Bhutanese women weave beautiful handloom textiles with intricate patterns on the back strap, treadle and card looms, using a variety of yarns, in rich, vibrant colours. The vivid colours are obtained both from chemical and natural, vegetable and herbal dyes.

Weaving is prevalent throughout the kingdom and traditionally it was the lady of the house “nangi aum” who had to see to the dyeing and weaving process in addition to her household duties. The entire process of weaving a fabric – from the spinning of yarn, the dyeing and final weaving was done by hand, at home.

Every fabric has a name, which describes its particular combination of fibre, colour and pattern. Material could be either striped or checked. Extra motifs and patterns are obtained by supplementary weft threads or by adding warp threads. All patterns have a symbolic meaning: the tree, the swastika the wheel, the vajra, the diamond, etc. Thus, checked woollen material is called mathra, serthra or tsangthra depending on its colour. Women’s dresses with a white background covered with brocade designs of silk are called kishuthara, and those with blue background are called onsham. Material with a yellow background and green and red stripes with additional warp patterns is mensimathra.

Textiles in Bhutan are highly regarded, not only as a form of wealth or a commodity of value to pay taxes – but have a non verbal language of their own and convey the social identity of the wearer, are an expression of religious devotion and gifts of cloth are used to mark important occasions such as marriages or promotions.


The weaving tradition of Bhutan spans several centuries with traditional, classical designs continuing to be woven even today by the Bhutanese. The women weave the textiles from their homes and each region has its own traditions and produces its own specialities. Eastern, North Central and Central Bhutan all have strong, distinctive local weaving traditions. Today this composite culture is viewed as a source of identity and a national asset.


The country’s largest group, the Shachops or ‘easterners’ inhabit Eastern Bhutan. Eastern women are Bhutan’s most celebrated weavers and cloth is an important product of the region. Most learn the craft as very young girls, on their mothers’ looms, doing the weaving during the winter months (January-March), when women prefer to spend their time indoors and no agricultural activity is carried out.

Traditionally, the local nobility often employed weavers in their households. The cotton and wild silk textiles manufactured were traded with people from central Bhutan, who came to exchange their woollen cloth for lac, indigo, and the Eastern textiles. Today most of their work is sold in Thimphu, while the traditional barter with central Bhutan continues on a much smaller scale.

Along Bhutan’s eastern border live the semi-nomadic herders of the high valleys of Merak and Sakteng – these tribes have a unique lifestyle, language and dress and their own weaving specialities and are an integral part of the Eastern region.

For centuries, cloth was central to the internal economy of eastern Bhutan. Tax in some areas was paid in the form of lengths of plain and patterned cotton and wild silk cloth until the 1950s.

Eastern Bhutanese use the back strap loom, which they set up on porches, under bamboo mats, or in thatched sheds to protect weavers from the sun and rain. In Pemagastshel District, shelters on stilts are constructed in fields near the house so that girls and women can weave in the shade while watching the crops and livestock. Card looms and horizontal frame looms are also used.

Wild silk, cotton, and acrylic are the main fibres for weaving today. While some of the yarn is spun and processed locally, most of the wild silk and bright cotton and acrylic yarn is imported from India. The tribes of Merak Sakteng prefer to buy the cocoons as they are less costly and process them into yarns themselves.

Natural Dyes
Eastern Bhutan has a temperature climate and as a result is rich in flora and fauna. In this region, Bhutanese indigo, lac, madder and other wild dye plants are found in abundance. The dyeing and weaving skills of the women are highly developed.

Types of Cloth and Patterning Techniques
Textiles of Eastern Bhutan can be classified into primarily three broad categories: plain weave fabrics, supplementary-weft-patterned fabrics, supplementary-warp-patterned fabrics.

Plain weave fabrics
Mongar and Pemagatshel districts produce patterned and unpatterned plain weave fabrics of cotton and wild silk fabrics. This relatively undecorated cloth of different varieties was woven for the local authorities and tendered to the dzongs each year. Plaid and striped fabric for garments and household use continues to be produced.

While setting up the warp coloured threads are included with the basic colour to obtain striped fabric. The coloured thread will appear on both sides of the finished fabric. A textile with only stripes is called thara. Two colour combinations are popular: red-and-black (or blue) plaid on a white field; and yellow, white, and black on a rust-covered field (sethra, ‘predominantly gold pattern’). Two versions of the rust-coloured plaid called sethra are seen today: sethra dokhana, which has black in it, and dalapgi sethra, which does not.

In the past fifty years, rows of small supplementary-weft patterns have appeared in some striped plain weave cloth used for women’s dresses, an innovation loosely described as ‘new design’ (pesar). Pattern wefts are usually worked in pairs and are discontinuous, being inter worked with the ground weave only where the motif appears on the face of the cloth. The patterns are single-faced, visible only on the finished side of the weaving.

Yutham or country cloth is made of wild silk or cotton and is very popular in the rural areas for garments. Today, Indian factory-made versions of this pattern are worn more often than hand woven cloth. Warp-striped cloth or thara is very popular and is available in many varieties, all of which have individual names:

  • Shardang thara or ‘striped woman’s dress’ is a local pattern showing multicoloured warp stripes on a white field
  • Samkhongma has narrow red-and-blue warp stripes on a white field
  • Mondre (‘Mon or Bhutanese dress’) has a pattern similar pattern to the Samkhongma and is worn mainly by the older people in rural areas.

Supplementary-weft-patterned fabrics
Many other textiles that originated in the east, such as traditional women’s belt (kera), are decorated with supplementary wefts, which are obtained by adding coloured thread to the weft. These coloured threads can show on one side of the fabric or both sides. If they show on one side they are called single faced, and when they show on both sides they are called two-faced or double faced. The thread used for the extra weft is usually thicker than the base fabric. Here, the supplementary wefts float on one surface of the plain weave ground when not floating on the other and create a negative pattern on one side of the cloth. Four to eight very fine supplementary-weft yarns usually functions as a single patterning unit. Supplementary wefts decorate multipurpose textiles (pangkheb) used for tax payments, rough towelling, doorway curtains, cushion linings, and bundle carriers. The most elaborate of these cloths, the ceremonial chaksipangkheb, has centre panel patterned from one end to the other with bands of continuous supplementary wefts.

