Spinning a Yarn With Allo

Features Issue 28 Aug, 2010
Text by Dinesh Rai

The Himalayan giant nettle, allo (Girardinia diversifolia) has been harvested for generations in the Himalayan region for the purpose of extracting fiber for making cloth.

“A new type of allo cloth began to be developed in the 1980’s when some weavers of Sankhuwasabha asked if KHARDEP, a rural development program operating in the area, could assist them with improved processing and marketing of the traditional allo products, for which the returns are very low. (It was calculated that it required a total of twenty working days from allo harvesting to finished product to make three sacks, which would sell for 54-60 NRs, a gross return of 3 rupees per day (0.20 US$ in 1983).) Product development began in one of the weaver’s homes in Bala, Sankhuwasabha. Purba Kumari Rai, an experienced cotton and allo weaver, made the first trial of putting an allo warp on her four-shaft treadle loom, which she had previously used only for cotton weaving. For allo she had always worked with her backstrap loom. The traditional gimte pattern she wove with allo warp and wool weft aroused much interest among allo producers on surrounding farms, who subsequently requested that a workshop be held. This took place in 1984 and gave an opportunity both to knitting, using traditional and adapted looms and equipment, and to assess, together with the weavers, the most successful way of using allo fibers and yarns for traditional as well as new products.”

Susi Dunsmore- “Nepalese Textiles”. When east meets west there is often a spark. Where there is a bond of com-mon interest there is instant camaraderie. The recent gathering of weavers from England and Nepal at the Hotel Ambassador  was one such occasion. Weavers from the extremely poor and remote region of Sankhuwasabha in northeastern Nepal arrived in Kathmandu to participate in a workshop with weavers who have worked or taught in London and other parts of Great Britain. What brought them together is the little known, but wonderful fabric locally known as allo. The Himalayan giant nettle, allo (Girardinia diversifolia) has been harvested for generations in the Himalayan region for the purpose of extracting fiber for making cloth.

In the 1980’s Susi Dunsmore walked to Sankhuwasabha from Dhankuta where she lived with her late husband John Dunsmore. John at the time was advisor at Koshi Hill Area Rural Development Program (KHARDEP). In northern Sankhuwasabha Susi discovered extremely skilled local weavers. Their preferred fiber was derived from the giant nettle, which grew wild in the surrounding forests. A social worker named Usha Nepal was instrumental in getting Susi involved in the welfare of these hill people. Convinced by Usha that weaving could be a good medium for income generation among these economically poor people, she began her long association with the Rai and other ethnic groups that inhabit this remote area.

In 1993 the British Museum Press published Susi’s book “Nepalese Textiles” which helped to increase awareness of the beautiful crafts of Nepal. She encouraged the Nepali weavers to knit with the allo yarn which resulted in some remarkable shawls. The next step was to mix allo with other fibers like wool to make thicker material for coats. The tweed is much sought after by men to make warm coats for the cold Himalayan regions. Traditionally, the people of Sankhuwasabha were weaving only jackets, sacks, jhola (bags), namlo (carry straps) and fishing nets. Today they make cushion covers, shawls, mufflers, tablemats, etc, which are then sold in Kathmandu while some are exported to the west.
As of today, very little dye has been used but various groups of people abroad have been experimenting with indigo and other dyes. The fiber has a natural brown color and a luster that makes it appealing in its natural form. Susi’s dedication is paying off. There is a growing interest in the fiber and much research is being carried out in various parts of the world. In Nepal, the Nepal Agricultural Research Center (NARC) has a regional office in Pakhribas, Dhankuta where various kinds of research study is being conducted for the preservation of the raw material (allo plant); development of new techniques to process the plant in a more efficient way and to develop more advanced equipment for weaving. After Susi sent some allo seeds to Germany, Hamburg University has grown the plant and is researching the process of making the fabric. Anatomical analysis and chemical processes are some of the area of study.

Ang Diku Sherpa is yet another dedicated person actively involved in promoting the fabric and the finished products. She met Susi in 1984, the same year KHARDEP started income generating projects in the Bhojpur, Tehrathum, Dhankuta and Sankhuwasabha regions. Ang Diku started by selling their products in the Mahaguthi, an NGO she was managing. The profit made from these sales went to a women’s welfare organization. After KHARDEP was phased out Ang Diku and her friends started an NGO named Mountain Spirit in 1996. Their target group is the mountain people living above 1,500 m. In order to improve their living standards, the NGO helps the local people in planning their projects and training them.

