Weaving a Better Future
Bhutan strives to preserve its unique weaving techniques and textiles. With the era of globalization, it will have to choose how much to give and take.
Weaving is an ancient and prestigious art in Bhutan. Passed down from generation to generation, it has become a societal symbol and, for some women, a means of livelihood. It is commonplace to see young girls honing their weaving skills at arts and crafts schools or factories, working on pieces for sale at small shops, weaving in solitude at a mountaintop abode or participating in communal weaving in a village.
Bhutan, until recently, remained isolated from the rest of the world with minimum interference of globalization and technology. The country has always striven to maintain and cherish its culture. For many women, weaving is all they know; it is a way to preserve their ancient art and tradition. Today, scores of young girls come to Thimphu to train in the art with the hope to carry the traditional craft further. With minimal trade, the small country is self-subsistent and women often weave elaborate Gho and Kiri, traditional men’s and women’s Bhutanese dresses, for personal use. Bags, scarves, and ceremonial wear in bright colors and intricate patterns are also woven but few are for sale. Apart from clothes, weavers often use yak hair to produce water resistant tents. Often, the final product can take up to six months to a year to complete.
Each region in Bhutan has its own unique style of weaving with the best weavers presumed to come from Eastern Bhutan. In Lhuentse, weavers decorate textiles in patterns that resemble embroidery. In the Bumthang region, a much sought after woolen cloth, called Yathra, woven from Yak and sheep wool is produced. Weavers produce raw silk, silk on silk or silk on cotton textiles, depending on which region of the country they hail from. Using complicated techniques, fabrics are woven from silk, cotton, wool, yak’s hair and specialized plant fibers. Three main types of looms are used - weaving pedal loom, back-strap loom and card loom. Portable and easy to learn, the back-strap loom is the most common and indigenous and women using this technique can be found engaged in the trade throughout the country.
Even today, the relationship between religion, tradition and arts remains strong in Bhutan and the Royal family, nobility and clergy continue to provide significant patronage to the craft. At official, religious and social events, senior level delegates can be seen wearing traditionally woven, handmade outfits each with their own distinctiveness, vying for attention.
The back strap loom allows the weaver to produce identical strips of cloth which are then sewn together to produce a large piece. The weavers extract dyes from plants rather than use synthetic dyes, the waste from which could pollute rivers and the environment. Though previously closed to trade, Bhutan is now looking for export markets and international partnerships. The Queen who recently spoke at the National Institute of Design in India stated, “Bhutan’s art of weaving has gained international recognition and is the source of livelihood for many. In Bhutan, design is limited to color combinations and pattern motifs. I believe a lot can be done, especially by building partnerships.” Speaking at the 32nd convocation, she stressed on the preservation and promotion of the art and expressed her concern over modern technology stripping traditional skills and knowledge.
There is an immense trade potential for Bhutan’s unique textile industry but “We definitely need more awareness and more publicity,” says Kinzang, project manager in the Ministry of Trade and Industry. As Bhutan opens up to the world it will have to tread carefully and choose what to preserve and what to sacrifice in order to modernize but safeguard its culture.