Tablet weaving in Bhutan

Published in the Journal for Spinners, Weavers and Dyers.   September 1993. Written in memory of Margaret Seagroatt

Claire Thomas came to textiles about fifteen years ago from molecular biology. Tablet weaving reminded her of the double helix of the DNA molecule; DNA has only 2 strands, with mainly S turns, and some Z. When travelling, textiles grew in interest through meeting local weavers, and have now become the main reason for travel, and even learning languages (Gaedhlig, Dzongkha and Turk­ish). She will gladly show and discuss these tablet bands and textiles from Bhutan with anyone who is interested.

Hidden away in the Himalayas, just east of Mount Everest, lies the tiny kingdom of Bhutan, the Land of the Thunder Dragon.

Map of Asia: Bhutan is between India and China, north of Bangladesh, east of Nepal. Protected by the steep­ness of the mountain slopes, Bhutan is one of the few countries which has never been colonised. Until re­cently, travel from one valley to the next was laboriously slow, and new ideas spread even slower, preserving ancient traditions. The first hundred miles of road were built in 1961; a bus service now links the capital, Thimphu, and Tashigang in the east, on a 3-day journey, 340 miles by road or 120 miles as the crow flies. Modern develop­ments are beginning only now, under the control of a government aware of the consequences of Nepal’s unre­stricted and irreversible opening to the rest of the world.

The people of Bhutan have had to be totally self-sufficient until recently, and in many remote parts virtu­ally still are; when the nearest road is four days’ walk away, any exchange of goods is hard-earned, and only done when essential. People still maintain skills for producing their own tools for agriculture and techniques for house building, as well as weaving cloth and making clothes. These skills are general knowledge, not restricted to ex­perts. Applications are often quite pragmatic. For in­stance, the vertical supports for the backstrap loom are often built into the timber structure of the houses. In Bhutanese society, men and women usually have equal status, whether working in the fields or minding young children. But in crafts, women are the textile experts, and leave carpentry to men.

Fabric is traditionally woven on two main types of loom: a four-shaft floor loom, similar to that used in Nepal (see Susie Dunsmore’s article in The journal Vols 145 and 146), and a backstrap loom. Both weave cloth approximately 50cm wide. Woollen fabrics are made in the higher altitudes of central Bhutan, with natural dyes and warp-and weft-stripes; visitors often comment on their ‘tartan’ appearance. As with Scottish clans, each locality has its particular designs. In the warmer climates at relatively lower altitudes of 2500m (8000ft), the cotton-based fab­rics are usually embellished with metog (this word means both ‘flower’ and ‘weaving-design’). In a different weave, contrasting supernumerary warps give regular-patterned broad stripes, often red or green on a yellow background. In others, like Kishutara and Onsham, weavers brocade intricate and colourful designs, in brightly coloured silk.

The traditional Bhutanese dress, for both men and women, Bhutanese clothes for men and women, with detail showing how the belt is sewn from 3 strips of cloth approxi­mately 250cm by 50cm. The women’s kira is a ‘shoulder to ankle’ long rectangle wrapped around the body and clasped at the shoulders. The men’s gho is tailored and resembles a wide kimono, hitched up to knee length. Neither costume uses buttons; both are secured firmly around the waist by a tablet-woven belt, or kera, thus creating pouches where the fabric crosses over the chest. The men’s is ample enough to contain the bamboo lunch basket, or books, or a 12 in blade knife. Women have two tighter pouches, much closer to their chest, used for money when trading on the market, and essential for drop-spindle spinning. ‘How can you possibly learn when wearing jeans?’ asked my friend and teacher, Karma. The kera belt is designed to go about two and a half times around the waist. It is pulled tight as it is wrapped around. The first set of ends, twisted into long cords, are covered up as the belt is wrapped around the waist. When all the kera is wrapped, the last corded ends fasten the belt in place; they are split into two groups, one tucking over the top, the other underneath the belt. Women’s kera are usually around 2 m long. Men’s are longer, (I have one 2.9m long); children’s are between 1.2 and 1.4m long. Motifs are woven into the first and last 80cm (all measure­ments are approximate). The designs at both ends of a kera are different while the middle portion is relatively plain. When worn, most of the band is covered and only the final length shows; the wearer thus has a choice: “Shall I have the ordinary pattern today, or the fancy one?”

