Traditional Nepali Hemp Textiles
Robert C. Clarke
ABSTRACT. Farmers living in the western districts of the Nepal
Himalaya grow Cannabis and use the fibrous bark to make various tex-
tile products. Nepali hemp cordage crafts and woven fabrics are becom-
ing increasingly known amongst textile collectors. This paper will
introduce some of the collectible hemp textiles of Nepal. doi:10.1300/
J237v12n02_07 [Article copies available for a fee from The Haworth Document
Delivery Service: 1-800-HAWORTH. E-mail address: <docdelivery@haworthpress.
com> Website: <http://www.HaworthPress.com> ©2007 by The Haworth Press,
Inc. All rights reserved.]
Robert C. Clarke is affiliated with the International Hemp Association, Postbus
75007, 1070 AA Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Researchers and collectors of ethnic textiles often rely on the knowledge and expe-
rience of entrepreneurs who research and source local products as an avocation and
business. Mark and Jyoti Rose are owner operators of the Wild Fibers shops in
Kathamandu featuring wild-sourced, blended fiber paper and textile products originat-
ing outside the agricultural food chain. Mark and Jyoti have interviewed countless
Nepali traders, trekked for weeks on end locating sources of wild fibers and are special-
ists in all aspects of giant nettle processing, spinning and weaving. Shoichi Endo owns
the Himalayan Material Natural Fibre Collection based in Tokyo and manufactures
boutique hemp items in Nepal. Shoichi also freely shared his extensive knowledge
gained through years of fieldwork, and was the first to show the author various qualities
and styles of hemp cloth originating in different districts of western Nepal. Had he not
shown the author swatches of intriguing striped hemp cloth and told him of Darchula’s
fame, they might never have gone the extra distance to see for themselves!
Journal of Industrial Hemp, Vol. 12(2) 2007
Available online at http://jih.haworthpress.com
©2007 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.
KEYWORDS. Bhangara,Cannabis, cloth, costumes, fabric, hemp,
In the western Himalayan region of Nepal Cannabis has been widely
grown and used for centuries as a source of strong fibers for twisting
cordage, spinning yarn and weaving cloth. Cannabis seeds and fibers
tentatively identified as hemp were recovered from cave sites (ca 2,400
to 1,900 Before Present) along the Jhong Kola River, a tributary of the
Kali Gandaki River that drains the Annapurna watershed of western
central Nepal (Knörzer, 2000; Alt et al., 2003). The British emissary
Colonel William Kirkpatrick (1811) wrote that the Newar people of the
Kathamandu region wove “coarse linen and sackcloth from hemp.” In
Nepali language, the Cannabis plant and its psychoactive products are
generally referred to as bhang, while hemp cloth and clothing are called
bhangara. Alan Campbell (1836) described bhangara cloth as follows:
Coarse but strong sackcloth or canvas, made ...bythehill people.
Much used in the Kathmandu Valley for grain-bags and sacks for
transporting merchandise. The poorer hill people, who subsist by
collecting and carrying firewood, produce the cloth for their own
wear. The cloth is very strong and durable and will stand long peri-
ods of dampness without rotting or loss of texture. Pieces are five
yards ⫻12 in. (4.6 m ⫻30.5 cm).
Although the word bhangara originally referred to only Cannabis
cloth, the term was, and still is, more broadly used to denote bast (stem)
fiber fabrics in general, such as those woven from the giant Himalayan
nettle (Girardinia diversifolia) called allo or sisnu in Nepali (see
Dunsmore, 1993 for an overview of Nepali textiles). Nettle fiber is pro-
cessed, spun and woven by much the same techniques as hemp fiber,
and they are very difficult to tell apart in finished textiles, creating iden-
tification problems for collectors. Fortunately, geographical constraints
provide some direction in the search for Cannabis hemp collectibles.
Nettle cloth is produced throughout the higher elevations of the Himala-
yan foothills, but is increasingly common as one moves east towards
Bhutan, and dominates Nepali bast fiber production east of Kathmandu.
However, hemp weaving is restricted to the far western districts of
Darchula, Bajhang, Bajura, Rukum, Rolpa, Dailekh and Jajarkot (Map).
Within this region, Cannabis cultivation is also limited by altitude
and most hemp weaving takes place in villages at elevations from
98 JOURNAL OF INDUSTRIAL HEMP
2,500-3,000 meters. Although sisal (Agave spp.) fiber is readily avail-
able and widely used for cordage at lower elevations (around 2,000
meters), it is less available higher up (around 3,000 meters) and is un-
suitable for weaving all but the coarsest fabric. The examples of hemp
textiles chosen for this article came from the neighboring districts of
Darchula (see Darchula article in this issue) and Bajhang, where the
highest quality grades of hemp fabric have traditionally been woven.
