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Cultural Fabric

Autumn 2022

Bhutan’s textile traditions continue to evolve, from the resurgence of interest in natural dyeing among lifelong weavers, to the young people reinventing the national dress. From ancient techniques to modern styles, Bhutan’s fabrics tell tales of history and artistry that are more relevant than ever.

In an airy café in central Thimphu, teenage girls and women in their 20s are sipping iced coffees, sharing slices of cheesecake and discussing work over omelettes and quinoa bowls. Some are dressed in crop tops, baggy jeans and trainers. Others wear traditional kira – long columnar skirts cinched at the waist with embroidered kera, or belts. Accessorised with tego jackets featuring contrasting, turned-up cuffs, worn over crisp shirts or paired with court shoes, they're an arrestingly modern manifestation of Bhutan's long-standing textile tradition.

It's a living heritage you'll encounter in every restaurant and office, home and hotel, and on streets from Haa to Trashigang to Sarpang. The national dress – kira for women and draped robes called gho for men – is part of daily life. Schoolchildren in smart mini versions chatter on their way to class and professionals wear it to meetings. 

One young woman, Kezang Choden, cuts a striking figure on Thimphu's main avenue in her colour-blocked, golden-ochre kira. Her matching tego, with its geometric motifs, would be just as at home on the streets of Brooklyn or Aoyama. Her mum made it, she says, like all of her kira. But Kezang designed this one herself. "I chose the colours and the pattern. I was inspired by street style," she explains. "My mum found the design a little funny at first because [to her] it's so plain, but when she finished weaving it, and I put it on with the tego and sent her a picture of me wearing it, she was like, 'Oh, this actually looks nice!'"

Textiles old and new are everywhere here. They appear as decorative wall-hangings, bed covers and throw cushions in exclusive hotels and simple B&Bs alike. Not so long ago, these beautifully woven bolts of cloth were even used as towels. They're worn and exchanged for weddings, festivals and celebrations. In temples and monasteries across the kingdom, they adorn altars or form ceremonial robes. 

No-one really knows when textiles, and weaving, arrived in Bhutan – but, like many things here, stories and songs offer an explanation. According to local lore, a Chinese royal, Princess Wencheng, introduced weaving to Bhutan during the seventh century. Travelling through the country on her way to marry Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo in Lhasa, the princess – known to the Bhutanese as Ashi Jyazum – was greeted en route by local people burning incense in welcome. Ashi Jyazum, say the stories, was so moved by this gesture that she gifted the people of Kurtoe a backstrap loom and the knowledge to use it.

However much truth there may be in this tale, Bhutanese textile production began in central and eastern areas well over a thousand years ago, before spreading throughout the kingdom. Regions developed their own distinctive techniques and traditions, from Lhuentse’s highly intricate silk-on-silk kushuthara to the tactility of Radhi's bura. Materials hint at the regions' different climates and ways of life: yak and sheep wool in the mountainous north; nettle, cotton, hemp and silk in the east and south. But skill, tradition and quality are common to every region's fabrics – as is the pride in wearing them.

In good hands

The closer you get to Radhi, the more vibrant the natural world becomes. Neat vegetable gardens thick with corn and climbing beans line the roadside, wooden fences hold back encroaching banana palms, banks of ferns and stands of bamboo. Common peacock butterflies dance above pools of spring water bubbling from rocks. Cicadas burr noisily.

There's little to indicate that we're nearing one of the kingdom's most renowned textile-producing hubs. Cows grudgingly move aside to let our car through. Passing Trashigang Technical Training Institute, we see a sign: "Get skilled. Be somebody." We're headed to the small village of Radhi to meet some of the most skilled “somebodies” practising and preserving eastern Bhutan's weaving techniques today.

Ugyen Dema has been weaving since her future mother-in-law taught her at age 16. We ask her how long it takes a new recruit to learn. "That depends on how intelligent you are!" she laughs. After observing for some time, Dema was quick to master the generations-old skills of dyeing and weaving that she's practised for more than three decades. These processes survived the rise of synthetic dyes and pre-dyed yarn, and machine-made cloth that is far cheaper but no match in terms of quality.  

