Bhutanese textiles represent a rich and complex form of art. The art of weaving, called “Thagzo” is an essential part of Bhutan’s cultural heritage. It is one of the thirteen traditional arts and crafts of Bhutan’s cultural heritage. The textiles show vibrant colours and sophisticated patterns inspired by daily scenes or objects of life. The intricate dyeing and weaving techniques have been developed and practiced by Bhutanese women over centuries. Traditionally, the daily textiles have been made of nettle, yak hair, and sheep wool that are both wind- and rain-proof. While more noble fabrics such as raw silk, eri silk, and cotton were kept for celebrations outfits.
As weaving is an integral element of Bhutanese culture, nearly every home has a loom. Working mostly on backstrap looms, weavers use a pick-up technique to create designs that are worn daily by both men and women. The loom is usually kept in a separate room dedicated to weaving, where older women of the family pass on their knowledge to the younger generation. By the time they reach their twenties, almost all of the girls know how to weave. Weaving is done in between caring for the children, cooking, washing, and working in the fields. It is one of the main sources of income for rural women in Bhutan, particularly in the east. Women of eastern Bhutan are very skilled at weaving, and some of the most highly prized textiles are woven by them.
Discover the unique materials and traditional methods used to weave in Bhutan.
The different types of looms
The women of Bhutan weave yarn and thread into beautiful textiles using looms. The primary function of any loom is to keep the warp threads taut to facilitate the interweaving of the weft threads. Handlooms, frame looms, and back strap looms are three different types of weaving looms.
The backstrap loom
The backstrap loom called “Pang Tha” in Bhutan is one of the oldest looms used. It is portable and takes up little room, making it ideal for their everyday use. It can simply be put up in a small location, such as on a porch or in a corner of one’s home. This loom is a godsend for them as they can work from home while also caring for their children and doing domestic duties. Made of bamboo sections and hardwood frames, it can be used to weave a variety of textiles. It is the most widely used loom in Bhutan due to the ease with which it may be operated.
The horizontal frame loom
The horizontal frame loom, also known as the “Thrue Tha”, was brought to Bhutan in the twentieth century. It is reported that a female member of the Royal Family dispatched a male weaver to Tibet. His enterprise was a success, and as a result, this particular loom, as well as the knowledge of how to use it, was introduced for the first time in Bhutan.
The card loom
The card loom has been around for quite some time now. It is used to make the belt for men. Desho (Bhutanese paper made of Daphne) and goat’s leather was used to make the cards in the past. Because of the frame, this loom resembles a backstrap loom. Though the frames are identical, cards are used in this situation. This loom is used to weave belts for men and women, as well as little belts to keep the “Tsho Lhams”, or traditional footwear, in place. It’s also utilized for making stiff bag handles.
The Dyeing process
The appealing colour harmony is essential to weavers in Bhutan. Bhutanese people have learned to master the dyeing process to achieve every colour. The fine yarn is dyed using locally available plants, roots, and vegetables. Bhutanese cultivate indigo, lac, wild madder, and other wild plants in household gardens. Because the country’s flora and fauna are so rich a wide variety of colours can be naturally achieved. Even among Bhutanese, dyeing formulas are kept as a closely guarded secret. Bhutanese have a strong aversion to dyes and feel that only the most qualified individuals should try the process. They believe that particular weather conditions, visitors, and even a pregnant woman who come near the dyeing place or during the dying process might cause dyes to lose their effectiveness. As a result, in addition to a good mood, yarn dyeing is done behind closed doors in the early mornings.
The different patterns
Every valley in Bhutan has its own distinctive colour schemes and designs. Interestingly, although knowledge of the Bhutanese traditional patterns has been passed down through generations only as an oral tradition and without any written records, most of the motifs from the ancient days are still woven and in vogue until now. Each textile in Bhutan has a spiritual significance, meaning, and everyday application. Depending on the complexity of the designs and patterns on the cloth, it might take an artist anywhere from a few days to years to complete a piece.
The people of eastern Bhutan, where the majority of weaving is done, are known for creating a wide range of patterns and designs for everyday use as well as for exceptional or ceremonial occasions. Lhuntse Dzongkhag’s Kurtoe is known for its brocaded clothing, kushuthara. Kushuthara is one of the most expensive and luxurious types of textile. It is distinguished by its high silk content as well as the liberal use of highly crafted Timah and Sammah brocade-work on a white backdrop. The Timah technique is thought to be quite complicated, and it takes a lot of talent from the weavers to ensure that no supplemental brocade threads show on the back while producing a delicate design on the fabric’s surface.
Bhutanese designs are largely geometric in nature, aside from weaving the most elaborate, imaginative, and distinctive fabrics. The religious importance of the geometric symbols employed in the textiles is well known. Bhutanese geometric symbols include yurung (Swastikas), phub (triangular pattern), dramee (eternal knot), and dorji (thunderbolt). These symbols each have their unique meaning. The phub, for example, is said to promote long life.
Bhutan’s national attire for women, known as Kira, is a rectangular piece woven from three lengths of cloth on a backstrap loom or ten to fourteen narrow panels of fabric on a treadle loom. The Kira is worn ankle-length, wrapped around the body and tied at each shoulder with a Koma (brooch-Koma is a characteristic piece of jewellery made of silver or gold, frequently accentuated with turquoise to fasten the Kira) and the Kera (belt).
Like Kira, Gho is Bhutanese men’s traditional attire. The upper portion of this coat-like garment is tightly cinched with a narrow Kera (belt), forming a loose pouch or pocket known as ‘Hemchu’. (Fun fact: Hemchu is said to be the largest pocket in the world) Gho is worn knee-length over a tego, a white cotton shirt with extra-long sleeves and turned-back cuffs and collar to display white at the wrist and neck.
Kera is a traditional belt woven on a card loom with traditional motifs for ladies and a plan for men’s belt with stripes and fringed at both ends. It’s used to keep the Kira and Gho in place around the waist. It is folded three times and wrapped securely around the waist, with the fringed end tucked into the top of the belt to keep it in place.
The rachu is a ceremonial belt women must wear for entering temples, fortifications, monasteries, and marked offices during celebrations. At both ends, it is fringed. When greeting important authorities, it is folded and placed over the left shoulder. It is draped loosely over both shoulders when paying reverence to a lama or prostrating in temples and monasteries.
Similar to Rachu, Kabney is a ceremonial scarf used by men that is substantially larger than women’s scarves. It is carefully draped and wrapped around the shoulders, ready to ceremonially unroll for the usual respectful bow to the king or other senior officials. When touring temples, fortresses, and monasteries, it is also worn. The kabney is coloured differently depending on the rank of the man wearing it. A commoner with no official rank, for example, wears a white scarf or raw silk. The colour green is worn by court judges, while the colour orange is worn by ministers.
Through the complicated process of weaving and under the skilled hands of the weaving masters, beautiful and sophisticated textiles are made. You can see some textiles available for purchase on our dedicated page Textiles of Bhutan, but should you look for a special piece, you can email us at email@example.com.