Supplementary-warp-patterned fabrics or Aikapur
Supplementary-warp-patterned are made by adding coloured threads to the warp. Eastern Bhutan is famous for its supplementary-warp-patterned fabrics collectively known as aikapur. Woven of cotton, wild silk, or cultivated silk they are so fine as to appear to be embroidered. Aikapur is a special cloth, treasured and saved for special occasions.

An aikapur is a warp patterned weave which has extra warp threads manipulated to create double faced warp pattern bands called hor – which alternate with rows of plain weave. The width of the supplementary-warp-pattern bands determines the quality of the aikapur. Vertically, in the warp direction, these patterned bands follow a format: a primary motif; followed by a solid horizontal bar, a crosshatched bar, and another solid bar; a primary motif and so on. While primary motifs may repeat or vary within a given pattern band, the intervening bars are identical and there are always an odd number of crosshatches – three, five, seven or nine. As the number of legs ‘kang‘ or cross hatches goes up the design becomes broader. The greater the number of cross hatches and the more intricate the patterns – the more the work for the weaver and the more highly the fabric is regarded. A fabric with three legs is refered to as a Bsampa, with five legs Bnapa, with seven legs Btsumpa. Cloth with nine ‘legs’ or Bgupa is said to have been reserved for the nobility and the kings, but one often sees cloth with eleven (Bdzonghthrupa) or even thirteen (Bdzongsampa) legs.

Aikapur are distinguished by the colours of the background and the additional thread. Traditional colour schemes are:

  • mense mathra: Yellow pattern band on a red field
  • lungserma: Green and red pattern bands between colourful warp striping
  • montha: blue or black and red pattern bands between colourful warp striping
  • dromchu chema: red, green, yellow, and white pattern bands.
  • jadrichem, or jadrima multicoloured warp stripes in any version of the above cloths

The patterned bands of an aikapur contain motifs which may repeat or vary within the band. The motif most often encountered is the:

Shinglo or ‘tree leaf’ motif Bhutanese examine the delicate branches and leaves of these trees when assessing the quality of a fabric.

Weavers of Merak and Sakteng
The semi-nomadic herders of the high valleys of Merak and Sakteng fashion hats, ropes, and bags out of yak hair and weave garments, floor mats, and blankets of yarn spun from their sheep wool. Some women spin wild silk cocoons into fibre, which they dye with lace and weave into tunic-style dresses (shingkha), women’s jackets, and belts or obtain them from nearby villagers who weave them specially for bartering with the herders. The jacket pattern is always the same, showing rows of horses, elephants, and peacocks that are reminiscent of patterns in distant Southeast Asia. Geometric patterning on the belts, showing auspicious swastikas and flowers, is similar to that on jackets.


Lhuntshi District is the original home of the royal family and has strong weaving traditions. Kurto, the northern part of this district, is especially renowned for its weaving. Unfortunately, although the legacy of local weaving is strong, much of the cloth now being manufactured is in acrylic and medium-quality cotton yarns, and of medium quality.

Yak wool and hair are also woven by herders in northern and eastern Bhutan and by villagers in central Bhutan. The soft inner wool from the chest and underbelly of yaks is suitable for making clothing and blankets. More commonly, the yak’s outer coat, which is hair-like and highly water repellent, is woven into coarse raincloaks, blankets, tents, bags, and rope and fashioned into hats. Yak tails are used in Bhutan and exported as fly whisks.

As in the East, cloth from the local looms was used to make tax payments.

The most significant local weaving material was nettle, which is said to have been the original fibre used in Bhutan. Some villages continue to weave with this fibre.
Lhuntshi District has always imported or bartered the materials for its famous textiles. Cotton from Mongar District or regions further south and wild silk cocoons from Samdrup Jongkhar on the Indian border.

The locally available dye plants were the madder, found in nearby forests, Bhutanese indigo, cultivated in household gardens and Symplocos leaves known as a source of yellow. Lac was acquired from eastern Bhutan and mordants from Tibet.
Now very little dyeing with natural dyes is done because imported coloured yarns from India are available as are commercial dyes.

Types of Cloth and Patterning Techniques
Kurto is famous for producing cloth patterned with kushu, a style of discontinuous supplementary-weft patterning on a white base. This technique is used to produce the famed woman’s dress called kushuthara (‘brocaded dress’), bags and other textiles. The patterning (sapma) is composed of supplementary wefts that appear to lie on the finished face of the cloth; when not floating, they are laid in with wefts of the ground wave. More intricate motifs are created by a group of four supplementary wefts that are interworked with warp elements and each other by twining and wrapping (thrima, ‘to wind, coil around’). Thrima patterns appear to ride on the surface of the cloth, and some look very much like embroidery. Because Bhutanese fabrics are warp-faced, a skilled weaver can insert sapma and thrima pattern wefts so that neither is visible on the back of the cloth.

Kushu thara has been the most prestigious dress for women during the twentieth century. It has a white field patterned with dozens of distinct motifs like diamonds or half-diamonds or half-diamonds at the center and edges of the field. The patterns woven in supplementary weft exemplify what Bhutanese call jangdra which means that the dress has a pleasing, striking impression when seen from a distance. Handwoven by women from cotton and raw silk (bura) or entirely from silk, it is traditionally vegetable dyed in different colours and can take up to a year to weave. Kushuthara has a white base and a similar women’s dress with a blue background is called onsham.

The designs for kushu patterning are so varied that they are impossible to classify. Several dozen basic patterns are modified and interpreted, or combined together, at a weaver’s pleasure.

