Denim jeans have been a wardrobe staple for well over a century, finding favor with workmen in the U.S. wearing Levi Strauss & Co. jeans since the late 1800s. But since then, denim has taken on a cultural significance beyond its utilitarian function, becoming synonymous with teenage rebellion, unisex style, and premium fashion, through brands spanning Levi’s, Calvin Klein, Diesel, and Citizens of Humanity.
But denim’s ubiquity, thanks to hundreds, if not thousands, of jeans brands at every possible price point leaves space for an outlier to redefine it in aesthetic, cultural, and environmental terms. Denim and jeans production has been highly optimized by industrial pioneers including ISKO, Soorty, Saitex, and Candiani Denim, and for companies at such mature levels of sustainable production, new territory must be plundered.
Today, a partnership between Himalayan farmers via Himalayan Wild Fibers, an Italian fiber spinner and Candiani Denim, and the materials science and lifestyle brand PANGAIA, marks a new chapter in denim’s history. But what cultural, environmental and economic sustainability benefits does it offer the stakeholders? And to what extent do the farmers harvesting the Himalayan nettle retain ownership of the natural capital in the lustrous long fibers, which have superior mechanical properties when compared to their cellulosic cousins cotton, hemp, and linen.
Denim ubiquity demands ingenuity
“We started talking about Himalayan nettle years ago” but during the pandemic “we started to make a trial with nettle when PANGAIA approached us—it was perfect timing”, explained Alberto Candiani, Global Manager of Candiani Denim and the fourth generation of the family to work in the business, established in 1938. Candiani pursued the partnership because of “PANGAIA’s credibility” in sustainable material inputs and their willingness to partner during the development phase of the new denim, throughout the uncertainties, delays, and complexities of working with a new textile, eventually creating the first-ever selvage denim using the wild fiber.
In partnership with a local spinner, Candiani created a 50% nettle fiber and 50% cotton fiber yarn for the denim weft (the undyed yarn running horizontally in the fabric) and a 100% cotton fiber running in the warp (the vertical yarn, which is indigo dyed and gives the fabric its color). The particular properties of the nettle mean the denim must be woven on shuttle looms—a slow process that produces narrow selvage denim which costs around €10 per meter, compared to their wider non-selvage denim which costs around €5.50 per meter.
It’s a premium fabric in terms of price, but according to Candiani, also in appearance: “The fabrics are beautiful. I was shocked when I saw the early trials. [When] you put hemp with cotton, the fabric is much nicer, but with Himalayan nettle, it is even more beautiful”. There are mechanical benefits, too. “Himalayan nettle fibers have elongation properties of 12-14% compared to cotton’s 8-9%”, meaning that they naturally provide comfort that cotton doesn’t. While this elongation does not provide the stretch that, for example, the addition of elastane would, it makes the fabric more comfortable than 100% cotton, or a cotton/hemp or cotton/linen blend. Candiani says they have a production target of “30,000 yards with Himalayan nettle in the weft, rising to 60,000 by the end of next year. Then we want to break 100,000” he says, explaining that fully-scaled production with optimized weaving is “2 years away”.
Untapped nettle potential
What about fiber supply, I wondered? Himalayan Nettle is a wild raw material harvested annually, but Candiani says their fiber partner, Himalayan Wild Fibres, can meet this capacity. Further industrialization of raw material storage and fiber processing in the Himalayas is likely to be needed, though. Digging further into the Himalayan nettle supply chain, I interviewed Ellie Skeele, founder and CEO of Himalayan Wild Fibers.
In 2009, Skeele identified a business opportunity in Nepal (where she was running a software startup) for the exceptional mechanical and visual properties of Himalayan nettle. Upon hearing the meager earnings from hand-crafted products made from the fiber, she believed it was being undersold, and that its potential to provide decent pay to the subsistence farmers harvesting it was untapped. Skeele, joined by several individual investors, has grown the business, establishing a pilot and small-scale production factory in Kathmandu. The facility, with around 20 staff, processes the stalks (which they buy from harvesters via agents) into long fibers that are sold into the textile supply chain, ready for further carding, combing, and use in conventional spinning. From 2010 to 2015 the Himalayan nettle fibers were refined, eventually achieving some sales in Europe with spinners wanting to test the fiber and make small samples of fabrics. But production orders have eluded them—until this year.
