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Traditional all the way

It is six in the morning and Kesang Pelmo, 17, is busy at work. Strapped to the loom and her head bend low her fingers move dexterously to weave patterns on the colourful warp. Kesang is weaving a gho piece.

A traditional weave in the making
The weave is simple and Kesang is confident the piece will be done in a few days time and fetch her not less than Nu. 3,000 - an amount enough to buy a month's ration.

Tshering Dema, a divorcee and a mother of three children, is a full time weaver, employed in one of the weaving centres in Thimphu. With a monthly income of Nu. 3,000 Tshering says it is difficult to meet ends.

In a country which is often known as the 'land of weaving and textiles', it is common to see rural women, especially in eastern Bhutan, weaving different fabrics during the lean farming season. The woven is not only for self-usage but also to supplement household income.

Over the years, the latter has transformed as a sole reason for more and more women, mostly housewives, in urban towns to take up weaving.

Karma, 32, decided to put her weaving skills into practice when her husband's monthly income of Nu.3,000 was not enough to meet the expenses. Now, Karma who has been weaving since the age of 12, earns an average of Nu.6,000 a month. "It is good money to run the house and meet the children's demands," says Karma.

Most weaving housewives said that their modest earning made a 'real' difference in times of need.

Wangmo who has been weaving since the age of 12, had to give up her practice when she became a mother. And she can feel the impact. "At least when I was weaving we did not have financial problems," says Wangmo.

Housewives also share the view that weaving gave them a sense of independence. "We do not have to be dependent entirely on our husbands for every little thing," says Yangzom.

The weaving culture is gaining ground with more and more rural women, with fine weaving skills, moving into towns in search of better livelihood. These women either work for individuals at a minimum wage, weave and sell through friends or work full time in numerous weaving centres in town.

Tshering, 39, works at one of the weaving centres in Thimphu and earns between Nu.2,500 and Nu.3,000, depending on the weave pattern. Her weave is mostly plain kiras and ghos for men.

The business, according to many, was doing well with the trend for woven kiras suddenly making a come back.

Explains Yangzom, 47. "There was a time when woven kiras and ghos faced stiff competition from the factory created fabrics abundantly found in shops which was comparatively cheap. But now men and women prefer the woven fabric to factory made."

traditional dress
Most of the customers are young office goers who do everything to remain trendy. Half kiras in classic patterns like moentha, mathra and even the simple karchang are popular buys among the young lot. The price for these range between Nu.800 and Nu.1,200 a piece.

Cashing in on the trend, weavers earn an average income of about Nu.400 - Nu.5,000 a month, depending on the intricacy of designs, the quality of the yarns and the finesse of the product.

Considered one of the 13 crafts of Bhutan, the entire weaving process takes between a week and a year, and it is not easy. Threads are dyed (using vegetable dye) and dried for weeks and smoothened before being woven into fabric which itself is an intricate process. The finest weaves are inarguably from Lhuentse and Trashigang in eastern Bhutan.

Most weavers said that the demand is higher for karchang (plain kira) and kiras with simple motifs. The mechi (Assamese) woven kiras and ghos, which stormed the Bhutanese textile market some years ago, still rule the market. The price, however, has fallen sharply from the initial Nu.1,200 to Nu.500. The wearers find the weave light and manageable.

Cheaper factory-made version
The overly indulgent, however, unflinchingly spent thousands on fabrics in pure silk. The silk choice are mostly among the elite and the tourists who find the intricate patterns in colourful designs impressive.

The Handicrafts Emporium in Thimphu is one such outlet where tourists hoard to buy the beautiful textiles. The Emporium bought the textiles from the Khaling Handloom Development Center which employed about 370 weavers and also from the wives of army and police personnel.

Besides the kiras and ghos, other items like tablecloths, bags, and stoles in pure and raw silk and terry-cotton are popular buys. "Someone or the other always buy your stuff," says Wangmo. "If you can keep track of the trend in demand and can produce constantly there is no dearth of buyers."

Of late, numerous ventures have tried to diversify and evolve the traditional weave. Phuonge Doan, an experienced tailor and a designer is one among the few who started the Mawongpa group, which give young Bhutanese tailoring and designing course in western and traditional outfits. The outfits are sold priced between Nu. 1,000 and Nu. 22,000. "There is a huge scope for Bhutanese textiles, be it in the western designs or traditional," says Phuonge Doan.

By Kinga Dema, KUENSEL, Bhutan's National Newspaper 2007
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