Today, Dema is using natural dyes to create the jewel-like green, ruby and violet yarns requested by a neighbouring weaver. Though many in the village weave, dyeing is less common – so Dema provides what's needed. Baskets on the floor of the outdoor kitchen where she works are full of leaves, barks and powders either foraged locally or grown in her garden. She works confidently, first chopping piles of symplocos (or “zim”) leaves that will mordant the fibre, enabling the dye to bind to it. The leaves are swept into large pots of water simmering over a fire. Long bundles of cotton yarn go in next. When it's ready, the fibre is removed and hung up to dry, and Dema turns her attention to achieving the right shade for the dye bath, judging quantities of turmeric, madder bark and strobilanthes by eye and experience. 

It's a family enterprise – her husband is responsible for collecting the plants needed for dyeing, driving to buy yarn and other supplies, and delivering the finished fabrics for sale. But her children aren't acquiring some of these skills. Her daughter is studying and doesn't have time to learn dyeing techniques – although, like generations of Bhutanese women before her, she does practise the most fundamental skill: weaving.

Fruits of the loom

Dema's neighbour, Dechen Choden collects the dyed, dried and neatly wound yarn. Back at her home across the terraced rice field, after a customary warm welcome (and equally customary cups of ara), we watch her prepare the warp. In rapid, fluid motions, she darts yarns in various colours between and around its prongs to create the vertical background for her weave. 

Once mounted on the backstrap loom on the front porch, she gets to work. To an observer, it's a dizzyingly complex dance: shuttles fly between the layers of the warp, bamboo rods are passed through precise frameworks of thread, and sporadically, Dechen bangs a wooden sword on top of the weft threads to tighten them. Steadily, an intricate pattern of motifs emerges – stylised eternal knots, thunderbolts and butterflies.

This same captivating choreography was once common in almost every Bhutanese home. Today, especially among the kingdom's growing population of city dwellers, people increasingly shop for their kira or gho – providing important income for rural weavers like Dema and Dechen in the months when farm work yields little. Their finished fabrics sell through shops in Thimphu, Paro and Punakha. Some will be purchased by tourists, but the vast majority will be bought by local citizens to wear for, or mark, a special event or formal occasion – perhaps, a graduation. 

"My mum started weaving the kira for my college graduation in my second semester!" laughs Kezang. "It's the full-patterned silk kushuthara kira, which takes a really long time." Her mother, who hails from Samdrup Jongkar, spent months weaving it – but it was still ready two years before her daughter graduated from her sociology and political science degree. "It made me study hard," she says. "She put in so much effort."

Preservation and progress

As one of the kingdom's 13 traditional arts and crafts, or zorig chusum, textiles are a vital cultural asset. Preserving the craft and its significance to national identity go hand in hand. The Royal Textile Academy (RTA) is a paean to both past and future. With its soaring ceilings, walls of windows and cloistered studio and exhibition spaces, it's a kind of cathedral to craftsmanship.

The academy houses offices and studios, and hosts courses and open sessions, where practitioners can seek advice from five resident weavers. Textile designers can find inspiration at the Design Resource Centre or the fashion shows and photography exhibitions that take place here. Specialised workshops, on topics like textile conservation or design development, are facilitated by international experts from the Smithsonian and other leading institutions. The academy also hosts important cultural events: Bhutan's first western opera performance, George Friedrich Handel's Acis and Galatea, took place in its courtyard to an audience of royals and citizens.

The Textile Museum is also here, telling rich stories of fabric and folklore, and displaying some of the finest examples of Bhutanese handiwork in its permanent and temporary exhibitions. Some of these artefacts have only recently returned to the kingdom. Years of enthusiastic acquisitions by visiting collectors meant that many national treasures disappeared abroad. Since the founding of the museum in 2005, huge effort has gone into locating some of these priceless pieces and bringing them home. Now, any textiles (or other artefacts) of possible significance must be vetted by the Department of Culture to determine whether they may leave the country, or should remain as part of its cultural capital for future generations.

