PICS: KIRAN PANDAY
The pashmina industry seemed to have fallen prey to the classic trajectory of once-successful Nepali exports such as garments and carpets. In the late 1990s, there was a short boom for pashminas, during which time the number of pashmina factories shot up from 25 in 1993 to over 900. The heavy competition didn't translate into sustained growth, as compromises in quality began to hurt the industry.
But those who survived the bust learnt their lessons quickly, and are rebuilding the pashmina industry to cater to a niche market for high quality, innovative products. Last year Nepal exported Rs 2 billion worth of pashminas and earned an additional Rs 1.5 billion locally. Today, there are 150 pashmina manufacturers and more than 400 exporters in business.
"The growth of the pashmina industry at the moment is different from the rapid expansion we saw earlier," says Chandra Kakshyapati of Sana Hastakala. "It's a lot steadier."
It's also more diverse. Pashmina is no longer synonymous with shawls. Manufacturers are designing sweaters, wraps, gowns, gloves, blankets and even slippers made out of pashmina. Diversification is taking place not just in what is produced but also in the designs and methods used. Patterns are being woven and printed , and intricate beadwork and embroidery are adding value to the products. Manufacturers are using knitting along with weaving. Pashmina was traditionally mixed with cotton and silk; today we even have mixes with bamboo yarns.
"We need to treat it as a fashion industry and be innovative in our designs," says Anin Rajbhandari of Tara Oriental, which has been tying up with international brands and designers to make new pashmina-based products that appeal to buyers. Europe is the top market for Nepali pashminas followed by the United States, Japan, Russia, Brazil and the Middle East.
The pashmina industry has also realised that while major buyers are abroad, Nepalis are also keen on pashminas. Many export manufacturers have opened local retail outlets to cater to Nepalis and foreigners who might drop by.
China is the toughest competitor for the Nepali pashmina industry with its cheap labour, low production cost and skilled manpower. "It is impossible to compete with them but our advantage is that we can provide customised low-volume orders and work flexibly with our clients," says Bharat Adhikari of Nature Knit (Boudha factory ). But cost-wise it is still an expensive business for pashmina makers.
Ironically, most Nepali pashmina is actually made of yarn imported from China. Commercial farming of Himalayan goats (chyangra) is yet to take place in Nepal and the existing supply can only meet 30 per cent of the total yarn demand. The lack of spinning and refining factories here means farmers sell their wool to China at just Rs 2,000 per kg. Nepali manufacturers then buy back the yarn at rates higher than Rs 10,000 per kg. "Even before we start producing our costs are already 20 per cent higher, simply because we have to import our raw materials here," says Gurvesh Singh of Umrao Cashmere.
But initiatives are underway to produce yarn locally. The Nepali Pashmina Industry Association is working with the Asian Development Bank to set up a yarn spinning and processing plant in Nepal. "A lot can be done to make Nepali pashmina competitive," acknowledges Shiva Shrestha of Dhaulagiri Pashmina. "At least the manufacturers have understood now that the quality of pashmina is not to be tampered with."
Ladies behind the looms
Over 15,000 are people directly employed in the pashmina industry. Although the exact number of women employed in the industry is unknown, most manufacturers say that a majority of the workers in their factories are women. Twenty-four-year-old Saraswati Shrestha (pic, left) works at Nature Knit and is proud that she can support her household with her earnings from the factory. "I have been working here for four years and I get more respect at home," says Saraswati. Phulkumari Magar, who works alongside Saraswati, adds, "With my earnings I have been able to send my kids to an English-medium school. I also have a say in decisions at home." Factory owners say women are keener to learn, and they have a lower turnover because women are more loyal to the company.
"One of the strongest Nepali brands in the international market"
Restoring Nepal's social fabric, ALOK TUMBAHANGPHEY
Passion for pash, NARESH NEWAR