Beauty in a Bag Traditional skill bring to life a modern design

Text by Evangeline Neve

Many subjects of our craft section come to our attention via research, but The White Yak caught my my eye in the best, old fashioned way: word of mouth. “They are doing something really interesting with bags,” a woman told me over a drink. A little while later I saw one of those bags on the arm of a friend, classy looking yet well-used and clearly strong enough to accommodate the copious weights she was accustomed to lugging around in it. My curiosity was piqued.

The White Yak’s factory is tucked away down an alley from a large gompa in Kopan, where they make their distinctive wool and leather bags, each one featuring a colorful strip of woven pangden. A pangden is a colorful aprons worn by Tibetan women and those of ethno-Tibetan origin, and I was fascinated to learn that there are multiple patterns which all have a meaning and tell something about the wearer – something I will certainly pay attention to from now on; for example, a wool pattern with three strips of blue, three of red and three of green is made and worn by women from Mustang. In addition to where they are from, a pangden can also indicate a women’s marital status. The wool used to make pangdens is often sourced from Himalayan goats before being spun and dyed, and finally hand-woven by the women, in a tradition passed down from mother to daughter. It was a surprise for me to learn that something that I’d been seeing for years had so much significance that I hadn’t been aware of—which is just one of the many daily delights of my job.

And speaking of delights, The White Yak is a small, cheerful company – as the pangden weaving is outsourced and done by the women at their homes, the factory itself is a small, family like affair with only about 12 fulltime employees. Nonetheless, they produce about three bags a day from start to finish and are clearly all skilled and experienced workers.

The leather used is sourced from a carefully selected ethical tannery in Calcutta, and once here and combined with the woolen pangdens, these materials are transformed into seven different bag styles. They’re beautiful, sturdy, and manage to be both modern and ethnic at the same time. The variety of designs means there’s something to fit every need and taste—from a sturdy carryall to a cute saddlebag to an envelope clutch that wouldn’t be out of place on a red carpet. The company is also experimenting with how to use their scraps – key chains are one new product – in a concerted effort to repurpose in any way they can and reduce waste.

The day-to-day operations are run by Chris Woodall, who, along with two other partners, opened the company in 2015. Since then their popularity has grown, and domestic and export sales are about 50-50, which is impressive for such a new company. It’s something we are seeing more and more—higher quality products are being produced in Nepal, and customers are willing to pay more for something that is both long-lasting and beautiful. And these ‘Made in Nepal’ products are going all over the world as little traveling ambassadors.

But in the end, what draws me most is those colorful woolen aprons and the joy that a company like this is both providing employment to these weavers and also enabling the spread and continuation of such a fantastic cultural tradition and making process.

You can find The White Yak’s unique bags at both branches of the Local Project (Evoke, Jhamsikhel and Le Sherpa, Maharajgunj), Sherpa Adventure Gear and the Rab Store in Thamel, and One Tree Shop on Durbar Marg.