The academy also hosts outreach programmes to nurture textile expertise in all corners of the kingdom. In Radhi, many of Dema's fellow villagers attended an intensive workshop series to expand knowledge of natural dyeing techniques. The RTA also devised a nationwide programme for primary school-age children, introducing them to their weaving culture and creating the foundations for future practice.

As Ugyen Tenzin, deputy director of the Royal Textile Academy, explains, textiles have fundamentally shaped Bhutan – not just artistically, but socially and economically. "Weaving has kept families together because, in the past, the skill was passed down from the grandmother to the mother to the daughters. It's basically a family business that has kept families together." It's also kept villages, and rural traditions, alive. "For most people in the weaving regions, it's their livelihood. Except for some specific months [when they do farm work], the rest of the time, women are mostly on their looms. In places like Khoma and Radhi, weaving is their bread and butter."

If the textile industry here has empowered women, it's also benefited from their patronage – particularly that of the Queen Mother, Her Majesty Gyalyum Sangay Choden Wangchuck, who has revitalised the sector and raised the global profile of the kingdom's remarkable textiles. A long-standing advocate for Bhutan's textile artisans, she is the Textile Museum's Royal Patron, and the Royal Textile Academy's chair. Empowering Bhutanese women is a personal passion: she is also the founder of multiple initiatives and a non-profit organisation, RENEW. Established in 2004, RENEW (Respect Educate Nurture and Empower Women) focuses on sexual and reproductive health, and support for victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence – often equipping them with skills that create economic independence, such as weaving.

Weaving together past, present and future

Despite today's availability of machine-made fabrics and ready-to-wear clothing, Bhutan's textiles are firmly in vogue. "Weaving is not declining [in popularity]," says the RTA's Ugyen Tenzin. "People have realised the importance of our textiles. There are so many young people who are taking up weaving very seriously. Natural dyeing is now becoming a trend; practitioners realise that they can make a good income from the weaving business. So they take it very seriously. Young people are just as interested in the textile business as the elders were."

The Bhutanese are every bit as enthusiastic about wearing them, too. Ugyen Tenzin himself is sporting a plaid gho woven for him by his wife. "When I was in Australia for my Master’s, when I got the chance, I would wear my gho to the shopping mall. There were so many eyes on me. But when you are far from your country, you really miss it, you know; you appreciate it."

Back in Thimphu, Kezang Choden agrees. "When I was in junior school, I remember watching movies and seeing kids wearing skirts and beautiful dresses and thinking, 'oh, I wish I could wear beautiful western clothes.' But as you grow up, you start to be very proud of your culture and tradition, and to appreciate where you come from, your roots. I think kira is so elegant. I love wearing it. I wouldn't want to wear anything else." As long as her talented mother and the kingdom’s weavers keep evolving their craft, she won't have to.

Karma Tshering Wangchuk is the fashion designer, illustrator and street-style photographer behind the influential Instagram handle @bhutanstreetfashion. Passionate about the Bhutanese textile heritage, Karma offers private tours tailored to those who share his reverence for the craft. When he’s not in Paris or at Copenhagen Fashion Week, you can spot Karma with his two dogs, Jackie and Miro, scouting the streets of Thimphu for the innate beauty and captivating stories of his people.

Where to shop

Chumey is located in a beautiful valley in Bumthang, where they weave and sell incredible textiles. I feel that Thimphu is a little too commercial these days, but I love to come here and joke around with the weavers.

Where to stay

I always tell my guests to stay at Gangtey Palace. It’s a historical palace, beautifully renovated to offer contemporary comforts. You can partake in the morning prayer ritual at their shrine or just enjoy the view – it’s divine!

Where to eat

I like to take guests to eat dinner with a group of my friends and other locals so they get to experience the real Bhutan. We often go to Zombala 2 in Thimphu for their authentic momos.