BHAKTAPUR, Nepal – In a city world-famous for its religious architecture, Sachindra Pradhanang built a temple of industry.
And he’s done it with assistance from a quiet firm in Missoula, half a world away. He’s done it in a place with few natural resources but a determination to make the most of its people’s skills. If you shop for winter wear at Bob Ward’s or REI, there’s a chance you’re wearing a hat or sweater handmade by Himalayan Knitwear.
“This is our busiest time of the year,” Pradhanang said as one of his employees tabulated pieces of clothing going into huge, white sacks labeled “Everest Designs.” That order was on its way to Matt Skousen’s company in Missoula, which commissions, imports and distributes the items made in Bhaktapur.
Himalayan Knitwear turns out about 600,000 hats, sweaters and coats a year. At full capacity, it can ramp up to a million pieces annually. It employs about 150 workers – nearly all women – in the Bhaktapur plant. Several hundred more freelance from home when major orders come in.
“That gives opportunities for women staying in the house who may not be educated or have access to other jobs,” Pradhanang said. “They don’t have to depend on their father or husband to have their own income.”
Himalayan Knitwear is one of the largest single employers in a city where most “big” factories have fewer than 20 workers and the average wage is $80 a month. While thousands of Nepalis produce handicrafts like custom-embroidered T-shirts and intricately painted Thanka images, they work solo or in tiny family shops.
The factory also employs between five and 10 workers in Missoula, where Everest Designs receives and distributes the winter wear to almost 500 stores in the United States, Canada and Japan.
Large as Himalayan Knitwear sounds, it’s a minnow swimming in the sea dominated by Nepal’s neighbors, India and China.
“It’s very difficult to be a manufacturer here,” Pradhanang said. “We place orders in relatively small quantities, and China and India won’t handle small orders. Our products are mostly hand-knit, and that attracts buyers. China has hand-knit products, too, but they’re not very successful. They don’t have our quality control. We’re able to handle small orders, and we’re focused on quality.”
Nepalis often joke their nation is a yam between two boulders – 30 million people with few natural resources separating India’s 1.2 billion- and China’s 1.4 billion-person economic powerhouses. Its territory covers about 600 miles of the 1,600-mile wall of mountains that traditionally separate India and China. Given the tense political relations those two superpowers have, Nepal often serves as the neutral meeting place for Indo-Chinese commerce. It also attracts thousands of tourists annually who come to see Mount Everest and experience a place with more than 60 ethnic and religious groups living together.
“A lot of us talked about making that label ‘Made in Nepal’ the same as ‘Made in Switzerland,’ ” said Skousen. “There’s no place left in the world that will build you a beautiful, handmade item like this. It’s a sign of quality. It means that instead of $35 it’s $65, but it’s the real deal. Nepal is looked upon with a certain fondness in the world. So many people have visited, and there's a group of people who see that ‘Made in Nepal’ label and they have a fondness for that. People can feel that connection.”
The price has taken an extra bump this year. Those big Everest Designs sacks will be leaving Bhaktapur by airplane instead of by shipping container in order to reach North American markets in time for winter buying. That’s because the April 25 Gorkha earthquake and its May 12 aftershock knocked most of Nepal’s industrial production back at least six weeks.
Skousen landed in Kathmandu 10 days after the April 25 Gorkha earthquake. Tribhuvan Airport was still jammed with C-130 transport planes, mounds of relief supplies and uniformed aid workers. Many of Bhaktapur’s World Heritage Site temples and religious sites collapsed in ruins.
But the sense of urgency was strangely light. Skousen attributed part of that to the circumstances of the earthquake itself.
"You couldn't have designed a better earthquake," Skousen said. "It hit on a Saturday, when there's no school, at noon when everybody's outside, in daylight."
Some 7,000 school buildings collapsed during the magnitude 7.8 quake. Had it hit on a school day, those buildings would have been filled with children. Had it hit at night, millions of people might have been crushed in their beds.
A massive quake hitting Nepal has always been a question of "when," not "if." The Himalayan Mountains owe their existence to the fractured crust where the Indian Subcontinent collided with Eurasia about 50 million years ago. The region resembles a mousetrap, with geologically coiled springs waiting to snap.
Skousen convinced himself that the April 25 quake snapped the trap, so the place could relax for a few decades. Then came May 12, and an aftershock with a magnitude of 7.4.
