Wandering through the markets in Kathmandu, you can’t help but notice there’s something going on with felt in Nepal. Shoes, hats, bags, toys, you name it. Why? Well, come to find out:
Felt is the oldest man-made textile known, predating knit and woven cloth; in fact, archaeologists have found fragments of felt in Asia dating back to the Bronze Age. It is made by wetting layers of wool with soap and water and agitating the fibers so that they form a dense fabric. This can then be stretched into all sorts of items, including shoes, socks, bags, coats, and even shelters. Today, the art of felting is mainly found in the “Felt Belt,” which runs through Central Asia, and is a particular specialty of Nepal. (Global Good Partners)
When we first started talking about products and countries, I shared this anecdote with Annalisa and it stuck in her creative brain. Soon she was buying yards of felt, shopping for leather and beautiful hardware, sewing, re-sewing, etc. Fast forward a couple months—voilá, we had 3 prototypes designed and 2 tickets to Nepal.
It wasn’t until we were visiting our partners, Associated Craft Producers of Nepal that we really understood the process of making felt.
So here we go:
You start with wool: sheep, yak, alpaca. Years before Nepal became a sought-after destination for mountaineers, it was composed primarily of nomads, shepherds and farmers. In the north as the elevation increases dramatically towards the Himalayas, it gets cold. Before there were fancy North Face jackets and tents, alas, there was wool from your own animals. And that’s how it started. Now, most of the wool used for modern-day felting is imported from New Zealand. As felting has become a profitable business (not just a utilized by-product), buying wool versus shearing your own livestock has become a necessary step.
Raw wool is first dyed to create uniform color consistency. While many colors can be created, it is the actual felting process that “makes” the color. For instance, we wanted a dark heather grey, so 3 different color wools were mixed in the felting process to create our custom grey. The wool is boiled with the dye in giant vats. Because it is so fibrous, it takes to the dye quickly. Once it reaches the desired saturation, it is removed, rinsed and placed in the sun to dry.
The wool is then aerated to separate and straighten the fibers so that when it is felted it binds together better. Once it is separated, it is then carded to get out any dirt or obvious flaws. At ACP they have a machine that helps with this since they are often making a lot of felt in one color for one product.
Once that is complete, the felting may begin. Generally speaking, this is where the magic happens. Felting occurs when water and soap is mixed with the wool, then agitated so the fibers are compressed and bound to one another. In the image below, an artisan has completed that process and is tightly rolling the felt to flatten it in to one large surface.
Then, it will be rinsed to remove excess soap and hung out to dry in the sun, where it will harden in to a smooth yet pliable textile.
Once it is dry, the felt is then ready to be cut and used to make any product designed.
This little window of time between Christmas and New Year’s Eve always provides an opportunity to look back and think forward.
Two years ago I was curled up with this same blanket on this same couch. I was very sick and very sad. And, very convinced that life as I knew it would never be the same again. Having just returned from South Asia, my body was revolting against something foreign and my emotions were still trying to process what I’d observed in the previous four months researching human trafficking in the developing world—the issue and solutions. I had no idea what lay ahead of me.
2011 turned out to be a year of recovery and rebuilding. It was long and difficult, particularly the emotional aspect. I think I’m still a pretty changed person. I learned that healing is sometimes slow and patience is necessary. I learned that we really need each other, especially in times of crisis. I learned that we never, ever know what lies around the bend. And, that there is purpose, always purpose in pain. I think that’s called redemption and sometimes you can’t see it until you look backwards.
Towards the end of 2011, I was able to look back and see steady uphill healing. I was able to say, yes, things are getting better! And, my friend Annalisa and I began having very intentional conversations about a potential business idea. My heart stirred again and recognized feelings like hope and excitement.
In May 2012, Annalisa and I were on a plane to Nepal. This was happening. We were starting a business!
I can’t describe what I felt when we touched down in Kathmandu. There was this great sense of a journey coming full-circle to begin another journey. God knew I needed that. I could never have imagined that I would be returning to Nepal to start a business with a friend of mine. Now, it’s the end of December, and we’ve launched GIVEGIVE | MULXIPLY with great feedback and hosts of ideas for growth and continued partnerships with organizations such asAssociated Craft Producers of Nepal. And that too is redemption.
It is hard to comprehend why hard things happen. Working in the developing world is a constant reminder of the tremendous need for each of us to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the face of suffering and injustice, which is rampant and permissible in places like Nepal, particularly involving women and children. My friend and now, business partner Annalisa, is part of my redemption story in this crazy 2+ year journey. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the women at ACP in Nepal in preventing poverty. We are part of each other’s redemption story. And you are part of ours. All of your support as we launched GIVEGIVE is part of this bigger story. It’s beautiful isn’t it?
I can see that now—looking back. And so it’s with total confidence that I can face 2013 and say, “The best is yet to come!”
Happy New Year.