Patterning that looks like patchwork (tenkheb, phup) is believed to bring long life. Swastikas (yurung) and a lattice pattern that Bhutanese emblems. According to some older women, these three motifs – patchwork, swastikas, and lucky knots- were supposed to appear on women’s dresses, and indeed they commonly form the end borders of many older examples. Animal designs, once commonly used are no longer in fashion.

The area was also known in the 1930s for plaid cloth (mathra, ‘predominantly red pattern’), sometimes woven with stripes (khacha) at the edges. Nowadays, this plaid is associated more closely with Bumthang (central Bhutan).

karsi, yuearung-276, yuroong 280, drami 272


The Bumthang District comprising the four valleys of Chume, Chokhor, Tang, and Ura has been the place of origin of many important Buddhist teachers and noble families. Aristocratic families in this region are known for maintaining trade and cultural links outside Bumthang – primarily with Kurto and outside the country with Tibet.

Weaving in the palace or noble households, in Bumthang, was organised in the form of workshops from the mid 1800s until around 1960, when it disappeared after the abolition of the hereditary service obligations in 1957.

Princesses who were born or married into the royal family brought their servants, including weavers, to Bumthang. Women of local noble families also wove for the princesses. Weaving, carried out with both silk and cotton yarn, flourished in these workshops and in the mid 1940s, there could be found workshops who employed large number of dyers, weavers and people who did the spinning and winding of the yarn. Dyes were locally prepared on a large mortar stone and ground with a wooden pestle turned by a water wheel.

As the patronage was so strong, weavers, free from the pressures of the marketplace, wove some of the most exquisite textiles, including kushuthara, as well as other fine cloth. The atmosphere in these workshops was happy and weavers sang songs to pass the time.

Villages to the west in Bumthang and neighbouring Tongsa District are known for weaving with wool and woven products are still bartered for textiles and dyes from other parts of Bhutan.

The Mangde River valley in Tongsa District is known for cloth production. A number of villages also weave with nettle, which was made into wrapped garments worn by women that cross over the chest and fasten at the shoulders, like the pakhi formerly worn by men in this area.

Like in the other regions of Bhutan, taxes were paid in cloth woven on local looms. Some of the items tendered were: plain white woollen cloth(nambu karthi, a thin cloth for making prayer flags and tearing into thin strips used as butter lamp wicks); woollen cloth patterned with traditional designs (yathra, ‘pattern from the upper regions’); and red plaid woollen cloth (mathra). Yarns in these fabrics were locally coloured with madder for red and pinecones for blue.

The four valleys of central Bhutan (Bumthang) are acclaimed for weaving with sheep wool. Apart from the local wool, imported acrylic and woollen yarns brought from India and Australia is used.

Bast fibres like nettle are also used.

The back strap loom was once universal in the Bumthang region has been replaced by the horizontal frame loom, for the weaving of woollen cloth since its introduction in the 1930s.

Today most silk and cotton yarns come from India, and a mix of natural and synthetic dyes are used, even though natural colouring agents of all kinds are plentiful in the forests. Traditionally, turmeric is used for yellows instead of Symplocos, which does not grow in the region. From the Southern parts madder, Bhutanese indigo, Symplocos leaves, turmeric, lac and various mordants are traded with the north.

Types of Cloth and Patterning Techniques
The wool-weaving areas of central Bhutan produce stripped plain weaves; fine plaid twills, and heavier, supplementary-weft-patterned twills. The occasional plain weaves are woven on a back strap loom. Twills, formerly woven on back strap looms are now produced on the horizontal frame loom.

Indigenous to Bumthang and parts of Tongsa District are woollens made of natural brown, black, and white yarns and yarns tinted dark blue or shades of red. Plaid, checked, and striped loom lengths are used mainly for stitching rain cloaks and blankets.

The simplest cloths are somewhat rough black woollens for winter dresses and robes. Similar fabric, dyed a rich orange-red with madder, is stitched into blankets that monks use as shawls. A coarser variety of black woollen textile covers loads on horses during the rain. Other fabrics show black-and-white, black-and-red, or red-and-white checks or stripes. The most colourful are sephu charkab (‘Sephu raincloaks’), which are striped in the weft direction with broad bands of white, orange, green, and blue.

Plaid patterns are also specialities of central Bhutan. The best known are based on one of two designs: varicoloured plaid on a maroon field (mathra, ‘red pattern’); or yellow, white, and black plaid on an orange field (sethra, ‘gold pattern’). The latter was originally from eastern Bhutan, where it was woven of wild silk on backstrap looms. The first woollen versions are said to have appeared in the early 1950s and are very popular now. Lengths of woollen plaid cloth are sold in rolls ready to be cut, stitched, and lined.

Another cloth equally characteristic of Bumthang is the decorative woollen called yathra (‘pattern from the upper regions’). Earlier, it seems to have been plain weave or twill made on a backstrap loom, but now it is almost always twill produced on a frame loom.

Uncut lengths of the cloth measure about 65 cm by 300 cm or more and show several patterns. The traditional palette of naturally dyed yarns is rich and warm: rainbow hues of pink, plum, and maroon, a handful of blues and greens, with accents in white and gold.

There are many variations of yathra, all with single-faced supplementary-weft patterning, either on a plain ground or on a weft striped ground. Pattern wefts are paired and quite thick; and include familiar motifs: diamonds, stars, coins, lucky knots, scissors, long-life vases, and floral motifs.

Yathra was traditionally used for cushion covers or blankets (two panels) and for cloaks (three panels). Since the 1950s, it has also been made into jackets that are very popular with Bhutanese women and foreigners. Other uses today are upholstery, car seat covers etc.



It is generally accepted that the western Bhutan does not have its own native weaving traditions, as it had easy access to cloth from other areas. Today, however, there are weavers in Thimphu and other areas west of the Pele La, the high pass that divides western Bhutan from the east. There are also communities in western Bhutan (Punakha and Wangdi Phodrang districts) weave with wool, wild silk, and cotton.

