteristic of being random in thickness and shade of colour. When knitted and woven, it creates its own shaded, banded look. It catches dye colour well and can be softened to an extent by natural raw materials like ritha (a herb)," says Darshan Shah, the founder of Weavers Studio, a retail store in Kolkata.

Shah says Weavers Studio has been showcasing nettle woven and crocheted in Nepal for a long time. “So far we have sourced nettle fibres and products from Nepal but have seen some being developed in the North-East. These are showcased in Weavers service centres in some states as well as the Kamala handicrafts store (of the Crafts Council of India; including the one in New Delhi) and in eco-bazaars," he says.

So far, though, it’s largely unfamiliar territory in fashion. Jute has been more successful in making inroads—it’s now woven with Kanjeevarams, Dhakais, even Bhagalpuri silk. Banana and bamboo fibres are in the same boat as nettle; saris, dupattas and home décor products made from these fibres can only be seen occasionally in crafts bazaars.

“I would include water hyacinth fibres in this list," says Laila Tyabji, the chairperson of Dastkar, a society for crafts and craftspeople. “Work with natural fibres remains limited to niche, experimental projects or pilot schemes in design work. Nobody has given people working with natural fibres the tools to market them. They need a marketing component and should be tested in mainstream markets and bazaars like Dastkar or Dilli Haat so that linkages can be formed," says Tyabji.

She brings in the right emphasis. In the many noises and voices on textile-focused fashion, there is little or no mention of natural fibres. The fuss about woven textiles continues to be centred around Banarasis, Chanderis and Ikats, natural dyes like indigo, or handworked techniques like Bandhani or Shibori.

Linkages, of course, are not just about marketing. As Gyaltsen points out, you would need organized farming of nettle to create the right volume of supply.

A carpet weaver at the DHH in Gangtok.

Strategic linkages would also lead to better wages and more gainful employment for local weavers, say Gyaltsen and Karma Samten. The region is full of skilled hands but younger weavers lead lives similar to those of their elders. There is very little excitement, very little innovation. “People earn little but almost everyone owns a house and a farm. The tradition of close-knit community life, with everyone standing up for a community member at the slightest sign of trouble, clouds notions of poverty but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist," says Gyaltsen.

Kinzang Lepcha, who collaborated with Karma Sonam Bhutia to create samples of nettle-weaving.
Kinzang Lepcha, who collaborated with Karma Sonam Bhutia to create samples of nettle-weaving.

The Indian Mountain Initiative (IMI), an initiative of various organizations aimed at recognizing the value of mountain regions and enabling people to realize their potential, seems to be the kind of forum that can take forward the idea of nettle-weaving for the fashion industry. The IMI held its second Sustainable Mountain Development Summit in Gangtok in 2012. Besides communities and forests and mountain livelihoods, “innovation" was one of the key themes.

The mainstream fashion industry too could be persuaded to push the idea, since designers are often in search of newer, distinctive themes to keep up with the pressure to create innovative collections every season. A crafts demonstration project at a fashion week venue, for instance, would give nettle-weaving a chance to capture the interest of a designer or a design house.

“Nettle is cost-effective and, with sensible design intervention, the product line that can be developed will be very popular and long-lasting, even if not the most practical. It will make for a fashion statement as it is an innovative and interesting fashion accessory," argues Shah.

“If anyone is ready to bring nettle weaves to the market, connect them with Dastkar," says Tyabji. Nobody seems to be in a position to do this immediately but Echostream certainly hopes to do so in future.

When the UN declared 2009 the International Year of Natural Fibres, the aim was to raise awareness about the qualities of natural fibres and the impact that industrial fashion and synthetics have had on the livelihoods of millions of people around the world who depend on natural-fibre production and processing. Tajikistan’s mohair, China’s hemp, Peru’s Alpaca fibre and Tanzania’s sisal came up as very interesting stories.

India’s silk was noted too. Will nettle now make the list?

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