Textile journalist and enthusiast Torie Olson writes about discovering the intricacies of Bhutanese textile traditions with us.
Bhutan is a holy spot for pilgrims, trekkers, and devotees of the textile arts. It’s been on my list since their fourth king, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, opened the door to foreigners. Thirty years later, good fortune shines upon me and I find myself standing in line behind the actress Glenn Close, then boarding the Druk Air plane emblazoned with a dragon.
The other passengers are clad in a treasure trove of hand-woven fabrics. In the name of national unity, all Bhutanese are required to wear the traditional dress. When we deplane, Glenn Close and I are the only women in pants.
Bhutan's well-stocked yarn shops, like this one in the capital, Thimphu, fuel the kingdom's vibrant weaving traditions. © Bhutan Himalaya
Bhutanese women wear the kira, a rectangular garment comprised three, nine-foot loom lengths sewn together and wrapped around the body in a manner so complicated that if I were Bhutanese, I’d have to hire a dresser. Back and front are hooked together at the shoulders with silver brooches and cinched at the waist with a narrow sash. Men wear the gho, a kimono-like robe. If left alone, it would fall to the floor. Instead, it’s hiked up to the knees, gathered at the waist, and tightly belted.
My host and tour operator, Karma Dorji, and his cadre of guides are constantly adjusting the drape of their robes. I have no idea what’s under there, but certainly no telltale bulges. When one guy reaches in for a sheaf of paperwork and a cell phone, it’s as if he’s pulled a bird from a hat. From another man’s gho comes a whole bag of apples. He offers me one and grins. “We have the biggest pocket in the world.”
In addition to making briefcases and shopping bags moot, Bhutan’s national dress comes in a dazzling array of colors and an infinite number of patterns. According to Ashi Sangay Choden, the [then] youngest queen and founder of the National Textile Museum, Bhutan’s weavings reflect the country’s unique identity, regional fashions, and social status. I learn more about the subtleties of customary dress when I’m invited to tea with Karma and his Aunt Deki Tshomo.
Deki describes herself as Man Friday to the queen. In this capacity, she has studied, collected, and documented Bhutan’s traditional textiles. Her official duties also include accompanying Her Majesty on goodwill tours in support of projects that encourage AIDS prevention, discourage teen pregnancy, and equip disadvantaged women and girls with income-generating skills like weaving.
Dressed in a silk kira in the pastel colors currently in vogue, Deki ushers me into her home in the Beverly Hills section of Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu. Once we are seated on the leather couch in her living room, she and Karma give me a crash course in Weaving Appreciation.
Young Bhutanese women in kira at an annual Tshechu festival © Torie Olson / Bhutan Himalaya
In the 15th century, Pema Lingpa, a.k.a. the Treasure Revealer, introduced the art (and twelve others) to Bhutan. The original fiber was tree bark. Until the mid-1960’s, nettle and Cannabis sativa (which grows wild everywhere!) were also used. The first ghos and kiras were woven from wild silk. “In the old days, all a man had to do when threatened by a sword was raise up his arm,” Karma says. “The fabric was so strong, it was his shield.”
Costliest of fibers, Bhutanese silk is coarser than silk from other Asian countries because of religious sanctions against the killing of animals. Here, silk makers will not gather cocoons until after the worms have hatched. This prevents death, but breaks silk filaments.
Bhutanese weavers are known for their extravagant use of color and complex supplementary weft and warp patterns which look embroidered to the untrained eye. These brocades feature bands of raised and repeating motifs that run vertically for men and horizontally for women. Nobility sport longer hemlines, wider cuffs, brighter colors, and broader stripes, allowing more room for more motifs. Country people often wear a simple-checked pattern.