Nomads in Ha and Laya Lingshi, on Bhutan’s western and north-western borders, fashion clothing and other utilitarian textiles from yak, sheep, and goat wool. Rural families living at lower altitudes weave cloth from nettle fibre and make it into garments.

Kantham Thara – simple warp stripes or plaids. Gifted to a lama who later sold it to raise funds for the monastery.

Kawley – completely black fabric of wool has healing properties and good for the wearers health.

Textiles are the products of centuries of individual creativity and transmitted skills in fibre preparation, dyeing, weaving, cutting, stitching and embroidery.

The entire process of weaving from the preparation of yarn, the dyeing and final weaving to produce designs ranges from the most simple to the most intricate.

The fibres used are cotton, wool, silk (raw and refined), yak hair and nettle fibre (which produces a coarse fabric that is used for utilitarian purposes like strong bags though it was formerly used for making clothes as well). Wool from Bumthang, bura(raw silk) and cotton from warmer regions. Yak hair is used to weave heavy textiles for tents, blankets and rugs.

Bhutanese fibres are almost always spun with a drop spindle (phang) and transferred to a spinning wheel (Chaphang). Cotton seeds are separated with a kaershing or cotton gin and then fluffed before spinning. Only locally grown cotton is traditionally spun first with the aid of a spinning frame, then twisted again, using a drop spindle to produce a tighter yarn. Spinning is usually women’s work, although men in the herding communities of Laya Lingshi and Merak Sakteng spin yarn from sheep, yak and goat wool. Bhutanese women also employ drop spindles to ply yarn and to tighten the twist of woollen, acrylic, and silk yarns from India. From the spindle, or the spinning frame, yarn is transferred to a rotating winding wheel or hand-held skein winder. It is then wound off into balls or skeins for weaving in natural colours or for dyeing. Khab – warp winding instrument. Yarn taken around two wooden posts. Extra warp wound around heddle sticks to create warp patterns. Once warp is placed on the loom these sticks are raised alternatively while weaving.

Nettle was the original fibre used by local weavers in Bhutan.

Nette fibres are obtained from several plants:

  • a common nettle grass (Girardinia palmate)
  • the stalk of Cannabis sativa (hemp), which grows wild in much of Bhutan and
  • a tree bark.

The method of preparation of yarn from nettle is common to the region (India and Nepal) and involves

  • soaking the plant stalks, sometimes boiling them
  • shredding them for twisting into yarn with the aid of a drop spindle.

The fibre though now rarely used was once the chief material for production of clothing. By the 1940s, only the older Bhutanese remembered it. In Southern Bhutan it was worn in parts until the mid 1960s.
Contemporary weavers seldom work with nettle except for producing rough and sturdy, bast-fibre carrying cloths, sacks, and bags that are sought after throughout Bhutan. Archers also use nettle fibre for stringing traditional wooden bows.

Silk is the most prestigious fibre in Bhutan and also the most expensive. Although Bhutanese may call all silk bura (‘insect cotton’), they distinguish several types of yarn:

  • wild silk (bura)
  • cultivated, reeled silk(seshu)
  • Khaling silk (varieties of silk imported from Assam) and
  • parachute silk (namdru kiip).

The distinguishing characteristics of silk yarn are whether it is produced by the domesticated, mulberry silk moth (Bombayx mori), or by a wild or semi domesticated, non-mulberry silk moth; and whether it is reeled or spun.

Wild silk: Most wild silk is thicker than cultivated silk and is off-white in colour. It is rarely reeled as wild silk fibre is shorter than the silk from domesticated moths. This is because the cocoons are gathered after the larvae have metamorphosed into moths and eaten through their cocoons, severing the silk filament in many places. The broken cocoon is pulled apart and the fibres are spun, like cotton or wool.

Preparation of the silk fibre: Whether collected from the forest or cultivated in this fashion, the cocoons are steeped in a solution of hot water, which has been drained through fermented rice, to soften and de-gum the cocoons. While still moist, the fibre is drawn out of each cocoon by hand. As the thread is wound onto a spindle, fibre ends are joined by pressing them together and lumps are smoothed between thumb and forefinger.

The Bhutanese are sensitive about violating the Buddhist tenet of not killing living beings even accidentally and try and ensure that the moths are out of the cocoons before they are put into hot water. This has led the Bhutanese to purchase ready, spun dyed yarn and therefore, much of the yarn used in Bhutan today, is imported.

Cultivated silk: Domesticated silk worms that feed on mulberry leaves and extrude a fine liquid protein coated with sericin. When exposed to air, this becomes the fine liquid protein becomes silk. The larvae, which cannot survive in the wild, are carefully protected and fed handpicked leaves. After molting several times the worm spins a cocoon, inside of which it metamorphoses into a moth over several weeks. If not prevented, it will then eat through the cocoon, breaking the silk fibre. In order to reel long, unbroken smooth fibres, mature cocoons are simmered, killing the moths inside. Waste fibres from breakage are also spun, yielding a coarser, less desirable yarn often termed ‘raw silk’ in the West.

Khaling silk refers to Assamese yarns imported by the National Handloom Development Project in Khaling (Tashingang District). Most of them are spun from the waste fibres of mulberry-bed silkworms. This cultivated, spun silk is not as fine as cultivated, reeled silk, but is somewhat rough and slubby.

Parachute silk was introduced to Bhutan from India during the Second World War. Old women remember that the royal grandmother, Ashi Phuntsok Choden, senior queen of the second king, was the first person to have the fibre, which came in the form of a heavy rope. The braided outer layer was unraveled for use as weft, and the straight strands of the rope’s inner core were used for warps and pattern wefts. This fibre was thicker and cheaper than silk yarn from India and was dyed locally. Some say it is not of the same quality as other silk because it shows wear and does not hold colour well.

In temperate areas of Bhutan, cotton is the fibre for ordinary garments and other utilitarian textiles.

