One good thing about Bhutan’s rich textile heritage is it is always evolving. Even better, it keeps coming back into fashion.
The honglo and the tari kiras, which once only the elderly wore to beat the cold is back in fashion. They will stay. So will the bumtha mathra and the sethras and tsangthras.
Our textile is our tradition. In fact, it is one tradition that has survived the forces of change. Today, we also see mathra skirts and sethra shirts. It is identified with Bhutan and stands out even if it is worn in a crowded New York street. That is how rich and distinct our textile heritage is.
It will keep evolving, but it will also survive given the lucrative economic environment. Materials used to weave our textiles may change with the availability of cheaper yarns. The patterns and designs are unique to Bhutan and are always in fashion. We have been wearing mathra ghos and kiras for decades.
With improved purchasing power, there is demand for local weaves. This in turn is encouraging more and more Bhutanese women to weave. The Royal Textile Academy is taking it further by training students in traditional weaving.
The National Design and Art competition is encouraging weavers to be innovative and participation is on the rise every year. The recent incident about recognizing the wrong weaver is a small dent on a good initiative to encourage artists.
The incident also highlights a problem that has been the cause of pain for designers in the small local textile industry. A designer may take pains and a great deal of time to develop a new pattern only to see it replicated by other wavers before eventually reaching the cloth mills in India.
Some designers who employ dozens of women to weave cannot be recognised because international law does not allow us to patent our designs. By law, a product needs an owner to be patented, but our intricate designs like the Kushu Thara or Aie kapur are in the public domain. Their origins are not unknown.
With demand from consumers for new designs, colours, styles our weavers are forced to be innovative. That’s why we see new designs every now and then. Some of the best Bhutanese weave or designs come from weavers and not design college graduates. Unfortunately, there is no way we can reward the innovative designers.
Their effort or idea cannot be protected. All it takes is a click from a mobile phone to be uploaded online and shared with other weavers or employers of women weavers.
The last award recognised both weavers and designers with a major chunk of the prize awarded to the weaver. It is safe to surmise, from what designers say, that a lot of original ideas were lost.
Some homemade rules to protect innovative designs, even if it is not recognised internationally, could encourage our women. Except for the tourists, most of the local weaves find their market within the country.