PANGAIA’s Chief Innovation Officer, Dr. Amanda Parkes, says “Himalayan nettle has been part of the plan since the beginning” of the company, which launched in 2019. They launched their first product containing Himalayan nettle— PLNT fiber—back in August and their nettle denim launches today, marking the first-ever nettle denim product on the market. The impact of theirs and Candiani’s loyalty to the fiber has seen production orders grow, and Skeele says they now have production orders accounting for the next two harvests, securing cash flow for the farmers at a fixed, fair price and allowing them to plan their crops and investment in seeds, securing their future income.
Skeele offers on-the-ground transparency, explaining that they buy the fibers via agents (sometimes members of the agricultural departments working for the government), who are the intermediaries between Himalayan Wild Fibers and Community Forest User Groups (CFUGs) who represent the farmers. Each user group is allocated an area of the forest in Nepal to farm, acting as stewards of the land. Skeele says “they have dramatically improved the harvesting and reforestation in the Himalayas”, with over a thousand active groups.
Skeele says the agent – CFUGs relationship isn’t ideal: “We hope to have a lot more control over what the agent does with the harvester. We think that if the agent remains, they should be paid per translation, not a percentage of raw material [as they are now]. Facilitation of payments direct to harvesters is [currently] in planning. The growth in fiber demand is part of achieving this shift that will benefit farmers.
Designing with the new denim
To realize this new denim’s functional and aesthetic potential, PANGAIA has partnered with designer and industry veteran, Jonathan Cheung, who says “they had me at ‘nettle’” of the allure of this new “superhero fiber” which he has relished working with. Cheung and the company have a three-year roadmap that will see them develop unique-to-PANGAIA denim using left-hand twill techniques for both Himalayan nettle/cotton and hemp/cotton blends, and working with custom jeans technology startup, Unspun.
These denims will find their way into the B2B material offering of PANGAIA too, confirmed Parkes during a joint video interview with Cheung. While the roadmap delivers material and design innovation in the final products (two jeans styles and one jacket), the sustainability credentials go beyond the material product.
Himalayan nettle’s social sustainability
I write about sustainability daily, and the minimal social sustainability discourse in the industry and mainstream media coverage of products is a failure, in my view. When I talk to Skeele, she explains that: “When we buy [himalayan nettle] from the far west [of the Himalayan mountains in Nepal], we know those farmers can buy medicine and send their kids to school, and invest in grains. I’m happy when [our business] supports the growth of household wealth.”
She also shared that a growing number of farmers and harvesters are women, as the men have moved to the Gulf states to find work as laborers and in other service roles. This makes these women the economic decision-makers and nurturers. Women are crucial to the economic development of countries, and research collated by King’s College London from the UN and IMF concludes that: “Women with economic resources and control over meaningful decisions tend not only to benefit themselves but also their households and communities.” Additionally, Project Drawdown has demonstrated that when women and girls are educated, their agricultural plots are more productive and their families better nourished, with vast climate benefits due to controlled population growth and better health and earning capacity.
So, nettle denim is not simply a material story. It is a story about establishing means of wealth generation, gender equality, and environmental sustainability through social equality in developing nations. I have often reflected on the power of fashion to tell stories. Its cultural position in society gives it license to provoke, question, and protest – even if it’s taken a relatively benign stance of late. But provocation and rejection of the status quo have never been more potent and evident in any piece of clothing than in denim. I don’t know if it’s intentional, but this first installment of PANGAIA’s denim flies the flag for a new category of social-impact denim, thrusting the critical stakeholders into the spotlight, rather than hogging it for itself.
Owning this denim is a vote not just for novel and sustainable materials, but equitable farming led by tribal stewards of the Himalayas, economic prosperity in developing countries, gender equality, and educating children. Sustainability can be told in fewer words, but only if delivered piecemeal. I’m grateful to have the scope here to tell this story in full – across the entire value chain.