Our Founding Story

By Dekyi Tso, Lelema’s chief designer

My hometown is located at the junction of Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan provinces on the eastern part of the Tibetan Plateau. Historically, the long-standing engagement and integration between Mongolian and Tibetan culture has shaped the history, culture, and ecology of this place. Here we have the best grasslands resources and ecological environment within the national nature reserve that we are located in. Amidst the vibrant sounds of pastoral songs, herds of sheep and cattle can be seen here roaming under the sun, eating flowers and grasses and drinking snow water all day. The air, water, and soil here are pure and of excellent quality, and there are almost no sources of pollution. All of these provide an exceptional material safeguard for the production of natural, green products. Lelema’s headquarter itself is located at the heart of the largest organic animal husbandry production base in China.

My memory of the spring of 2011 -- a distressing spring full of bad news -- remained fresh to me. First, my mother was diagnosed with severe heart disease and was hospitalized in the provincial capital. From then on, she could only live in low-altitude areas and could not return to the grassland where she had lived most of her life. Then, my 95-year-old grandmother passed away. Not only was Grandma a woman of the grassland who had experienced the era of nomadic tribes, but she also held widespread prestige across the grasslands as a "craftswoman". My mother was also an uncrowned queen in the art of twisting threads, weaving carpets and sewing. This is the way in which women’s craftsmanship are passed down from generation to generation on the grassland.

In the time of my grandma, there was a loom in every family, and everyone operated a spindle. The women did manual work on cattle and sheep wool (shearing, washing, combing, dyeing, and later twisting, spinning, and weaving) while chatting about their daily life. The grassland was filled with their hearty laughter and singing. People living in alpine grasslandsrelied on these fabrics for generations to survive, as much as people today rely on plastics and polyester. The hardest part of weaving yak and sheep wool fabrics and blankets is in the beginning: the control of scale, the matching of colors,as well as pattern designare all set from the installation of the warp and weft and the first set of patterns. Both my grandma and my mother are famous “starters” in their region. "Starter" basically means "master designer" in contemporary language. When grandma was young, she would go from house to house all year round, giving others a “start” and enjoying the fun of making friends along the way. More than half of the family's income came through grandma's craftsmanship and hard work. Grandma also passed on her unique skills to her daughter by teaching her in person. Being a craftswoman in our region, although requiring many years for one’s skills to reach maturity, is a true symbol of honor.

To this day, my family still retains many things left by generations of women, ranging from yak hair tents, rugs, and woolen cushions to rucksacks, zanba bags (for storing barley flour), purses and storage bags. The vestiges of our ancestors can be seen everywhere. While those creative patterns on the fabrics coming from different eras may have been casually inserted as decorations, still, the traces of those years are still recognizable. Sometimes, they also become mysterious, like a group of mischievous spirits or sacred symbols, transmitting to me a hint of blood-inherited, genetic information.

My mother revealed her exceptional talent since she was a child, and under the tutelage of grandma, she began to surpass her predecessors since she was 12 years old. As people engaged in heavy labor during the People’s Commune period, my mother’s physical fitness and perseverance gradually exceeded my aging grandma. My mother became the leader in labor with her endurance of working 18 hours per day on average. The production team she led was known for its output. Some people estimated that the yak and sheep wool threads they had woven in a year combined would be enough to wrap around the earth several times. In addition to work, my mother gave birth to 10 children in 20 years. At that time, my father was away most of the time, so the burden of raising children and caring for the elderly fell on the shoulders of my mother. In addition to herding, milking, and churning butter, all of our expenses depended on the money earned by my mother through her craftwork. Besides one of my sisters who died at the age of 9, my mother's skill and virtue supported the nine of us through university, (and for some) master and doctorate degrees. All this has become a legend here on this grassland.

As my mother engaged day and night in combing yarns, weaving, knitting, trimming, sewing and repairing, her handicrafts were passed on to me and my elder sister Tsering Kyi in the process. Over time, as we started to assist our mother in generating income for the family, the principle of “hand-made” had unconsciously became part of our lives. It made us realize that making handcrafted daily necessities is one of the generational life pursuits for people on the grasslands.

However, with the large-scale implementation of urbanization of pastoral areas and settlement of nomadic people, handwoven cattle and wool items have gradually and quietly retreated from the daily lives of pastoral people. Women who persisted in handcrafting were rare. Alternative items made in assembly lines from remote factories flooded the grasslands in their cold and emotionless fashion. Grasslands people have become accustomed to industrialized consumer goods while handmade operations have begun to leave our lives. Our women also face a host of troubling issues that could emerge anytime and anywhere.

After my mother settled in the provincial capital -- living amid a cluster of tall buildings -- the main way for her to soothe their homesickness was to frequently pick up sheep wool and needles and play with them. Her behavior touched us strongly and inspired a kind of gratitude and a desire for inheritance. It became the direct driving force for the creation of Lelema.