Until the middle of this century, the majority of the cotton used in Bhutan was grown, spun, and woven locally. Traditionally, cotton was cultivated throughout the warm, southern hills. In some areas, a portion of the crop was turned over to the state in return for salt from Tibet. The cotton was then redistributed to villagers to spin and weave into cloth, much of which was again given to the state as a form of tax. Over the years cotton cultivation has become uneconomical and the increased availability of commercial machine spun Indian yarns has led to substitution of the local yarn with imported yarn.

Another fibre that the Bhutanese call cotton comes from a small tree. The Tibetan women who is said to have introduced weaving in Tashigang centuries ago taught people first how to weave simple designs in wool and then how to make yarn from a ‘cotton tree’ (chemashing; Gossypium?) native to the area. Fibre from this tree is still occasionally used for weaving in eastern Bhutan.

In colder areas, local fleece was spun and made into the cloth needed by each household, as well as handed over in raw form to authorities, who then redistributed it to villagers for processing into cloth due to the state as tax. Local wool was the major source of clothing and utilitarian textiles in regions such as north central Bhutan.

Sheep wool still provides the primary fibre for villagers in Bumthang District (central Bhutan) and for seminomadic herders in western Bhutan (Laya Lingshi) and eastern Bhutan summer grazing areas and in September-October. Until the late 1950s, raw Tibetan wool, and occasionally woollen yarn, were imported sporadically. In the 1970s and 1980s, modest quantities of raw merino wool were imported from Australia. In recent years, Australian breeding stock has helped establish hybrid flocks with softer varieties of wool.

Imports: Commercial Yarns and Synthetic Fibres
Bhutanese weavers today have access to fibres from Japan, India, Hong Kong and buy the best they can afford. Popular varieties of yarn include:

Cotton; mercerised cotton and blended cotton and polyester
Silk-like acrylic yarn, machine-spun woollen yarn and acrylic yarn

Good colours are valued so much among the Bhutanese that strong taboos guide the dyeing process. Dyeing of yarn is done in the secrecy of the early morning behind closed doors and shutters – as strangers should not witness it and pregnant women should not come near it lest unborn babies steal the colours and spoil the dye baths. If a baby is born with pink or red birthmarks – they are supposedly from the jatsho and tsut and blue and blacks marks from tsangeha. Secrecy is crucial not only safe guarding the dyeing recipes which were passed from one generation of women to another, and not shared with strangers, but also against the malevolent spirits that are lurking around.

During the first half of this century, specialists did the dyeing in the noble households of Central Bhutan. These women prepared dyestuffs from a variety of mineral or vegetable/herbal dye plants found throughout the Himalayas, on a large outdoor grinding stone and then they coloured silk and cotton yarns by steeping them in huge pots.

Natural dyes are called tsoning and chemical or synthetic dyes tsosar. Commercial synthetic dye powders were known in Bhutan even before 1900 and have coexisted with vegetable dyes. They are very popular and easily recognizable by their vivid colours.

Stick lac (jatsho) is a resinous secretion deposited on tree branches by a parasitic insect. The larvae draw their nutrients from the sap of the trees and secrete a viscous fluid that covers their bodies and encrusts the twigs. The encrustation is scraped off for processing as a red dye. This ancient animal dye, produces colours ranging from pinks to deep red and has been popularly used throughout the subcontinent. In Bhutan, stick lac is widely used but is also considered errant as some insects get killed during the harvesting.

Found in the Eastern valleys of Bhutan, the resinous substance is harvested in October, as soon as the mature insects begin emerging from the encrustations. The hard nodules of stick lac are scraped off the branches. While lac is valued primarily as a dye, its residue is used as sealing wax.

Processing the stick lac to obtain the right colour is a slow process. Lac is soaked in hot but not boiling water and then ground into small pieces with some yeast and roasted wheat or barley grains. The pot is covered so the mixture ferments and a white cream rises to the surface. The mixture is left for about a week so that the colour obtained is good. It is regularly stirred during this time. The liquid is then strained through a sieve, and the residue hardens into a wax used for sealing documents. Finally, the yarns are steeped for up to a week in the covered pot. The steps followed for dyeing and the proportions of dye used vary with the yarn being dyed.

Wild silks:
Dye-to-fibre ratio varies from five to one to nine to one.
Silk yarns are first boiled in an alum solution
Then dried and wrapped in a thin cotton cloth while being immersed in the dye bath.

Wool: Dye-to-fibre ratio is two to one
Yarns are soaked first in a solution of hardwood ash

The contents of the dye bath are boiled and more ingredients are added to produce darker shades.

Madder: Madder is widely used for dyeing wool, cotton, and silks. The madder, a creeper, called tso or tsut, grows in altitudes of 1,200 to 2,700 metres. In western Bhutan, the creeper flowers in August and is harvested soon afterward, when the seeds turn black. In the east, the plant is picked in late November. The stems are dried in the open or over a fire, and then chopped into small pieces that are stored.

Using the madder to dye involves boiling about a handful of madder twigs per pound of fibre, removing them, and then steeping the yarns in the mixture. The colour varies according to the dye-to-fibre ratio used and the steeping time and yields shades from orange to deep red. The most commonly used mordant is alum or the yarn may be soaked first in a solution of Symplocos leaves.

Symplocos or Zim: Four varieties of leaves of the Symplocos trees contain a yellow pigment. The shrubs are generally found on slopes above 1,000m and leaves, which can be used fresh or dried, are picked in autumn.

The colouring process is simple and consists of placing well-washed woollen yarn in a boiling pot of the leaves and leaving it there until the desired shade of yellow is obtained. The wool is then dried and may be steeped in a second dye bath of turmeric and coarsely ground buckwheat grains, which heighten its colour. If the second bath contains madder, a rich rust or orange will be the result.

In some parts of Bhutan native turmeric is used for obtaining a bright yellow.

Bhutan’s main blue dye comes from broad-leafed shrubs that contain indigotin and are collectively called indigo. Bhutanese indigo is different from that is cultivated in India. The plants are cultivated in kitchen gardens, in Bhutan. The leaves, usually picked in autumn, are used fresh or stored in airtight tines lined with banana leaves and sprinked with yeast. Alternatively, they are covered with cow dung. In about twenty days, after the leaves have fermented and rotted, they are taken out and mixed with water dripped through hardwood ashes. This compound can be used for dyeing or is moulded into balls or cakes, which are dried and stored for future use.

The dried cake must be ground into powder, mixed with water, and fermented in an alkaline solution of hardwood ashes. The mixture is then kept warm but not boiled, and after about a week the yarn is immersed. In the olden days it was kept in a pile of horse manure for fermentation to take place – it is now kept near the hearth. The first dye lot is a light blue, with successive steepings yielding deeper shades. Yeast and chang (local rice beer or other fermented grain beverage) are added during the dye to maintain the proper level of fermentation.

Other Colours and Mordants
Compound colours are achieved by mixing colours to yield new colours. For example, greens result when yarn tinted blue with indigo are dyed in a second solution of one of the Symplocos leaves or yarn dyed in sticklac is immersed in indigo yields shades of purples.

Other susbstances used are:

  • Black and brown dyes: Walnut bark and husks, and the sour fruit of a tree called chorgenshing, mud mixed with a poisonous root (chukchume in Bumthang)
  • Yellow: Leaves called photorshing
  • Red: red is obtained from the purple skinned berries of thorn bushes (kipetsang)
  • Light blue and purple: pine cones found over 3,000 m
  • Cream / wood colour – Oak
  • Mordants are substances that fix a dye on a yarn by combining with the dye. Traditional mordants include the Symplocos leaves, alumaceous earths, and sour fruits, pomegranate skin, crab apples.

Weaving techniques and technology have remained virtually unchanged over the years, in Bhutan. Exquisite textiles continue to be woven by hand on the backstrap and card looms – and, for the past sixty years, the Tibetan horizontal frame loom.

The possibilities of weaving patterns are determined by the loom being used. There are three types of looms (thagshing) used in Bhutan the back strap (pangthag) loom with a fixed vertical frame (the backstrap loom with a horizontal frame is used by the women of Laya, in Northern Bhutan), the horizontal frame looms with pedals (thruthang) and the card loom, a form of back tension loom, used for making a select group of narrow textiles usually belts.

Most weaving in Bhutan is done on two types of backstrap loom (pangthag, ‘body or lap loom’). The most commonly used loom is the fixed vertical loom which has two warp beams that require a wooden frame, so these looms are usually set up against a wall. The warp here slants upward, away from the weaver. The second type of loom with a horizontal frame has a single warp beam, which is usually positioned so the warp rides parallel to the ground in front of the weaver. This kind of loom is easy to make at low cost and is easily transportable. Bhutanese weavers employ a length of bamboo as the shuttle case and a wooden sword to beat in the weft.

One method of winding the warp for the loom utilises two, upright wooden posts about 150 cm apart. A thin, joining rod connects the posts near their top ends. Depending on the pattern of the cloth to be woven, two to five thin, additional wooden or bamboo rods are propped against the joining rod in order to keep the warp yarns in order during weaving and for the pattern warps. Extra warps are tied with loops of thread to heddle rods as the warp is prepared. The warp is most often wound in a single direction as a continuous circular length. Therefore, when it is removed from the loom the fabric comes out circular and needs to be cut across a narrow section of unwoven warps in order to create a flat rectangle.

Alternatively the warp may also be wound in another manner, using a third rod, which becomes the closing rod when the warp is transferred to a loom. When a panel of this type of cloth is completed, the closing rod is pulled out, releasing the warp-end loops. The fabric is a flat panel that does not require cutting.

When the warp is moved to a loom, the upper and lower warp beams of the loom replace the two fixed winding posts. The breast beam, typically a length of bamboo split in half lengthwise so that it grips the cloth, is tied to the weaver’s back strap with leather or nylon cords. By leaning backward, the back strap allows the weaver to maintain the warp tension as she weaves, periodically sliding the woven fabric upwards at the back and the unwoven warp downwards toward her.

Back strap looms with a single warp beam are used in herding communities in northwest Bhutan (Laya Lingshi). The warp beam is held in position with a stone or heavy sacks of salt. The advantage of this loom is that it can be easily moved even with partially woven cloth on it.

Using one heddle in this kind of loom produces a very dense warp and therefore the weft cannot be seen. If four heddles are used twill weft can be woven as on a peddle loom. Fabric woven on back strap looms is limited in width to roughly 65 cm. Garments and other textiles are fashioned by stitching together two or more lengths of cloth. A woman’s dress (kira), for example, if made of silk or cotton, consists of three panels joined in the warp direction and oriented horizontally in the finished dress. If made of wool on a back strap loom, the dress will contain six panels oriented vertically.

The horizontal frame loom is seen mainly in Thimphu, Central Bhutan, and Merak Sakteng and is mainly used for weaving with woollen and acrylic yarns, typically, twill weave.

It was introduced to Central Bhutan from Tibet sometime around the 1930s. Around 1920, a young man named Sonam Dondhrup, from Lhuntshi District, went to the Tongsa Dzong, to seek his fortune in the king’s service. Sonam Dondhrup discovered he was interested in weaving and in his free time, he learned to work at a backstrap loom and became a good weaver.

Ashi Wangmo, the young daughter of the first king noticed his weaving skills. Knowing that Tibet had different weaving techniques and used a different kind of loom, she sent him to Tibet to learn about the weaving being done there. She wanted Sonam Dondhrup to come back and train the Bhutanese weavers.

He spent about nine months in Tibet but no one would teach him until Ashi Wangmo sent two sets of gift cloth (zong) for the Tibetans. He came back, made a horizontal frame loom, and taught her how to weave on it. The two then trained many of the women at the court in Tongsa. Later Ashi Wangmo went back to her home in Lhuntshi and taught the women there how to weave on the horizontal frame loom.