"Sure enough, I ran right into the firestorm of the aftershock," he said. "I'm on the second floor of a concrete structure that's moving a meter this way and that. I was in socks, and all the floors in Bhaktapur are tile or concrete – you're sliding everywhere and falling down. The trees are swaying, people are screaming."
Skousen got out of the building with a lot of bruises and a deep scrape on his arm. The knitters in the factory escaped with an injury toll of one chipped tooth. As he put it back in Missoula, "the first earthquake knocked down everything that needed to be knocked down."
Earthquakes are measured on a logarithmic scale, where each whole number is 10 times greater than the previous one. As horrific as a 7.4 quake seems, Skousen said his friends were joking about how it was tame compared to the big one. A 7.8 quake is nearly four times more powerful.
"The geologists tell me what we really need is a big, 9.0 quake to settle that plate for a long time."
Unfortunately, that’s a distinct possibility. A team of geophysicists led by University of Montana professor Rebecca McKay found much of the seismic stress remains unreleased.
“The aftershocks are still going on and they’re expected to do so for a decade or so,” McKay said after returning from her May analysis mission for the National Science Foundation. “The biggest seismic hot spot is now in the Humla area of western Nepal.”
One reason Himalayan Knitwear is back in action stems from Skousen’s and Pradhanang’s continuing efforts to bring the factory up to international safety and workplace standards. The knitting floors are well lit and ventilated, with clear exits and secured equipment.
Pradhanang pointed to a five-story office tower on the grounds that was severely damaged in the quake. While most of the office work has moved to other spaces, he said the company decided to repair the tower rather than demolish it. It’s a way to signal Himalayan Knitwear is committed to remaining as a safe place to work.
Inside the plant, groups of women sit in circles knitting, embroidering and assembling clothing pieces. Other rooms are filled with the modern version of hand-knitting machines, where women adjust a complicated series of gates and channels to interlace different-colored threads into patterned panels.
There are also rooms for sewing more precise seams and features, cutting rooms for producing component clothing parts, and quality-control tables where each seam, button hole and sleeve length is checked before packaging.
In the courtyard of the facility, Himalayan Knitwear has developed a vegetable garden and a large pond. Pradhanang explained the pond catches rainfall from the property and recharges it back to the underground aquifer, where most of the surrounding neighborhood draws its drinking water.
Himalayan Knitwear gets almost all its raw materials from outside the country: Wool comes from Australia and New Zealand, dying and processing are done in India, and some synthetic fleece from China. Skousen hunts down about 30 percent of the materials he wants in his products, particularly buttons, zippers and other industrial components from China. Pradhanang contracts for the rest.
“Our only input is our human resources,” Pradhanang said. “Our labor is cheaper than India or China, although not as cheap as Bangladesh.”
Financing gets homegrown as well. Pradhanang said the Nepali government provides very little assistance to local employers beyond occasional trade fairs and some small export loan programs.
While other industrialized countries have adopted the just-in-time style of small inventories and fast turnarounds, business in Nepal can only meet that halfway. Himalayan Knitwear can ramp up with remarkable speed to fill orders, but it does so with a warehouse loaded for the long term.
“We typically place our orders for supplies before we have orders from buyers,” Pradhanang said. “That’s why we’re surviving. We have stockpiles of everything from wool to diesel fuel.”
Although, at the moment, not propane. A nearly month-long political dispute between the Nepali government and India-sympathetic political parties has resulted in an unofficial border blockade that’s strangled Nepal’s fuel supply. Last week, Himalayan Knitwear’s cafeteria cook was making lunch over an open wood fire because there was no cooking gas available.
The global economic collapse that started in 2008 dragged Nepal down along with everyone else.
“We used to work 12 months a year,” Pradhanang said. “It’s a seasonal business, with orders coming in the summer that we have to ship before winter comes. But since the downturn, people in the West are more careful about their orders. So we only work about eight or nine months a year for about the last four years.”
As competing nations automate and cheapen production of more goods, the future of Nepal’s handmade crafts sector has some big question marks. Skousen has been importing Nepali products for 20 years, first as a vendor in the University of Montana's University Center, then as a retailer on Higgins Avenue and now from a distributing warehouse along the Clark Fork River. What the next 20 years will bring is unknown.
“Nepal has three things going for it – hydropower, tourism and luxury craftwares,” Skousen said. “It’s one of the last places where you can control the raw materials to sophisticated levels of manufacturing. And that’s what we’re trying to do – to make that Brand Nepal have some meaning. We want people to say ‘That’s good stuff – it’s made in the Himalayas.’ ”