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.

Southasia - - Globalization & Culture - By Ayla Joseph The writer is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based in New York, USA.

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.

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