Think of Bhutan and immediately the towering mountains, pristine landscapes, monasteries, and monks flash in front of you. Bhutanese textiles may not be a top-of-mind recall but they symbolise a rich cultural heritage. ‘Kira’—a large, rectangular textile that is wrapped around the body, folded into a wide pleat in front, and fastened at the shoulders with ornate silver and gold brooches—worn by women and ‘gho’—a multicoloured, striped knee-length cloth, tied at the waist with a cloth belt—traditionally draped by men, reflect the country’s identity, values, and spirituality. While the world is well-acquainted with fashion capitals like Paris, Milan, London, and New York, there are numerous hidden gems waiting to be discovered! And one such well-kept secret is Bhutan, whose fashion industry remains relatively unknown on the global stage.
Despite the country’s rich sartorial culture and an untapped sea of natural resources, Bhutan unfortunately does not have a market due to its small domestic population and the lack of structure of its fashion industry. “Fashion in Bhutan might be at its infancy, but we have a lot of promising and talented people in the creative industry, we just don’t have the guidance, investment, and collaborations with the key players. Bhutan could be the world’s answer to sustainable fashion without greenwashing!” says fashion illustrator and designer Karma Tshering Wangchuk, also known as Lhari. Designers like him are reviving traditional clothing and rebranding it as fashionable by highlighting the importance of passing down traditional fashion and being appreciative of it. “Trends will come and go but I believe that our national dress will stay for a very long time—we have subconsciously realised that this is our armour,” he says.
At Bhutan Echoes: Drukyul’s Literature Festival in Thimphu, Karma discussed his latest book Lhari, an archival reference which describes Bhutanese fashion without overtly eroticising or romanticising it, which he says that people from the West tend to do. The literature festival—the first offline edition since its renaming—hosted several sessions including one with the chief curator at the Royal Textile Academy (RTA), Pema Choden Wangchuk. She is one of the few trained museum professionals in the country, having completed her MA in Museology from the University of Washington. “I have always been inspired by our cultural heritage that hasn’t been documented enough. I feel fortunate for creating awareness about textiles,” she says. Back in the day, says Lhari, kira and gho were conventionally used as blankets but the traditional wear (especially women’s attire) changed to adapt to women’s lives as they started joining the workforce. “Kira is no longer full length, it’s similar to a sarong that wraps around quickly—consuming less time,” says Lhari.
In Bhutan, the patterns and the colours used to make a textile are very centric to the region they’re from. For instance, martha is the supple tweed checked woollen weave in darker shades of red, blue, and green finely outlined in white and yellow, found in the central valley of Bumthang (a district in the eastern region of Bhutan) and the intricately designed kushuthara—a prestigious garment woven in a discontinuous supplementary weft brocade design—was developed in Kurto (north-eastern Bhutan) the original home for the royal family. A kushuthara can take almost a year to weave as the patterns are time consuming and the silk thread is expensive. The patterns are descriptive of the natural world observed by the weaver, and the embroidery resembles pigeon’s eyes, rooster’s comb, and even fly’s wings!
The traditional Bhutanese weaving process is intricate and it’s a skill that has been passed down through generations and holds great cultural significance. Pema explains that weaving is done on two looms—the traditional back-strap loom (a weaving tool where one end is attached to the weaver’s body and the other end to a stationary object) and the horizontal loom (a weaving device where the warp threads are held horizontally, and weft threads are woven over and under to create fabric) which is home-made from timber and bamboo. The process starts with dyeing the yarn using natural ingredients such as indigo leaves, artemisia leaves, buckwheat flour, turmeric, etc. The yarn such as cotton, raw silk, and terry cotton is mostly imported from India. The dyed fabric is then warped before the actual weaving begins. “Weavers value innovation, depending upon the type of cloth they make, they experiment with designs epitomising quality in contemporary weaving. Handloom textiles are firmly placed in the cultural and economic importance of the country and remain the preferred choice for occasions beyond the everyday,” says Pema.
As the looms continue to tell stories of generations past and present, it’s evident that the Bhutanese textiles are more than just fabrics—they are the living canvas of history and a bridge to the future.