In the neighboring Kumaon Region of Uttaranchal State in India, on
the other side of the Mahakali River from Darchula District, Cannabis
was traditionally grown for fiber and seed, and the resin was rubbed
from “wild” plants. According to Shah (1997), hemp fiber was tradi-
tionally spun and made into rope (jeor), a coarse “canvas of great
strength and durability” (bhanga pakhuli) and “stout sack-cloth” (kothla).
Hemp twine, and all cordage products, are made solely by men.
Twine is wound using a bamboo and hardwood cross-shaped cordage
spindle (see Darchula article in this issue). Rough hemp bark strips from
branched plants are used to plait livestock ankle tethers (galau).
Hemp twine is used to make the trademark Himalayan tumpline used
by porters to carry huge loads. A tumpline is a strap slung across the
Robert C. Clarke 99
MAP. Map of western Nepal showing the hemp weaving districts: 1 = Darchula;
2 = Bajhang; 3 = Bajura; 4 = Dailekh; 5 = Jajarkot; 6 = Rukum; 7 = Rolpa.
forehead or chest of a bearer to support a load carried on the back. Hi-
malayan tumplines are made in two parts, the woven cordage head band
(namlo) with a loop at each end and a piece of smooth rope (dori), and
can be made of either sisal, nettle or hemp (Photo 1) depending on what
is fiber is locally available where they are made. Hemp cordage is also
used to knot large net sacks with a draw string closure (djal) used for
collecting light dry fodder, corn husks and leaves (Photo 1) and in the
Darchula region these are made from hemp. Another common item
made from hemp rope and a pair of whittled wooden handles (Photo 1)
is the rope used to rotate the paddles in the revolving butter churn
(neithi) as it provides proper friction for turning the churn shaft. In
Dailekh District, tightly knotted macramé net shoulder bags are some-
times made from hemp, but may also be made from nettle or another fi-
100 JOURNAL OF INDUSTRIAL HEMP
PHOTO 1. Various cordage items from Darchula District. A hemp butter churn
) is coiled above three hemp tumplines (
) laying on
top of a hemp netting drawstring sack (
). The background cloth is from a
of unknown origin similar to the one pictured in Photo 12.
ber. Satchels are made by either knotting the twine like a tight fish net
(jale) or connecting it like interlocking chain link fencing (jabo).
Sandals are also made from hemp bark strips.
I particularly like to collect incidental items used in everyday rural
life such as skeins of yarn, cordage products and grain sacks, because
most people overlook them, they very rarely appear in ethnic products
shops and generally must be collected by visiting the regions where they
are made. That said, the rarest and finest crafted fabrics in any collection
are nearly always of particular importance and value. Woven hemp
fabric household items and clothing are the rarest hemp textiles and
therefore the most challenging to collect. Hemp weavings are more
commonly collected than household items, and on occasion can be pur-
chased in urban shops that know their correct identity. However, it is
important to travel to the region of origin where the crop was grown, the
fiber spun and the fabrics woven, to determine with certainty that they
are made from hemp whenever possible.
All the steps of making hemp cloth, from sowing seed in the fields,
through the many stages of fiber processing, to spinning and weaving
the yarn, are performed by women. Hemp cloth is woven in varying
widths, thicknesses (determined by the diameter of the yarn–larger yarn
weaves thicker fabric) and weights (tightly woven fabric has less open
area and is denser). Differing qualities of cloth are associated with vari-
ous regions and uses for the fabric (Table 1). Heavier coarse grades of
cloth were traditionally used for crude sacking, but are now produced
almost entirely for sale as uncut rolls to hemp curio factories and shops
in Kathmandu and find their primary market amongst tourists and bou-
tique exporters. Finer grades (Photos 3 and 4) are used to make better
quality grain sacks (bura) (Photo 2) and clothing. As a general rule,
hemp cloth from farther west in Nepal is of higher quality. Darchula
District in the far northwestern corner of Nepal was traditionally con-
sidered to produce the highest quality (thinnest and most tightly woven)
hemp fabric, while neighboring Bajhang and Bajura Districts to the east
produce the next best grade of cloth, and Rukum and Rolpa Districts
farther east produced even coarser fabric, but Jajarkot District produced
the coarsest and roughest of all.
