Hand-woven and embroidered textiles are Bhutan’s premier handicraft. They are recognised for their colour, sophistication and variation of patterns, and for intricate dyeing and weaving techniques.
There is even a special word, “Hingtham”, a Bhutanese word meaning “heart weaving” which indicates the value of textiles in their culture.
Men, women and children wear traditional clothing from Bhutanese textiles in a variety of colour and patterns. Traditional dress is compulsory in schools, government offices and on formal occasions in the Kingdom of Bhutan.
The royal women of Bhutan have had a major role and influence in sustaining and furthering the weaving tradition in Bhutan. Although the founders of the Wanghuck dynasty are from Bumthang, their ancestral home is in the Lhuntse District, which was historically recognised as the home of the most celebrated weavers in the country.
Her Majesty the Queen Mother Ashi Sangay Choden Wangchuck, is the Royal Patrol of the Royal Textile Academy of Bhutan (RTAB), a non-government, non-profit organisation established as an educational centre for the training of individuals in traditional Bhutanese weaving.
The Queen Mother’s interest and intervention have revitalised Bhutanese textiles and brought world attention. Today, scholars and colllectors from around the world are fascinated with the art of Bhutanese weaving.
Using back-strap looms as the primary apparatus the weavers in Bhutan – mainly women working in the villages and homes of rural Bhutan – create highly technical and intricate patterns using silk, cotton and wool yards. Knowledge and dexterity have passed down through the generations.
Bhutan’s mountain terrain and deep valleys meant that ethnic tribes remained isolated from each other and developed individual motifs and patterns. These reflect the weaver’s life and environment and each pattern and colour combination has a specific name and the motifs have symbolic meanings. Colour may reveal the weaver’s birth month or rank in society.
The Bhutanese consider contemplation of colour a spiritual exercise. They are experts in natural dyeing and combining varied hues.
The most valuable and authentic textiles are those that have survived for centuries in a temple, or a special chest in a Bhutanese home. Bhutanese women still have trunks filled with fine fabrics that may be sold when money is required. It was common to present cloth as a gift to mark special occasions.
The most spectacular weave is called Kishuthara and includes the brocade technique.
The richness of this art can be seen at the permanent exhibition in the National Textile Museum in Thimphu.
TRADITIONAL DRESS: THE GHO AND KIRA
Bhutan’s traditional dress is very distinctive. Men, women and children wear traditional clothing from Bhutanese textiles in a variety of colour and patterns.
Men wear a long robe (gho) hitched up to the knees with a cummerband or sash (kera) which causes it to form a pouch above the waist, and a long sleeved shirt with the cuffs turned back. Woollen socks with smart leather shoes or boots are worn, or embroidered knee-length leather boots during festivals.
The gho can be plain in colour, bold, checked or pinstriped – but not floral. Strong colours can be worn, as long as monastic reds and yellows are avoided.
On formal occasions Bhutanese men are obliged to wear a ceremonial scarf over their left shoulder. The scarf is made of raw silk with fringes at both ends and when worn correctly the scarf will drape over the shoulder in such a way that it can easily be held in place when making gestures of respect.
The colour of the scarf denotes rank and status in Bhutanese society. Ordinary citizens wear a scarf of plain white silk. The military wear a smaller version of this with a red border. Village headmen wear a white scarf with red stripes, and members of the national Assembly a blue scarf. Nobles with the rank of Dasho are entitled to wear a red scarf, senior government ministers wear orange – but only the king and the Je Khenpo (Chief Monastic Preceptor of the official Drukpa Kagyu order) may wear saffron yellow.
Women wear a long floor-length dress called a kira. This wraps around the body over a silk blouse.The kira is fastened at the shoulders with elaborate silver hooks and at the waist with a belt that may be of silver or cloth. A short, open jacket-like garment called a toego is worn over the top. When visiting dzongs women wear a cloth sash over their shoulders – or just over their left shoulder – in the same manner as the men.
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