Deki unfolds one exquisite, double-faced weaving after another. No two are alike and each has a name: Kushitara, Mathra, Burra, Pesar…. “I am very particular about my motifs,” she says, pointing out the most complicated – the shinglo or tree of life. I marvel over other bands of butterflies, monkey tails, cocks combs, cats eyes, fly wings and flowers. Buddhist symbols figure in the work as well: thunderbolts, diamonds, dharma wheels, and lucky knots. Deki weaves them in hand-dyed, embossed silk and cotton imported from India, although she warns, “You have to starch the cotton and fix the colors first, because after spending up to a year on a special kira, you don’t want it to bleed in the first washing.“ Unlike the other Bhutanese crafts which have strictly prescribed designs, the choice of fiber, motif, color, and pattern are at the pleasure of the weaver.
I am quickly overloaded with information. Weaving seems like rocket science here, although until recently, it wasn’t anything you could study. “If you have an interest, you automatically pick it up ,” Deki claims, as if this skill is imprinted on Bhutanese DNA like dark hair and eyes. Her family’s roots are in the East, home to Bhutan’s most celebrated weavers. She, too, became an expert artisan, experimenting on breaks from boarding school and university where she earned a degree in Commerce. “I’m educated, so people don’t believe I weave.”
As Man Friday to a queen, mother of three, and wife of the Chief of Protocol in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Deki can’t possibly weave all the textiles her family requires. Hand-loomed fabrics are not only for wearing; they’re also a form of currency. Textiles are used to barter, pay taxes, even traded like stocks and bonds. Brocades, checks, wild silks, and/or fine cottons must also be presented in threes or fives at weddings, promotions, funerals, and religious ceremonies. Fabric types and amounts are defined by the importance of the recipients.
To take care of her family’s obligations, Deki has a room of her own on the third floor, and a small, bamboo-sided studio in her garden where two young weavers,Tashi and Leki, produce more of her designs. Bhutan’s royalty and nobility maintain their own weaving houses. They also commission weavings from soldiers’ wives (known for their expertise) and buy others, brought to the capital from the countryside.
Deki, explaining the intricacies of a Bhutanese textile loom © Torie Olson / Bhutan Himalaya
After the harvest of rice, maize or millet, farm women devote themselves to their craft. Since it takes about three months to weave most kiras and ghos, they finish just in time for the festival (and tourist) season. Deki adds, “Most of the young ladies here [in the capital] are into careers, so they don’t have time to weave. This is actually good for our rural women because now they have a ready market for their hand-loomed wares.” This enables them to gain economic independence from male family members, and curbs Bhutan’s rural-urban migration, but there’s a downside, too. Knowing they can earn more as weavers than as graduates, too many drop out of school.
A few shops in Thimphu sell weavings off the rack. They are priced like haute couture, affordable only for collectors and Hollywood’s born again Buddhists who have come to see their gurus. (Not to say that Glenn Close is one of those, but I hear through the grapevine that while amusing the royal children as Cruella De Vil, she let out a cackle so devilish, the king’s guards came running.) I continue to see her, here and there, still in pants, although I assume she has tucked a few kiras into her luggage. I am deterred by sticker shock. I can only imagine myself all dressed up. I do have a place to go.
I’ve timed my visit with the tsechus, the annual religious festivals in honor of Guru Rimpoche, the revered teacher who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in 737 A.D. These masked dances are held across the country in the district dzongs, the fortress-like architectural treasures that house government offices and small monastic communities, and provide a center for communal life.
To enter a dzong, a ceremonial scarf is required. As a sign of respect, the men’s kabney is worn across the chest like a bandoleer. It’s always wild silk, and its color indicates civil service rank and social status. Commoners wear white. Cabinet Members of government wear orange. The king wears a saffron yellow kabney, and awards the red scarf (like a medal of honor) for dedicated service. Women wear narrower scarves called rechus. Worn over the left shoulder, they’re often red or green and ornamented with Buddhism’s eight lucky symbols. Most are made of embossed silk, but no silk worms were killed for mine which is gloriously rough, multi-striped, and admired by many.
The first time I wore it, I was held up at the gate while a handsome guard removed it from my shoulder, folded it more neatly, then patted it back in place – over my left breast. After ten days without husband, I didn’t really mind.
Today, I wear it for a culmination ceremony where monks (who have just finished a fourteen day retreat) dance to share their blessings with the world.
Outside the dzong, I stand in the women’s queue, waiting to be checked for dress code and frisked for cameras. In front of me are women in weavings to die for, not to mention necklaces of gold, coral, and pearls so heavy, they are ruining posture. Here, they are trying to keep up with Wangchuks, not Joneses. As instructed, I wear a long skirt, long sleeves, and closed-toed shoes, but I see high end, high heeled sandals click past the policemen. The poor are admitted in their flip-flops and faded finery.
Once I get the okay, I try to find space amongst the thousands. Most are crowded onto bamboo mats, rejoicing and picnicking on yak dumplings and Lays potato chips. Perched on windowsills around the courtyard, children command the best view. The second best is smashed against a massive stone wall where, in visual ecstasy, I watch the whirling trance dancers in gorgeous, silk circle skirts, demon appliquéd aprons, cloud collars, and heavy wooden masks. These false faces are not strangers to me. I have the privilege of sleeping in the altar room of a house belonging to Bhutan’s newspaper editor where my futon is flanked by demon masks, each crowned with five skulls. On the other side of my pillow stands a wooden shrine, painted with ferocious-faced tigers, snow lions, garudas, and dragons. I wonder if they will disturb my dreams, but each night, I sleep especially well; apparently, they are my protectors.
Bhutanese children in their festival best © Torie Olson / Bhutan Himalaya
Another day, I watch other fabulously costumed monk/deities as they subdue evil in mirrored black hats while orange-robed monks chant in low, gargley voices. Two hours east, I see lamas in red cardinal-like hats performing another age-old ritual. Further west in a sparsely populated valley, I attend a country tsechu. Here, I have an unencumbered view of sword-bearing stags, red-masked jesters, and gold crowned noblemen. Back in Thimphu Dzong, tiger-skirted Ging strike me (and other lucky ones) on the head with drumsticks. It hurts, but hey, no pain, no gain; they are chasing the impurity from my body.
On the way to and from dzongs and temples dedicated to Guru Rimpoche and the Treasure Revealer, I see women on porches and balconies and under bamboo canopies in the fields, working on next year’s kiras and ghos. As I travel the country, I notice some regional differences in the weaving process. Most Bhutanese use a backstrap loom, although some prefer the Tibetan pedal loom introduced in the 1930’s. They work with a variety of fiber – silk from the east, yak hair from the north, fine cotton from the south, and wool from the central valleys.
In one such valley, I visit Karma’s ancestral village where his cousin, also named Karma, shows me her loom with a view. Sliding open the wooden panels which stand in for windows, she reveals a million dollar vista of red rice fields, wild fig and persimmon trees. Under new corn drying in the rafters, she works on a woolen panel of yathra cloth for which her district is known. Its vegetable-dyed, geometric patterns are strikingly similar to the diagrammatic prayers I saw painted on the walls of the Punakha Dzong. This twilled fabric is used for blankets, cushion covers, and jackets popular with tourists, and Karma’s beautiful mother makes me a gift of some. She also shows me a kawley, an all wool, all black garment known for its healing properties.
Nearby in Chume, I visit an outlet for 240 weavers from thirteen villages who walk up to a day to trade their textiles for groceries and money for their children’s school uniforms. It is here that I meet Sonam Lhamo who also uses wool from the indigenous Jakar sheep (often crossed for softness with Australia’s comeback breed). An expert dyer, Sonam is talked into giving me a demonstration, although I don’t come away with near enough information to replicate her jewel tones.
The weaver and entrepreneur Sonam Lhamo explains traditional dyeing methods © Torie Olson / Bhutan Himalaya
Color is so highly valued here that dyeing is regulated by strict taboos. Recipes are passed from mother to daughter. Dyeing is done at first light, behind closed doors. No one outside the family is allowed to witness this process, especially pregnant women whose unborn children might “steal the colors and spoil the dye baths.”
