Befitting the long tradition of handwoven textiles in the region, Palpali Dhaka is a handmade fabric that was developed in the Palpa District of Nepal during the 1950s. In the decades since, the fabric, which is perhaps Nepal’s most known weave and a strong symbol of the country’s national identity, has endured a challenging trajectory. Following the industry’s prosperous beginnings – wherein it experienced good growth for about three decades, trained and employed over 2000 weavers, and supplied over 36 districts in Nepal – it then faced a considerable decline later as a consequence of civil war and political instability. In the mid-1990s, the once-thriving industry had to cope with a diminished profits as well as a critical shortage of artisans as a result of the outmigration of workers who were attracted to higher wages elsewhere. Competition amongst Dhaka producers abounded, which lead to the outsourcing of cheap, imitation fabrics to flood the market – resulting in a loss of artisanal skill and unjust, low wages for the weavers who continued producing true Dhaka. Fortunately, however, this is all beginning to change.
This year, Label STEP joined efforts to revitalize the industry alongside the Palpali Dhaka Association (PDA): an initiative founded in 2020 by the nine remaining Dhaka producing workshops as a coordinated effort dedicated to rethinking, retooling and rebooting the Palpali Dhaka industry. With the support of the Lumbini Province Government, Tansen Municipality, and UKaid सीपProgramme, the PDA has been adapting the industry to the realities and demands of the present day by building the skilled artisan base and increasing the fabric’s appeal within emerging national and global markets.
A critical step in ensuring this transition is equitable for all and sustainable into the future is the implementation of a fair trade customs. STEP has been working with Nepal’s handwoven textile sector for over 25 years and has developed a set of fair trade standards specific to this industry’s needs. Covering everything from workers’ health and safety to environmental protections these standards provide the broadest and strictest labour, health, safety, social and environmental rules in the artisanal weaving industry. Now, in collaboration with the PDA, STEP has been assisting to modify and implement these guidelines to meet the needs of the Dhaka industry. Some of the efforts that have been successfully implement include: the use of STEP’s wage calculation tool to make sure weavers earn at least the governmental minimum wage; the restoration of production facilities to prioritize the health and safety of workers; and, the introduction of emergency measures and protocols, including regular safety and occupational health training.
These ongoing endeavours and more have fostered the growth of a more resilient, skilled and motivated artisan base, which has increased productivity and allowed Dhaka factories functioning in limited capacity to expand and others that had shut-down to reopen. This model exemplifies how within all sectors of handmade production the fair and equitable treatment of weavers and workers benefits the industry as a whole – creating a more resilient, competitive, and inclusive future for all.
To learn more about the history and present-day progress of the Palpali Dhaka industry, visit palpali.com or view the PDA’s recently released lookbook PALPALI: Weaving Tradition Into the Future: