After a week and a half touring through Bhutan’s villages and cities, the thwap-thwap-thwap sounds of prayer flags flapping in the brisk mountain wind becomes the norm. As you near the many temples and chortens, the click-click of prayer wheels being whirled clockwise also fill the air as old men and women murmur mantras in hopes of obtaining merit. Around them the pigeons add their coo-coos as if they, too, seek merit from up above. But listen closely and underneath all these sounds is another quieter sound that barely registers but is omnipresent. Click-click-whir. Click-click-whir.
The sound of a hand loom being spun. Bhutanese women often sit before these looms for hours daily, weaving clothing, scarves and other items mainly for personal consumption and sometimes for sale. Most of the looms I saw in use were fixed vertical frames with pedals and a leather backstrap to support the woman’s lower back. The fibers mainly used were of silk and cotton, though the weavers are also known to use sturdier yak hair to make more durable water-resistant items such as tents and coats.
Whether in a weaving factory for women, an arts and crafts school where young girls are taught to refine their weaving techniques, a small shop where the proprietor’s daughter weaves for sale or even to a mountain top where a woman weaves in solitude, the craft of weaving in Bhutan carries on through the fingers of generations of women.
At the crest of a mountain, a young woman in her 20’s cheerfully spins out fabric. As we pass by, she encourages us to look over the few goods she has to her side. Most of the scarves she has made are rough as the silk comes from silkworms that are allowed to escape, preventing the silk from being unrolled smoothly and breaking coarsely instead. In the Buddhist tradition, the killing of any animal, including silkworms, is forbidden. She releases her hands from the loom and spreads her hands before us, holding all ten fingers aloft. Ten days. That is how long it takes her to make one scarf. She smiles shyly at us, her teeth not yet rotted from chewing betel, and returns to her work.
In Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan, we visit a famed arts and crafts school where young girls work hard to master the craft of Bhutanese weaving. These girls are mostly aged 17 to 25 and come from all over the land, though most are from the east where the weavers are regarded as the best. Competition amongst weavers is spreading in Bhutan and these young girls hope to take home grown skills and develop them into something more akin to fine art.
Bhutan is still remote and not well-travelled. Bhutanese women are especially shy, as young girls giggle when walking by in vibrant kiras, the traditional dress for women and girls, dipping their heads and sneaking peeks at us from the corners of their eyes. At a local festival, several young girls dress in their finest kiras, hoping to look as beautiful as possible and attract the eye of a young gentlemen suitor.
When we visit a small handicraft store in Paro, I literally stumble over a young woman sitting on the floor, her back braced by the leather strap as she diligently threads and pulls the silk between the loom bits. In soft, broken English, she explains that she is working on an especially high quality kira. When I ask her how long it takes her to make one kira, she struggles with her answer and our guides assists.
“Two to three months,” he tells us, his hands clasped behind his back. “For one kira.”
“How long does she work every day?” I ask, looking uncertainly at the compact dirt floor and the cramped space of the storeroom. A brief discussion follows.
“Nine to ten hours,” he announces.
“Nine to ten hours?” I ask in disbelief. I am certain he has misunderstood.
He bends closer to the woman and they exchange soft words. He stands up straight and repeats himself. “Nine to ten hours a day she work,” he says firmly.
“Does she take a lunch break?” I ask in horror.
He translates the question for her, and the proprietor of the store joins in their laughter.
“Only for a few minutes,” our guide says. “Just to eat quickly. She is from Mongar, in the East,” he adds as if that explains everything.
Later that night at dinner, our guide reveals that his mother is also a weaver.
“Of course,” I say aloud, remembering that he too is from the east of Bhutan, from a town called Trashigang that is even more remote than Mongar.
“My mother weave her whole life, but only for the family,” he explains as he dips a ball of rice into a fried beef and cheese dip. Popping it into his mouth, he chews slowly and says, “Now she cannot see anymore so she stop weaving. She would like for me to buy her glasses.”
“Will you?” I ask.
He shrugs, popping another butter, cheese and rice combination into his mouth. “She has 62 years now. I tell her she is too old. That it is better if she just goes to the temple to do her prayers with the other old people.”
Astonished, I tell him that’s crazy. Of course he needs to help his mother if he can. I also try to explain that 62 is really not that old.
“Maybe I buy them for her,” he finally relents. “But I know that if she can see with these glasses she will not stop weaving. Then her eyes only get worse and worse. And I will again have to buy more glasses for her. And so it will go. She will never stop weaving as long as she can see. This is how it is.”
Jody Madala is a world traveler and contributor to HAND/EYE Magazine.