At the National Textile Museum in Bhutan, women these days are busy weaving bright silk threads into the costliest fabric available in the country. For the last six months, 24-year-old Tshomo has been reporting to work at the museum at sharp nine in the morning and she diligently works through the day, weaving an orange and red silk cloth with unique patterns for a Gho – the national dress of Bhutanese men – she hopes will find a place in the King’s wardrobe during his upcoming nuptials.
Like most women in her country, Tshomo has been weaving since she was nine years old. And even though today she is one of the finest artisans at the museum, to weave the three metres of fabric required for the royal Gho, she will take another year or so. Every day she is able to weave just a little more than an inch as the pattern is very intricate. “The work is very fine and needs a lot of concentration. There is no embroidery done to create patterns externally onto the fabric; the patterns are woven to create the design,” elaborates Tshomo, who is very proud of her work.
Weaving is a specialised skill that all Bhutanese women are encouraged to learn as children. In most homes, one will find a wooden frame on which mothers teach their daughters to weave dream designs in fabulously coloured threads. But from weaving their own clothes and that of the royal family’s – which is revered in this tiny nation of 700,000 people – women are now seeing this prized art form as a vital source of livelihood. It has developed into a full-fledged small scale industry largely because of a growing interest and demand in the international market for traditional Bhutanese attire: The Kira, which is worn by women and the Gho that is for the men. Of course, while women are now trying out different designs and experimenting with colours keeping their new customers in mind, all this is done keeping the Bhutanese traditions in mind. Mostly natural fibres like bura (wild silk), raw silk, cotton, nettle, wool and even yak hair are used to weave the fabric and handloom products made from these weaves are extremely popular with the hundreds of foreign tourists that flock the country every year.
The work from east Bhutan, more specifically from Kurtoe village of Goempa Karpo area in Lhuentse district, is considered to be the finest. Every year, to promote the best weavers in the country, the government organises a nationwide design and concept competition and most often than not it is the women of Kurtoe who emerge at the top. Says Pema Chhoden Wangchuk, the assistant curator of the National Textile Museum, “They are very particular about their artistry. They have wonderful designs and they try and experiment with colours, all the while keeping the tradition of Bhutan intact.”
Twenty-six-year-old Tashi hails from the famed Lhuentse district. She has been weaving for the last 12 years and today runs a successful weaving centre in Thimpu where they make modestly-priced fabric in cotton and silk that are more suited for the domestic market. For the more high-end stuff patrons visit the shop at the National Textile Museum where this exquisite fabric can cost anywhere between one and six lakh ngultram (the Bhutanese currency is at par with the Indian rupee).
Tashi has four year old twin girls and she wants them to pursue the culture of manual weaving not just as a means of livelihood but also as a form of artistry that she believes will be in great demand even in today’s “mechanised world”. “Machine work does not have the human touch. This sort of finery can be created only by human hands,” she says proudly.
Indeed, there is a lot of hard work involved in weaving. The threads are first fixed at the corners of the wooden panel and then with a knitting stick each thread is woven around each other tightly so that the fabric along with the patterns comes to life. “It is a strenuous job and affects our eyes,” reveals Sonam Zangmo, 30, who has spent the last 20 years at the weaving frame. Like Tashi, Sonam too comes from Lhuentse district and now runs a weaving centre along with her 14-year-old daughter. “I took to weaving as a career because I wanted to generate additional income. Also, now that I know I am good at it, I want to train others as well so that they too can make a living out of it,” she says.
A decent living can certainly be eked out of this craft. No doubt the markets are now flooded with machine made cheaper fabrics for everyday use of the common people, yet handmade cloth is treasured by everyone in Bhutan. In fact, during weddings and other festive occasions it is still customary to gift handloom cloth. And then, of course, even the most expensive of handloom from Bhutan can always find a buyer in neighbouring India – it’s Bhutan’s biggest trade partner. Says Pema, who has been working with weavers for over a decade now, “Even though hand woven fabric is expensive for the local people the demand for it is always high for it is exported as well as used to make handicraft that is sold to the tourists. Because an entire length of fabric can take months to make, its price is high and once sold it means an increased annual income for the household.” Of course, the government too has taken measures to promote handloom not just in the domestic market but in the international markets as well. In addition, assurances have been given to make available better frames and needles to the women so that fabric can be woven much faster.
But despite the hours they spend hunched at their frame and the other hardships they endure, Bhutanese weavers – women and men (there are only a handful) – are really passionate about their craft. Says 61-year-old Zila, “I have been weaving since the age of 12 and it has affected my eyes. Now I cannot see the outside world clearly but only the looms. Still I am weaving to bring luck to my nation.”