The horizontal frame loom (thrithag) is worked with pedals. The loom does not use a circular warp. The warp is wound around narrow rods laid parallel to the ground. At one end of the warp, as the winding proceeds, yarns are tied to or inserted through the heddles that control the ground weave. Four shafts or heddles are customary. Each time a heddle is used it lifts only a part of the yarn. By using this type of loom the weft is still visible between the warp and therefore it is easy to weave checkered textiles by using stripes in the warp and stripes in the weft. Supplementary (pattern) warps are not used on this type of loom. The warp is then transferred to the loom. The ground weft is wound on a long, bamboo bobbin with forked ends (for example, for weaving yathra) or on a very short bobbin that is inserted into a boat-shaped, wooden shuttle (for example, for weaving mathra).

The width of cloth made on this loom is between 20 and 65 cm. Panels of fabric from the loom are cut and sewn into finished textiles. For example, a woman’s woollen dress may have between ten and fourteen narrow panels made on the frame loom, which are oriented vertically when the dress is worn. Blankets and rain cloaks consist of two or three panels cut from the same loom length and joined in the warp direction.

The Bhutanese use the card loom to produce very narrow textiles such as men’s belts. Since the 1960s, narrow women’s belts have also been made by card weaving.

This looms looks similiar to the backstrap loom but the heddles are different. Instead of loops, cards are used to lift a part of the warp. Card weaving seems to have come to Bhutan from Tibet. The range of textiles traditionally woven on this loom are similar to those made in Tibet and are used in contexts that were introduced from Tibet: for male dress (men’s belt, kera, and garters for securing boots) and religious purposes (ties for binding religious texts) and, sometimes, straps to hold reliquaries worn on the chest.

The Bhutanese card loom utilizes a continuous, circular warp mounted on the same frame as a back strap loom and similarly held taut by a weaver’s body position. The cards once made of sheets of sturdy local paper or animal hide are often made from X-ray film or cardboard today. Each card has four holes one in every corner through which the warp is passed. The warp units are made of four yarns, each passing through a different hole in the four corners of a card. Two cards with eight warps make up a set. The cards are rotated by quarter turns to open and close each shed, and the weft is beaten down with a wooden sword. For a new style women’s belt, about sixty cards are used.

The ground is usually a countered four-strand, warp-twined fabric, with twining that is inverted at intervals throughout the textile. Triple wefts are common. When a women’s belt is card-woven, it is decorated with various techniques of supplementary-weft patterning. Wool, acrylic, and cotton are used for the ground weave of textiles made on this loom.

Shabdrung Ngawang Namgayel, who unified Bhutan, introduced a special garment for men, the gho, a long robe tied at the waist and pouched over the belt to form a pocket modified from the Tibetan man’s robes (chuba) and made distinctively Bhutanese in form. Women wear an ankle-length robe called – kira tied at the waist with a wide sash and fastened at the shoulders with silver broaches.

The gho and the kira were declared as the national dress, in 1989, and it was made compulsory for everyone to wear it. This dress edict ignores ethnic and regional diversity that exists in the country and does not take into account the local inhabitants like the herders of Merak Saktang in the East and Laya in the North who do not traditionally wear the Gho and kira.

Women’s dress – kira
The kira, unique to Bhutan, is an unstitched garment that is ingeniously folded around the body and combines comfort and grace. The garment itself has evolved over hundreds of years. Like its counter part for men, the gho, the Kira uses indigenously woven fabric with a border. Kiras are fastened at the shoulders by coma, the distinctive jewellery made of silver or gold and often accented with turquoise. The coma hooks the kira in front and back on either side of the shoulder. Often there is a chain that connects the coma to each other, which falls like a necklace over a woman’s chest. Then a colorful, tight woven belt or kera is added to the waist. A wonju or a short blouse of silk or polyester is worn under the kira. The toego, a short, loose jacket, usually machine made of silk, cotton, wool or synthetic fabric completes the ensemble.

A rechu is a ceremonial sash that Bhutanese women wear over their left shoulder during festivals, when entering government buildings or temples or during ceremonies. It is also intricately woven with colorful designs or embroidered with the seven auspicious symbols of Buddhism.

Women’s belts (Kera)
Women’s belts are made of silk on cotton and hand woven on a card loom with traditional designs. Traditionally the kera, which is still worn by the elderly women, is broad and therefore folded in three and then worn. The pattern is usually reversible and the belt is fringed at both the ends. The kera is woven in many designs depending upon individual taste.

Blouse (Wonju)
A wonju is a buttonless blouse with long sleeves worn by women under their dress (kira). It is made of thin fabric, silk or polyester, more rarely cotton.

Women’s Jacket (Toego)
This short buttonless jacket is worn by women on top of their long dress and can be made of any material: brocade, raw silk, synthetic or cotton fabrics.

Men’s hand woven traditional dress – Gho
The gho is the traditional male national dress and is constructed out of three large panels and a fourth narrower panel stitched together to form the garment.

Men’s belt (Kera)
The men’s belt is hand woven in plain wool and plain cotton with stripes, fringed at both ends and reversible. It is woven on a card loom.

Women’s ceremonial scarfs (Rachu)
Hand-woven from raw silk on cotton with colourful flowers and fringed at both ends, rachu are ceremonial sashes worn by women. They are folded in three, lengthwise and worn over the left shoulder as a mark of respect when receiving important officials or on entering dzongs, temples and monasteries. They can also be draped over the shoulders like a shawl during religious ceremonies. Once unfolded, they are also used to carry children on the back. Some rachu are now embroidered with auspicious signs in the Chinese fashion.

Ceremonial scarves for men (Kabney)
Men, according to their rank wear these ceremonial scarves made of raw silk dyed using vegetable dyes. They are used as a mark of respect to welcome important guests or officials, and when visiting dzongs, temples and monasteries. Everybody wears a kabney as a gesture of respect to the sanctity of a place, its religious contents and people. A kabney worn by the men is broader than the rachu, used by the women.

