Bhutan: Weaving a Future

Apr 14, 2009
*Special to asia!

Nestled in the Himalayas, the Kingdom of Bhutan is one of the last unspoiled refuges of our time. It’s so beautiful, we are lulled into imagining it is God’s gift to tourists. The picturesque mountains and valleys are there to calm our senses; the ever-smiling people to populate our photographs.

As for awareness, it becomes a matter of educating buyers on the difference between eco-friendly natural dyes and synthetic dyes; and how a typical 1.8-metre shawl takes a weaver eight days, working 10 hours a day, to produce. When people look at the product and the price, they ought to know what has gone into it, and not just compare it with machine-made items of synthetic yarn.

The lack of product innovation is also an issue. “While the weavers produced excellent products, there wasn’t enough range,” said Kinzang. “Thus we have come out with lifestyle products,” such as purses.

These products normally require sewing, so “ideally there should be supporting infrastructure,” he added, referring to factories. “That would add value as well as generate employment for increasing numbers of young people without meaningful work.”

But this would involve some industrialisation, which may change the character of the weaving industry. For example, factories may demand a regular supply of fabrics that weavers must deliver on time. Currently, weaving is a seasonal activity, subject to the rhythm of farming.

“The villagers see weaving as just supplementary income,” Kinzang said.

Does that mean that more Bhutanese need to become full-time weavers? Does that mean the community needs to start working to deadlines?

The danger, as in so many development projects around the world, lies in how, when upgrading an indigenous, supplementary handicraft activity to commercial scale, the joy and cultural meaning of the craft may be threatened.

Such are the dialogues between tradition and development, not forgetting that somewhere in between a path must be found towards Gross National Happiness.


Related Story:

Cheat Sheet: Bhutan


alex au

Alex Au is a social and political commentator, gay activist and entrepreneur. He has his own website