In the early autumn of 2011, driven by an aspiration of "starting a business, and then using the profits to do something and protect something", we – several sisters – started from scratch and founded Lelema. Our eldest sister and core member -- Tsering Kyi – gathered information, went to exhibitions, read up on informational material and consulted with experts in order to negotiate for fund-raising. She almost travelled through the entire Tibetan region, and visited many places in inland Chinaas well as Nepal. The remaining tasks – including equipment purchase, material selection, procedure control, technical guidance, and technician training – fell on my shoulders.

When we first started, our expectation was to imitate others,turning something simple and original into something with a senseof fashion, and then trying to sell to the market while self-adjusting our products. We could not see what kind of consumer group would be our best target, and we did not make enough estimates of market trend. Our conversations were limited to empty discussions such as how to ensure that the handmade nature of our traditional crafts would not be distorted during the production process. We were unable to position ourselves on many things. There were always big gaps between reality and our ideal scenarios, and time after time we started out full of hope and later became frustrated. One year later, everyone finally came to a closer understanding. The message we came up with was: original design implanted with contemporary concepts using natural, non-polluting, and high-quality organic raw materials.

What fell on my shoulders was the responsibility of being the chief designer. Because the design requirements were not specificand our sense of direction was not strong at the time,my heart felt unsettled. Although since I was young I had continued to produce some decent crafts, they were too informal: they were either made to be gifts or were used by myself. Obtaining economic value from themwas beyond my consideration. From designing product models to determining their messages, the difference between a craftswomen’s “starting” process and product design work was huge. Too much of my knowledge and understanding needed to be upgraded and updated.

I shared my helplessness with friends from different places and signaled for help. The feedback I received far exceeded my expectations. First, a high profile designer friend hurried to us from Beijing to help guide our design in person. At that time, our only assets were two workshops and about twenty women who had just been selected from poor families in pastoral areas. Although their handicrafts were good, they were at a loss for collective production methods and needed effective guidance. Our designer friend helped us train our technicians as well. My instincts from many years of experience told me that there was a natural connection between the fashion pursuit of contemporary urbanites and the "ecology-based living" of my childhood, and that it was linked to an entire aesthetical style. My discussion with the design expert from Beijing helped validated my findings and helped pushed our story further.

In the period following the discussion, I used a variety of religious meditation-style transpositional thinking to try and put myself into the position of the customers. For example, I calmly imagined myself being thrown into the urban crowd, experiencing myself as people with different personalities, such as free-spirited, expressive, perceptive, as well as spiritually-minded. I imagined taking each group to the grasslands and imagined their experiences living there. Slowly, I was able to narrow in on a few specific questions and answers. I let myself become accustomed to a design method that did not rely on sketches and drawings: when I ended my meditation and came into contact with the various materials, the “sketches” deep in my mind would jump out one by one andinstantly get caught by me, which I would then make into prototypes by hand. I regarded the complementarity of personal talent and traditional procedures as the core of our brand. My core principle for production was that although the design template came from me, the craftswomen had the freedom to add on things of their own during the production process, such as embellishing with a yak, a sheep, sun, moon, landscapes, flowers and trees, or cats and dogs. We hoped that for our consumers, these design patterns would become little offerings that showed love and care from distant women on the grasslands. Inserting these animate and personalized “signatures” also ensured the uniqueness of each product.

Although I was not very skilled in using the Internet for commerce at that time, I still believed it was possible, and even highly feasible to use its power to elevate the relationships between consumers and producers into one that was not merely material, but more heart-based. Coincidentally, a friend from Europe provided me with some information on recent world trends, which made my pay more attention to the possibility of communicating care through this type of interaction and sharing.

In the next few years, Lelema has made some achievements, and personally I have also won many honors and praises, including "master craftswomen", "inheritor of intangible cultural heritage", role models of different kinds, and so on. I take this opportunity to thank you all, and I look forward to seeing you join us. I firmly believe that there are too many possibilities in this world. As mentioned earlier, Lelema is the result of a dream to protect crafts and eliminate poverty through commerce.

Recently, we have just launched another interestingand interactive service called "design through remote participation and hands-on participation". It involves having consumers come up with the product design or participating in the design process, and then having Lelema’s technicians do the crafting based on the design. The technicians who provide you with this service are mostly our deaf-mute members – being able to make a living on their own has helped them find a sense of dignity and confidence for the future. Their ability to concentrate on their workis extraordinary. The production of handicrafts is usually their favorite form of self-expression because each stitch and thread is their special language, their lovely songs, their poems and their stories.Eachone of these animate, breathing products with souls are sure to be memorable for people.

Launching Lelema has allowed me to have a space for teaching and demonstration which I had always dreamt of. Recently, I have also been devoting most of my energy on social welfare underakings. However, I would still like to sincerely call on my fans to continue following Lelema’s interactive platform.