Ceremonial scarves different colours are used according to the rank of the wearer. His Majesty the King wears a yellow kabney and officials wear orange, red, blue and white kabney of various sizes depending on their ranks – red is used by class one officers, orange by the ministers and ordinary men wear white kapneys. The Je Khembo wears a yellow kabney and the monks wear maroon, indicating the rank of the wearer.

Ceremonial multipurpose cloth (Chagsi Pangkheb)
A ceremonial multipurpose cloth, it is also given as gifts during special occasions or as taxes and are made of cotton, raw silk and more rarely silk. This textile usually is woven with traditional designs.

Shoes / Boots (Tsholham)
Boots are traditionally hand-stitched out of sheep and cow hides, then decorated with brocades or wool and held in place under the knee with a narrow bootstrap. The main colours highlighting the shoes are red and yellow. Both men and women in the country wear them. The shoe colours and decorations depend upon the rank of the civil servant. Today, they are made in Paro and Thimphu.

Woollen panel with geometric designs (Yathra)
Yathra is a twilled hand-woven sheep wool panel, dyed with vegetable colours. And woven with geometric designs. A very warm fabric, it is used as a blanket, or converted into rain cloaks, bed covers, cushion covers, sofa set covers, jackets and coats for both men and women.

Other Woollen products
Rope, tents, raincoats and the famous Togtsi cap are made of yak wool and yak hair. The black Togtsi cap of yak hair is water resistant and used in the rain as the water just drips off without wetting the head.

Rain Cloak (Charkab)
Rain cloaks are hand-woven from sheep or yak wool, either on a pedal or backstrap loom. Woollen fabrics with a black and white background are associated with the Ura valley of Bumthang, Farmers and yak herders use them to protect themselves from rain, snow and cold.

Bag (Phe-chue)
The phe-chue is traditionally used for carrying foodstuff or other items. A woven strap allows the bag to be carried on the shoulder of positioned on the forehead, or even carried on the back in a rachung (scarf). Phechus originated from Kurtoe, Lhuentse.

Other products made of cloth are used in monasteries and altars:
Bumgho – cymbal covers
Khep and Tenkhep – altar covers silken
Chephur gyalsthen – six temple hangings
Phen – pair of triangular topped hangings
Chephur – a pair of cylindrical hangings
Gyalsthen – pair of cylindrical hangings with valences

The Layap people, about 800 in number have their own language, customs and dress. The village women wear conical bamboo hats with a bamboo spike at the top, held by beaded bands. They dress in black woollen jackets with silver trim and a long woollen skirt, striped in natural earth colours and adorn themselves with lots of silver jewellery, which often includes an array of teaspoons.


All prayer flags are made of imported coarse cotton and placed at strategic places in the belief that the wind will carry the invocations and the messages on the flag down the rivers and valleys into the beyond.
Originally made in temples and monasteries, today they are sold in shops as merchandise.

Redi and Khorlo

All flags, with the exception of patch flags, which are tied on a rope, are raised on a pole that has the Redi and the Khorlo at the top.

The redi, a wood carving in the shape of a traditional knife, forms the apex of the flag. It is held together by the khorlo, a carved wooden wheel. The redi represents the god of wisdom and Khorlo the lotus, birthplace of Guru Rimpoche.

Types of Flags

  • The Goendhars are the smallest flags and hung on the tops of houses, invoking the protection of the guardian deity of the Bhutanese, Mahakala. The Goendhar is a plain white strip of cloth with red, green, blue and yellow stripes running across it – representing the various deities and elements.
  • The Lungdhar and the Manidhar line the ridges and the other high grounds. Both have religious text printed on them. The Lungdhar or the wind flag is raised by a person for the invocation of the gods, for good luck, on release from an illness or misfortune or as prayer and gratitude for an achievement or any other reason. The name an age of the person is printed on the flag along with the exact reason why a flag is being raised. The colour of the flag depends on the sign of the person and astrological calculations are made for the auspicious time, direction and location of the flag.
  • The manidhar or the prayer flag is raised when a family member. They act as prayers for the departed – for cleansing their sins.
  • The largest flags are the Lhadhars or god flags – these can be seen outside dzongs and other important places and represent victory over evil.

Wood printing blocks for religious text on prayer flags
Like the blocks used in xylography, the carver made the blocks to print the prayer flags. The text on the blocks was carved in reverse so that when used for printing they printed correctly. The cotton cloth was placed on the block and ink or dye rolled over it to get the imprint of the text. Flags are now being factory printed in India and other places and are sold ready made.

The elements
The five colours of the flag symbolise the five elements.
The Air element or chakham is represented by white and symbolises good luck. The fire element or may is represented by red, water or chudam by blue, tree or shingham by green and earth or sa by yellow.

Until about mid 20th century most fibres were produced dyed and woven locally. Although the repertoire of dyes and fibres was much more limited than it is today, the weavers were conversant with the techniques, understood the local materials and produced some superb quality textiles.

Imported fibres adopted by weavers have altered the palette, textile and surface qualities and chemical dyes have replaced natural dyes and factory produced yarns are substituting hand spun yarn. Knowledge and skills accumulated through generations of experiences and family traditions are beginning to be lost irretrievably. In the last ten years because of the increased imports of machine-made yarn few women are dyeing yarn at all and, of these, even fewer are using vegetable dyes preferring the brightness obtained with synthetic dyes. Many are using a blend of natural and synthetic dyes.

A project started by the National Women’s Association of Bhutan, referred to as the Khaling Project, has trained over a thousand weavers in the each of the last 4 years and has been instrumental in reviving some of their traditional designs and at the same time originating new ones. The Dyeing Unit there has developed recipes for dyeing with rhododendron leaves (yellow); marigolds (yellow); Khempa (green); and several other flowers and leaves. Shortage of funds and other problems has limited its scale of operations to a quarter of its original capacity and they now train 250 weavers for short periods and only 20 weavers in long term courses.


Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre
(Kelzang Lhundrup, Proprietor)
PO Box No 1141
Tel: 975-2-325583


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