Learning to Hand-Weave in Kathmandu

Skipping the customary immersion into the bustle of the Nepalese capital, a traveller opts to dip his toes into local weaving traditions and comes away humbled.

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Situated in Lalitpur, a city known for its impressive Durbar Square (left), the Nepal Knotcraft Centre (right) is an unassuming space where the passionate staff are able to share their knowledge and enthusiasm with visitors. Photo courtesy: Nepal Knotcraft Centre (weaving)

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In a nondescript red brick building located in Patan Industrial Estate, Shyam Badan Shrestha enters a room that showcases a series of woven objects. She guides me through the different specimens, saying, “This is macrame work,” and pointing to a ceiling light, shaped like an upside-down lamp shade, with a long jellyfish-like trim left at the end. “And this is made out of straw,” she says, showcasing a lidded basket ideal for car keys or a mobile phone—shallow, round and about a foot across. Throughout the room she keeps going, “Those are from the southern part of Nepal, those weaving styles and then this one is…another kind of weaving,” she explains pointing out that weavers in Jhapa, Morang and Sunsari work on the knotted products made with water hyacinth, an invasive species in the area. Around the room, there are functional bins, coasters and trays; dividers and placemats that are made to showcase the various techniques of weaving that Shrestha has learned over her almost 40 years as founder of the centre. 

On one wall are certificates from the World Crafts Council and a signed letter from Hillary Clinton when she was First Lady of the United States, the only hints that this is a handicrafts centre that’s changed lives. The recognition is well deserved. Shrestha is the founder of Nepal Knotcraft Centre, a decades-old initiative that empowers Nepali women, contributes to the circular economy and maintains local weaving traditions. The centre is a showcase for the weaves that eventually turn into chattais and baskets, bowls and trays–all made with local plants and weeds–be it dried corn husk, hollow water hyacinth stems, sinewy thatch or fibres from banana to sage.

 

Also Read | A Community of Culturists in Cashmere Valley

   

The centre is located in Lalitpur, about 40 minutes from my hotel, Kathmandu Marriott. I was eager to work with my hands and learn more about the enterprise Shrestha founded, and its impact. The Lalitpur building—part-office, part-visitors centre and full-time research and development centre—is unique. I went in expecting to see women working, creating the bins and bowls that are exported to countries all over Europe. Instead, the simple space is where the passionate staff are able to share their knowledge and enthusiasm with hotel guests and other visitors. 

Shrestha is a small woman and within she is a bundle of energy. Confident and eager to share her journey, she leads a one-on-one session in which she explains the motto that guides her—weaving nature into women’s livelihood. When asked if she learned from the communities she’s trained with, Shrestha clarifies, “I learned from the book,” before taking that knowledge and using it to train women across villages in Nepal—on how to create objects that resonate with modern living. She explains that looms needed to make chattais aren’t easily available to women and so hand-weaving works best. 

 

Learning To Hand Weave In Kathmandu

While weavers in Jhapa, Morang and Sunsari have traditionally worked on woven products made with water hyacinth (top left), an invasive species in the area, the Nepal Knotcraft Centre team (bottom left) is also pioneering research on weaving with cardamom stems. An artisan displays a placemat (right) made at the centre. Photos courtesy: Nepal Knotcraft Centre (artisan and research team)

 

I was there for a crash course in this very hand-weaving, though that didn’t go according to plan. I consider myself pretty skilled with my hands, but a combination of being left-handed and being utterly confused about which of the three fibres to move over and under, left me struggling. My brittle bamboo sticks, the warp, were never quite able to be held together by the easily-bendable water hyacinth weft. An added complication was the angular nature of the weave. Moving the badly held together bamboo sticks caused them to overlap or shift, seeing as how a single hyacinth knot was holding them in place. After struggling with weaving four strips together–despite the encouragement, lots of hands-on explanations and even some nifty mnemonics from Shrestha—I was dejected and wondered how long it took for this technique-based handicraft to become a part of muscle memory. Just because I could type at my computer without the need to look down at the keyboard, I assumed I’d be adroit with my hands across the board, but that wasn’t the case. 

Shrestha, though, was already twisting together a new plan; we’d work with six lengths of water hyacinth and start weaving in a circle. Whether it became a coaster or something else remained to be seen but hopefully even with more components, it would be easier. The ability to move a circular weave incrementally, meant that I was able to repeat the same action, multiple times keeping my hands in the same place. It helped develop some sort of muscle memory, though I still managed to overthink the over and under—threading the hyacinth strands incorrectly through the two others it has to bind.

When my hour-and-a-half was up, I had a loosely held together circle, roughly the size of a coaster, to show for my efforts. With six spokes, it looked like a half-formed wheel or very crude wall hanging. Whatever it was, I was grateful to have made it and learned about the time and dexterity needed to make everything, from towel holders to baskets. 

With travellers seeking more authentic experiences, such workshops are sure to become the norm in cities big and small. The last two years have changed a lot, including how people want to experience the world around them. For me, it meant leaving the bustle of Kathmandu behind to explore beyond the momo stalls and shops selling everything from pashmina to thangka paintings. By deeply engaging, even if only for an hour, I came away with an appreciation for the labour that goes into making the earthy weaves, but also the passion that has driven Shrestha to persevere through the years.

 

Also Read | Crafted in Kutch

 

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ESSENTIALS

Indigo Airlines and Nepal Airlines fly directly to Kathmandu from major Indian cities. The average flight time is two hours.

When to Go: The city is a year-round destination, but the September-December period has the best weather. 

Where to Stay: Kathmandu Marriott Hotel, which allows visitors to seek out authentic experiences under Marriott’s Good Travel initiative. From Rs 12,600 per night. marriott.com

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  • Aatish Nath is a freelance writer based in Mumbai. He has written for Time Out Mumbai, Mumbai Mirror, and GQ India.

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