Bhutanese textiles are known for its rich colour, variations of patterns, intricate dyeing and manual weaving techniques. In general, the more complicated the patterns and the colours are, the more expensive the cloth is. Therefore, the Bhutanese textiles often represent the art and creativity of the individual weaver.
The weavers, on the other hand, which usually are the women contribute to the major portion of the labour and household economy in some parts of the country like Lhuentse and Bumthang. For those women, weaving is the part of their daily chores, and, in Bhutan weaving and the textiles continue to be an integral part of Bhutanese culture and tradition.
What makes the Bhutanese textiles unique?
1. Its history of origin and evolution
Commonly known as Thagzo – the art of weaving existed since the 13th century. The earliest known textiles were woven out of fabrics obtained from Zocha – the nettle grass.
The nettle fabrics and coarse cotton were widely used for weaving in Bhutan.
Similarly, the giant silkworms were raised to produce the silk from which the silk cloths called Bura were woven.
The animal hairs, especially that of yaks and sheep’s are still commonly used for making various attires such as jackets, hats and bags.
Gradually the synthetic fabrics and dyes started floating in the market. People mostly chose these synthetic products because of the long and difficult process involved in the former practice.
However, today, as people become more health-conscious; they prefer the organic dyes and fabrics over synthetic ones. Thus, the age-old tradition of Bhutanese textiles is still at vogue.
2. Rich colour and intricate dyeing culture
Bhutanese textiles are usually very bright and rich in colours. For the typical Bhutanese attires, especially the famous Kishuthara, the fabrics and yarns are hand-dyed.
The indigenous and locally available materials like plants, vegetables and animal bases are used to obtain the preferred colours.
Following are the various natural plant and vegetable products used to obtain the colours:
- Brown – Cutch Tree
- Mustard yellow – Gamboge
- Yellow – Himalaya Rubhada Root and Turmeric
- Blue – Indigogera
- Red – Kamala
- Red, Pink and Orange – Madder Root
- Yellow, Green and Black – Pomegranate Peel, Wild Herb, Saffron and Turmeric
- Purple – Woad
Similarly, the following animal bases are also used to obtain various colours, such as:
- Red – Cochineal
- Yellow – Cow Urine
- Red and Violet – Lac
- Purple – Murex Snail
- Brown – Octopus and Cuttlefish
A myth against indigenous and organic dyeing
The art of indigenous dyeing and the ability to obtain the colours of preferred choice has once been a secret business. It is believed a mother teaches the secret of dyeing only to her daughter or else no one.
This is because they didn’t want the other lots to have the same dyes and produce the same coloured products. The dyeing recipes were kept secret and only passed down to their legitimate generation.
Moreover, in the olden days, the pregnant or expectant mothers were forbidden from working on the dyes and fabrics. It is believed the unborn child in her womb may fade the dyes or the dyes will not retain in the fabrics as it is supposed to.
3. Variation in patterns
Bhutanese textiles are of a wide variation, especially the patterns.
From a simple flora pattern, the art of creating the pattern has recently reached up to even weaving the 30 alphabets. I wonder who have first thought of weaving the 30 letter alphabet. It is truly the art of creativity and innovation.
The patterns are categorized into three: Plain weaves, Warp Pattern weaves, and Weft Pattern weaves.
The very common pattern such as Martha, Sertha, Thara and Kamtham Jardrima falls under the plain weaves category where the textiles are usually woven in patterns with stripes and plaids.
The next common patterns like Mentsi Martha, Lungserma, Mentha and Dromchuchen falls under the Warp Pattern Weaves where the textiles are cross-hatched in each supplementary warp.
The rare and the most sophisticated patterns are the Weft pattern weaves like Sapma, Tingma, Ngoshom, Kishuthara and Shilochem. These patterns resemble the embroidery and are one of the most expensive attires. They are worn only during the special occasions such as Tshechu and wedding while the Plain Weaves and some Warp Pattern Weaves are regularly worn.
The main machine or the tool for weaving is the back-strap looms which are made out of wood and bamboos. This back-strap loom is locally known as pangtha. It is believed that the loom was first introduced in Bhutan by the Chinese wife of the Tibetan King Songtsen Gembo called Ashi Jaza.
There are presently three types of looms being used in Bhutan - pangtha, thritha, and soghu thagshing.
While Pangtha is widely used in the eastern part of Bhutan like Lhuentse, Thritha and Thagshing are commonly used by the weavers of central and western Bhutan.
The myth against handlooms
Although it is not written anywhere or not even been researched about the myth against the handlooms, if you listen to some of the veteran weavers, there was once the belief that the handloom responses according to the weavers. They believe that if the weaver is soft and gentle, the handlooms are usually very light and comfortable.
Similarly, it is also believed that one shouldn’t name whose cloth they are weaving for. This is because if the person they are weaving the cloth for is cunning, aggressive or stubborn, it is said the weavers consumes a lot of time to complete than usual.
Since the 13th century, in Bhutan, weaving is regarded as the task of women. So, 99.99% of the weavers in Bhutan are women. Therefore, just as the men who go out with the herd are called the household bread earners, the women who weave also are the household bread earners.
Women as a weaver are multi-tasker. They takes care of economy for the family and simultaneously weaves and earns.
However, there are no as such to be called the Professional weavers except the Royal weavers. Bhutanese women usually take weaving as the part-time work when they are free from the agricultural and other works. Nowadays, there are few office-goer women who weave at night as the part of their passion.
Myth against the women weavers
In the olden days, a bride is not very well accounted or appreciated if she does not know how to weave. It is believed that her character and personality is judged from the way she weaves. Therefore, the more she can weave, the more sophisticated pattern she can create, the more is her credibility. So, a girl child in the olden days is trained to weave as early as 8 year old.
However, such myth no longer exist. Parents’ today are more into orienting their girl child towards education and other exploration.
6. Royal Textile Museum
The unique and the rich textiles we currently have in Bhutan are all to be credited to our Royal ancestors who preserved it by informally institutionalizing a separate Royal weaver and the loom houses called ‘Thagchem.’
Today, her Majesty the Queen Mother Ashi Sangay Choden Wangchuck, continues to extend the Royal Patronage to the textile industry and brought worlds’ attention to the Bhutanese textiles.
She is the Royal Patron of the Bhutan Textile Museum and the Royal Textile Academy of Bhutan.
Under the royal visionary patronage, the Royal Textile Museum and the Royal textile Academy of Bhutan further promote the production and conservation of Bhutanese textiles.
In Bhutan, the art of weaving and the textiles are associated with the religion. Therefore, the senior weavers are highly respected by the people, and some of the highly prized textiles are woven by them.
It is generally the women who weave, but there are few men who also can weave. People believe that the textiles woven by the men are very precious and uses as an amulet- the object to ward of the demonic and negative forces.
The art of weaving so far in Bhutan is passed down the generations since the 13th century as the oral knowledge. There is no written or digitized record anywhere, yet most of the motifs from the ancient days are still woven and in vogue until now.