In order to teach the local weavers new techniques, Susi organized the recent workshop so the visiting weavers could show first hand how to use various modern looms and spindles, besides teaching them other weaving techniques.

Melanie Venes, a weaver and teacher from Norfolk, England who took part in the workshop was amazed by the skill of the village women. “They learn very quickly because they are experienced weavers and are very enthusiastic about learning,” she said with a pleased smile on her face. Melanie, who is a member of London Guild of weavers, made a curtain in England out of allo that was supplied to her by Susi. She has also produced various patterns to show her counterparts here in Nepal. The project arranged for floor looms and a table loom to be brought from England, which she says can be duplicated by Nepali craftsmen. From England, Melanie had also sent a design for a warping mill along with detailed instructions and the result has been very encouraging. According to her, the replica made in Nepal is a fine specimen. The allo yarn is being sold in England by the Handweaver’s Studio in London. Formally from London, Melanie still teaches there during the weekends and spends the rest of the week teaching in Norfolk. The Handweaver’s Studio has lent support by selling the yarn. Melanie has also experimented by mixing the allo with silk and the result is fabulous. She had many sample cloths to show at the exhibition.

Laxmi Rai who lives in Bala, Sankhuwasabha arrived with the troupe of weavers. She along with Lila runs the daily affairs of the weaving center known as Allo Cloth Production Club at Sisuwatar in Bala. The weavers come from four VDCs – Bala, Sisuwa, Tamku and Mangtewa. The center was founded in 1987 to train and to give jobs to allo weavers from these areas. Susi introduced new ideas, which brought variety to their products. Laxmi and Lila supervise the fourteen different groups that are engaged by the center. Most of what they produce is sold within Nepal but much is also being exported.
Lila Rai has been working at the center for eight years. Depending on their work schedule, Lila and Laxmi come to Kathmandu two or three times a year to supply allo products to the wholesalers here. They then also collect orders for the next lot. According to Lila their wares are being sold in places like Sana-Hastakala and Mahaguthi in Kupondole, Kathmandu. “Usually customers are not aware of the allo cloth because different fabrics like cotton, linen, hemp and allo are all lumped together in the showrooms.” says Lila.
Usha Nepal was the Principle of Mahila Prashikschhan Kendra in Dhankuta when John Dunsmore asked her if the high altitude allo could be developed. It was the beginning of her long association with Susi and the people who worked with allo. She reminisces “In the beginning our program was not effective because the adults were too busy with their own chores to come to the center. But eventually Susi was able to convince them by helping them innovate with different fabrics and introducing new colors on the dhaka cloth.” After John passed away, Susi has been using his savings to fund her projects related to allo, like the workshop and exhibition for which she flew in all the participants by air. “John always wore allo clothing like the safari suits he loved. He even wore them when he met Queen Elizabeth on her visit to Nepal.” remarks Usha. “We are now trying to open an emporium to sell village products that John tried so hard to promote,” she adds.

Liz Davies from Hereford, England is a spinner, knitter and weaver. But she does it all for pleasure rather than as a business. She has known Susi for eight years and was here to teach her Nepali counterparts new techniques in knitting shawls. She taught them to make different shaped garments and introduced them to spinning allo on a wheel. “With the wheel you can get a more consistent yarn and the process is faster,” is what she had to say. But she feels the wheel should not replace the spindle as this simpler tool allows them to walk about while spinning. Liz is full of admiration for the local weavers and said, “their skill is astonishing.”

Two designers from the Royal College of Art in UK arrived for the workshop through a scholarship set up by Susi. They are the first to avail of the scholarship and have recently graduated from the college. Catherine Seville is from Bristol and Louise Rolt from Salisbury. They helped with the knitting and weaving and have been experimenting with allo in coordination with Susi. They met her a year ago, when Susi was trying to set up the scholarship through their college.

The eight-day workshop at Hotel Ambassador culminated in an exhibition/sale on 15th February. Most of the items on display were the result of the workshop. The variety of products made from allo was amazing and included allo felt which has just been introduced. The sale of products was encouraging and some people were seen placing orders for various products. Some specimens of clothing made from allo have found their way to the Museum of Mankind, UK while an allo jacket is displayed in the British Museum. The latter was made in Sankhuwasabha. Allo products are being exported to UK, Germany, Japan, Philippines, Italy and Denmark. With Nepali weavers learning to make a wider range of allo products besides introducing more color, the future of this amazing fabric looks brighter than ever before.