Simple sash belts called dola worn by both men and women are made
from a full warp length (3.5-4.0 meters) of somewhat finer and lighter
hemp cloth (Photos 3 and 4). Sometimes dola are decorated with narrow
warp stripes near the selvages and both ends of the cloth are usually dec-
orated with brightly colored and contrasting weft-striped bands of col-
ored market yarn. The ends of the yarns may be left hanging beyond the
Robert C. Clarke 101
102 JOURNAL OF INDUSTRIAL HEMP
TABLE 1. Traditional hemp fabrics–region of origin, measurements, usage and
photo numbers. Nepali hemp cloth varies widely in its physical characteristics
selvage edge as tassels and the ends of the warp yarns are twined to
make a fringe (Photo 4). Sashes are folded lengthwise twice, wrapped
around the waist and secured by pulling the end under the coils; the long
tight folds forming pockets for currency, keys and other small items
(Photo 5). A curved field knife is frequently carried by sliding the blade
downward under the sash belt against the small of the back; and a sash
belt can also be used as a makeshift tumpline. I have only collected
hemp sashes from Darchula District, but they were likely also woven
and worn in other hemp producing districts.
The highest quality Nepali hemp cloth is sewn into draping cloths
used by both men and women, called simply bhangara or “hemp cloth,”
and worn either as a shawl, used as a blanket, tarpaulin or ground cover,
Robert C. Clarke 103
PHOTO 2. Large grain storage sack (
) from the Shipti region of Darchula
or tied across the back of the shoulders like a cape (Photo 6). The
bhangara is a flat piece of cloth about 1.8 meters long and 1.2-1.3 me-
ters wide, sewn from four strips of cloth; and when worn as a cape it is
knotted corner to corner at each end to make a long open-sided pouch.
One arm is inserted through the tied loop at one end of the bhangara
with the tied corners over the top of the shoulder. The folded cloth is
passed behind the back, across the chest and behind the back a second
time to the opposite shoulder, where the other arm is inserted through
the opening tied in the opposite end of the pouch as the first arm was.
The bhangara forms a bag across the wearers lower back of quite large
capacity suitable for holding fodder and garden produce. At night the
knots are untied and the bhangara serves as a shawl or blanket.
Bhangara and sash belts were often part of the dowry provided by the
bride at weddings.Just a few decades ago bhangara cloths were still
regularly used for many purposes and were occasionally sourced from
western Nepal and brought into Kathmandu and Pokhora to be cut up
and sewn into tourist curios. As commercial manufactured clothing has
become more available in rural regions, fewer and fewer women con-
104 JOURNAL OF INDUSTRIAL HEMP
PHOTO 3. The decorated ends of three sash belts (
) from Darchula Dis-
trict. The center belt has a single red warp stripe along each selvage.
Robert C. Clarke 105
PHOTO 4. Close-up of the ends of two sash belts (
) showing the decora-
tive weft stripe bands, colorful tassels and twisted fringe on the right belt. The
background cloth is the grain storage sack in Photo 2.
106 JOURNAL OF INDUSTRIAL HEMP
PHOTO 5. A young Nepali woman from the Shipti region of Darchula District
wearing a hemp cloth sash belt. This example was woven with a single warp
stripe along each selvage.
Robert C. Clarke 107
PHOTO 6. A Nepali man from the Shipti region of Darchula District wearing the
in Photo 9. Notice how it is tied over each shoulder and worn across
the back forming an ample pouch.
tinue to weave and wear their traditional clothes, and bhangara cloths
have become harder and harder to find. By the early 1980s hemp bhan-
gara were only being woven in remote highland regions of Darchula,
Bajhang and Bajura Districts.
Each bhangara cloth is made from two complete warps of hemp
cloth, by cutting each into two pieces of equal length, and sewing the
four resulting strips together along the selvages to make a cloth four
strips wide. The ends of the strips are trimmed to make them even and
finished with a rolled hem. The decorative styles and choices of materi-
als vary between the different regions. The simplest bhangara cloths
come from Bajura District and are made from plain undecorated hemp
cloth. All other bhangara from both Darchula and Bajhang Districts are
decorated with warp stripes. Bajhang District weavings are woven of
larger diameter hemp yarn and employ natural black yak wool yarn to
make simple single, paired, or triple warp stripes along the selvages
and/or down the center line of the cloth (Photos 7 and 8). Darchula Dis-
trict weavings usually incorporate colored warp stripes of artificially
dyed market yarn (Photos 9 and 10), but older pieces may have dyed
hemp yarn warp stripes. The warp-striped weavings are all made from
two matching warps with subtly different patterning (Photo 11). The
warp intended for the edge pieces of the bhangara is usually patterned
108 JOURNAL OF INDUSTRIAL HEMP
cloth from Bajhang District with paired yak wool stripes
along each selvage (except the outer two) and two pairs of yak wool stripes
down the middle of both warps.