Nonetheless, Sonam shares a few of her secrets with me. Overdyeing is the reason she gets such intense colors. Her wool goes into two or more dye baths and is fixed with hardwood ash or buckwheat husks. For a range of blues, she grows “Bhutanese indigo” in a kitchen garden. Aided by yeast, it ferments in a newspaper-lined tin kept warm in a pile of manure. Today, skeins simmer in a pot full of horse sugar leaves. For a deep gold, they will be overdyed with tumeric. Some of Sonam’s reds come from madder. With a handful of twigs, she produces shades ranging from orange to maroon which is worn only by nuns and monks. The reddest reds come from lac. This gets translated as “bug sh_ _ ,” although others in the room claim it’s worm blood. At the National Textile Museum, I learn that it’s a resin secreted by a parasitic insect called Laccifer lacca. Collecting it from the branches of host trees can cause some insects to die, so many Buddhist dyers will not use it.
Back in the capital , Deki takes me to the Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Center where Kelzang Lhundrup is proprietor and one of Bhutan’s few male weavers. “Weaving was considered a woman’s work,” Deki says. “But if you got a piece woven by a man, people used to believe it would ward off evil. Don’t get it dirty, don’t step over it, and it will bring you good fortune.”
In another Thimphu workshop, I am disappointed to see a talented young woman weaving with synthetic threads that have been colored with chemicals. We strike up a conversation, and I happen to mention that Glenn Close is staying at my hotel. “Ah, Fatal Attraction,” she says without missing a beat. Since Bhutan opened its doors to the world, Hollywood movies and low grade raw materials and finished products have come in, too. I can only guess how images of a knife-wielding woman in a jealous rage are perceived by the Bhutanese, but it’s obvious how manufactured synthetics are simplifying designs and changing the palette and texture of their treasured textile tradition. “About fifteen years ago, we gave some of our patterns to an Indian factory,” Deki says. “Mass-produced kiras and ghos were cheap and very popular. There was a slump in our own weaving, but the government and the queens stepped in, so the art won’t die out.”
The Ministry of Labor established the National Institute for Zorig Chusum (Bhutan’s 13 traditional crafts) with intensive training in weaving and an emphasis on high quality. The Khaling Project, brainchild of the [fourth] king’s sister, is reviving traditional designs, encouraging innovation, schooling thousands of rural weavers and preparing them to open weaving units in their own districts. Held annually, National Design Competitions and Fashion Shows are also helping to keep the art alive. Bhutan is doing so much more than most countries to stop culture loss, and it’s my hope that because of these mindful efforts – because of national unity laws and fines for breaking them, because of royal sponsorship of art museums and programs, because of educated and impassioned weavers like Deki – Bhutan’s future will hold more wild silk than blue denim.
Before I get back on the dragon-tailed plane, I have one more chance to see the masked dances. This time, monks will throw up handfuls of confetti, and under a huge parasol, Guru Rimpoche himself will appear to bless the throng. Again, I think about wearing a kira to the tshechu, but by this time, I have become a connoisseur and only the best will do. “Don’t go to the shops,” Deki tells me. “Go to the vegetable market, and if you meet a man with a big, stuffed bag, you should find out what’s inside.”
I go to the Sunday market, but I don’t find her itinerant trader. Not tempted, I finger questionable amber and poor quality weavings. I get the feeling someone is following me, and when I turn, he reaches inside his gho, and (abracadabra!) produces a treasure I cannot refuse. I have just enough for the slightly faded, cotton kira, woven in 1947 by his great grandmother,Thoma, one of the celebrated weavers from the East. How fortunate can I be? On three jewel-toned panels, she has woven the luckiest number (108) of lucky knots.
Photojournalist Torie Olson has traveled extensively in the Americas, Asia, and Africa to document, celebrate, and advocate for the world’s tribal peoples. She is the author of Silk Road, Life in Color: South India & Weaving Love, Weaving Life, among others. In the last five years, her photographs have been showcased in 30 solo exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad, with proceeds benefiting organizations that support traditional artisan families. Olson has published numerous photographs and articles on endangered cultures in U.S. and Asian publications.