Tablet weaving requires very few implements. These are shown in  the diagram The two horizontal bamboo poles (top and bottom), fixed in the wall; the back strap and the front beam - in two partsand in the photo below. The square tablets have a hole near each corner. A coarse child’s kera may need only 30 tablets, but for a fine adult’s kera a weaver may turn a pack of 100 tablets. In size, they may range from 4-6cm per side of a tablet; tablets in one pack are all roughly the same size. Traditionally they have been made of leather; such tablets are hard wearing, but are relatively thick and rough which makes it hard to turn the pack; they also rub the warp threads. Cardboard tablets are often thick, wear out fast but are easy to make; I was shown tablets several times made from squared-off playing cards, conveniently already in a pack. Occasionally, a weaver would show me a pack of ‘X-ray’ tablets; a prized posses­sion, these are not readily available, possibly indicating a dubious source of sheets of film from which the cards are cut. These tablets are strong, thin and smooth: the ideal tablet! They do not wear out fast, many can be held in a pack, and there is minimal friction when turning the pack. I have now made myself a pack from thick acetate film, as my local hospital recycles old X-rays for the silver.

The backstrap, of plaited bamboo or sometimes animal hide, is about 10cm wide and 40cm long. Each end is reinforced by a wooden hinge, through which a rope connects to the front beam. The frame for backstrap weaving consists of three beams – one front, and two back (top and bottom). Beams, like any poles and rods in Bhutan, are most suitably made of bamboo: strong, readily available in all sizes and up to great lengths, and free. The front beam is in two halves, which sandwich together along their length to act as a single circular section of bamboo (Fig.. Each end of each half has a deep notch (4-5cm). These form the tight gripping mechanism when the rope from the backstrap is tied on, and stop the weaving from slipping. The two back beams are secured in place, in the wooden structures of a building.The support for the two back beams is commonly built into the structure of the traditional Bhutanese houses. Two thick vertical timbers stand lm apart.  Between heights of 50cm and 150cm above the floor, at intervals of 20cm, are 4cm diameter holes, through which the beams loaded with the warp are slotted. This frame can also be used for the pangtag (two-shaft backstrap loom) on which widths of up to 60cm can be woven.

An apprentice weaver, Tsewang, at her loom, three months into her training Tsewang weaving a kera belt, outside her house on the main street of Thimphu.

The weaver also needs a beater, and a small pointed pick for detailed lifting of selected warps when brocading designs.

Shuttles for weft yarn are traditionally wound around sticks, twisting the stick while winding on, with a couple of closer turns near the ends. The shuttle is simple: a long thin cylinder, slightly thinner at the ends. To set up the loom, the pack of tablets are tied together, then the warp is transferred to the three beams; the back beams slide through the vertical supports so that the warp remains as a false circle, secured by the rod. Tension is set by the distance between the weaver and the back beams. At the Weaving Training Centre in Eastern Bhutan, a ratchet system allows different weavers to vary the dis­tance according to the weaver’s height and the length of the warp (Fig. 6). At home, a weaver would not usually need to vary this distance. The fine adjustment of tension is made when connecting the backstrap (Fig. 5). The rod – indicative of the false-continuous warp – is left in place until the end of the weaving.

When weaving, some weavers use two weft threads, in opposite directions to make a much stronger and more rigid band. When all the four threads in each tablet are of one colour, the tablets are alternately aligned in S then Z orientation (Collingwood, p69). The whole pack of tablets is then turned constantly forward until too many twists accumulate on the unwoven warp; one band shows 425 turns without reversal, over a 50cm stretch (Collingwood, pi 07). The full length of prepared warp is woven; the reversal points become more frequent towards the end. Some prayer-book ties, warped as for double-faced (2 threads colour A, 2 colour B) though S/Z alternating tablet orientations, were woven with constant forward turning; this gives cross-wise stripes. When all four threads of each tablet are different, the pack of tablets are arranged one half S, and the other Z; with 10 turns forward then 10 turns back, a regular diamond motif is produced.

Double-faced weaves often start as plain single colour on each side, eg red on one side and blue on the other. The tablets, all warped with two red and two blue threads, are then all oriented in the same threading orientation: all S, or all Z. By aligning all the colours and turning the pack of tablets 2 forward/2 back, a plain weave is produced. To produce a design in the contrasting colour, selected tab­lets in effect move an extra 2 turns, to be out of phase with the pack (Collingwood p262-265). Watching a Bhutanese weaver manipulate the thick irregular leather tablets, nimbly working through the pack from left to right to switch particular tablets, I wondered how she was so confident about the pattern about to appear. She did not move ‘out of phase’ tablets a little way up the warp, as a visual reminder. A different type of double-faced weave is made when the tablets are oriented S/Z alternating, still weaving 2 turns forwards, 2 back.