Robert C. Clarke 109
PHOTO 8. A smaller
cloth from Bajhang District with triple yak wool
stripes down the center line of both warps. The side panels are slightly nar-
rower than the center two pieces, but the warp patterning is the same.
PHOTO 9. A
cloth from the Shipti region of Darchula District worn in
Photo 6. A maroon stripe flanked by black stripes decorates all the selvages in
with the exception of the outer two panels. Notice the similarity in
warp stripe patterning with the
of unknown origin in Photos 12 and
110 JOURNAL OF INDUSTRIAL HEMP
PHOTO 10. One half of a
cloth from the Kandeshwari region of
Darchula District with the characteristic alternating colored stripes (indigo blue
and red with black) across the width of the cloth. Women from this region add
extra stripes to one warp as the outside selvage decoration (see Photo 11).
The other half had been used to make a small grain sack.
PHOTO 11. A pair of uncut
warps from the Kandeshwari region of
Darchula District showing the gap in each circular warp where the weaving was
started and ended. The warp on the left is for the center two panels and the
warp on the right is for the outer two panels. Notice the five additional thin red
and black stripes along the right hand selvage.
almost exactly like the middle warp, except either extra warp stripes are
added along the outer selvage edge (Photo 11), or the warp stripes are
omitted to make a plain outer selvage edge without decoration. Weav-
ing styles vary within Darchula District; the bhangara strips from the
Shipti region (Photo 9) have thin colored stripes only along the selvage
edges, whereas bhangara strips from the Kandeshwari region a few
days walk away have equally spaced wider stripes across the cloth from
selvage to selvage (Photos 10 and 11). Two additional bhangara pic-
tured here (Photos 12 and 13) were purchased in shops in Kathmandu
and are purportedly from Bajhang District, but may well be from the up-
per Darchula region. The weaving is tighter and the cloth thinner than
the typical yak hair warp-striped bhangara from Bajhang (Photos 7 and
8), and the colored stripes and selvage warp stripe pattern also hint at
Darchula origin (Photo 9) possibly near Shipti. Some of the bhangara in
the photos could be more than thirty years old, have been worn many
times and some are quite heavily stained. Some of the bhangara retain a
hint of their original natural color (Photo 11), while well-washed (and
possibly bleached) cloths are nearly white (Photos 12 and 13).
The warp stripe cloth produced by Nepali weavers is part of a much
larger ancient tradition encompassing ethnic minority groups of
Tibeto-Burman descent living in Myanmar and northern Yunnan Prov-
Robert C. Clarke 111
PHOTO 12. A
cloth of unknown origin purchased in Kathmandu, pur-
portedly from Bajhang District, but more likely from Darchula District. Notice
the simple green and black warp stripes of similar pattern to the
the Shipti region in Photo 9.
ince, China. Women from the Chin, Dulong, Lisu, Rawang and Yi
ethnic groups also weave hemp cloth with approximately the same qual-
ities and appearance as Darchula and Bajhang fabrics and sew together
three or four strips to make draping blankets very similar to bhangara.
Villagers in the highland regions of western Nepal have grown Canna-
bis for centuries and still utilize it for its durable fiber, as well as the ed-
ible seed and psychoactive resin. (See Darchula article in this issue.)
Within these broader cultural and geographical contexts, Nepali hemp
textiles are even more fascinating to collect.
Alt, K. W., 2003. Climbing into the past–first Himalayan mummies discovered in Ne-
pal. Journal of Archaeological Science 20: 1529-1535.
Campbell, Alan, 1836. Notes on the state of the arts of cotton spinning, weaving, print-
ing and dyeing in Nepal. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal Vol. 5: 224.
Dunsmore, Suzi, 1993. Nepalese Textiles. British Museum Press, London: 35, 40,
Kirkpatrick, Colonel William, 1811. An Account of the Kingdom of Nepaul. William
Miller, London: 143.
112 JOURNAL OF INDUSTRIAL HEMP
PHOTO 13. Another
cloth of unknown origin purchased in Kathmandu,
purportedly from Bajhang District, but more likely from Darchula District. Notice
the simple lavender and pink warp stripes of similar pattern to the
from the Shipti region in Photo 9.
Knörzer, K-H., 2000. 3000 years of agriculture in a valley of the high Himalayas. Veg-
etation History and Archaeobotany 9 (4): 219-222.
Shah, N. C., 1997. Ethnobotany of Cannabis sativa in Kumaon Region, India. Ethno-
botany 9: 117-121.
Robert C. Clarke 113