Weaving nature into craft

How to create jobs and find new markets for products using an invasive species that clogs Nepal’s waterways

Water hyacinth is an invasive Amazonian species that clogs Nepal’s waterways, suffocating indigenous plants, and blocking nutrients needed by fish and aquatic birds. Now, a Nepali handicraft group has found a way to use its fibre to weave everyday household items.

Water hyacinths are ideal material for ecologically conscious consumers, and the plant’s removal makes way for the regeneration of native aquatic species. Taking a lead in harvesting it is Nepal Knotcraft Center (NKC) which markets knot-based handicrafts through women's entrepreneurship and economic empowerment. 

“I am no pioneer, I am building off of a legacy of weaving, empowerment and eco-friendly production,” says Maya Rai, CEO of Nepal Knotcraft Center. “Using water hyacinths provides a sustainable source of fibre, while being ecologically beneficial.” 

Nepal Knotcraft Center was established in 1984 by Shyam Badan Shrestha, to encourage local women’s groups to seek innovative and sustainable uses of local Nepali material to weave products for sale in Nepal and abroad.

Maya Rai (pictured below) herself is the daughter of a weaver from Dhankuta district, and spent her early childhood on a farm before she met her second family and moved to Kathmandu. Rai’s passion for weaving and handicrafts stuck with her, propelling her education in business.

Maya Rai

Currently, she works with weaving collectives of indigenous communities across Nepal, elevating traditional knowledge systems and linking products to the global market. She also consults for Creative Green Economy programs and mentors sustainable entrepreneurship projects for youth.

Rai is always on the lookout to introduce inventive and sustainable materials to the craft world. Samples of sage, cardamom, corn husk, cattail, pine needles, and water hyacinth hang on the walls of her office at the Patan Industrial Estate. Although common in craft history, these materials are overlooked in many manufacturing settings. 

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As a result, knowledge of how to work them is disappearing, yet the need for organic material is increasing in cutting-edge architecture, product design, and material libraries who are looking for sustainable options.

Accessing water hyacinth is complex, says Rai. Not only is the harvest itself difficult, but she has to navigate a web of stakeholders to source water hyacinth from several wetlands including the Kosi Tappu Wildlife Reserve. Waterways there are clogged completely with hyacinth, so removing them to weave marketable products is a win-win. 

Hyacinth fibres being woven

After over a decade of work, Rai is close with community leaders at Kosi Tappu Community Forest which backed her proposal. Rai’s role was of a negotiator, bridging the weavers and the bureaucracy. Her ability to make room for innovations within traditional systems of craft stem from her personal experience.

By obtaining permissions from the Reserve, she cuts the distance between material sourcing and processing, a crucial element to making weaving profitable for the collective at Kosi Tappu. After Rai helped clear the way the group, primarily made of women, began to source, harvest, process, and ship water hyacinth to the weaving hub in Kathmandu where this weed is now made into mats, baskets and decorative items.

Maya Rai’s work is to combine two simple sustainable ideas: using organic wovens as an alternative to plastic and synthetic materials which has been an NKC hallmark, and removing invasive species to do so. By purchasing a water hyacinth basket, consumers have a biodegradable option while simultaneously promoting a restorative production that cleans up natural waterways.

Weaving nature into craft

Viola Bordon is a Fulbright Researcher studying materials through sculpture with Kathmandu University School of Art.

The author and subject of this article are collaborating on a weaving installation that will be on view at Taragaon Next. This work will be a part of the Object In Focus series and open to the public throughout April.