Brocading is used for wider fabrics as well as tablet weaving. When introducing a new brocade colour, the weaver first inserts a background weft, then, picking up individual warp threads, she inserts the short length of brocade thread and pulls it until it is centred, so that both ends – above the weaving – are the same length. In subsequent sheds, both ends are worked equally until the end of the design; then the loose ends are pushed through to the wrong side where they remain. They are not trimmed, leaving this side looking unfinished and some-

The Bhutanese use a rich variety of techniques of tablet weaving, reflected in the range of weaves. Tablet weaving is essentially warp-faced. The designs are determined by the warping colour sequence and/or the sequence of weaving movements.

For warping up, two short thick bamboo posts, set vertically into planks, are wedged apart with strong bam­boo – half the warp length – slotted in between the posts (Fig. 8). The planks are then weighed down with large stones. All the tablets, together, are threaded onto the four warp threads – like beads before knitting. The weaver then winds the warp, dropping off one tablet per length and continuing until all the tablets are aligned. To prepare the false continuous warp (Fig.8), a rod is used for reversing the warping direction after each length: one clockwise, one anticlockwise; unlike a continuously warped band, the ends of this band will separate easily when the weaving is finished and the rod slipped out. The warping up will vary for different weaves. The simplest is the plain warp, when all tablets have identical coloured threads. For long plain stripes, the four threads in a tablet are all the same colour; the weaver will warp the planned number of warp lengths in one colour, then cut all threads to change to the next colour. The most versatile warping pattern is when each tablet has two threads of two contrasting colours; this is as fast to prepare as the plain warp, and is the basis for the double-faced weave. Tablets can also be warped up with four different coloured threads; usually all the tablets are threaded the same, the pattern woven depending on the relative position of tablets in the pack, to produce dia­monds, etc. times rather shaggy, but it does mean it is possible to tell which way a cloth was woven, as the tails always hang furthest from the beginning of the weaving. A good weaver may brocade so extensively that the warp colour is only visible on the wrong side.

Sometimes a weaver will combine two methods, with both warped and woven control of the pattern. For in­stance a background of solid stripes decorated with bro­cade, or several bands of differently coloured double-faced weaving (some tablets with two contrasting colours then some tablets with two other colours), eg red and green, then blue and white.

Finishing off sometimes includes two rows of weft twining, sometimes in two colours, ending as a cord, a few sheds after the beginning and before the end (Collingwood, plOl). On a finished band, false continuous warping is indi­cated by one set of ends left as loops when the warping rod is removed, while the other ends, where colours were joined, are trimmed. The ends are corded, by a rapid rolling action between the palms of the hands. One thread is overtwisted and allowed to twist back on itself; then the second thread is overtwisted. The two are stretched out together and re­leased as a cord.

There are a great many designs, with many local varia­tions. These have been well documented by David Baker, whose book is now used by Bhutanese weavers as the reference source. Some, such as the peap, and the yuntng, occur so commonly that they were easy to recognise. Others were less easy; I would make drawings of many metog in my notebook and ask for the name. Different people gave different answers. It may have been in two different languages; or perhaps I had drawn a slight variant. In my quest, it would have been best for me to spend much more time, to witness the processes from start to finish, and preferably be initiated to them myself. But a guest visa to Bhutan, though allowing more time and far greater freedom than a tourist visa, was too short. I had to glean as much as I could within the five weeks. Using a translator was not always an answer; I never found any­one who knew (to any depth) both English and weaving. These seemed to be contradictory interests: ‘progressive’ versus traditional. I had learnt some Dzongkha, but not sufficient for detailed communication. It was also com­monly used only in the western part of the country. In my travels to the East, it would have been useful to know at least two other languages.

Though I could observe things, the tricky element was enquiring to confirm my interpretation. Was I asking the right question? Was it a matter of X cm long, or had experience determined the warp length some other way? How many warp ends to the inch, or in total, when making a bag? ‘How many times do you go round?’ I once asked a weaver while she was warping up (I didn’t try asking ‘How many ends to an inch’!). She could speak a little English. ‘Enough!’ was her answer. I have pondered on the implications of this answer. Was it purely a matter of language? Was her English insufficient to give a fuller answer? Was it a translation of the Dzongkha, which made perfect sense in that language and context? Was she wondering why I was asking such a silly basic question, not realising how much of her experience and skill she was thus taking for granted? Was the notion of number different? When I asked if she counted, she said no; but she did know if she had the wrong number.

Population estimates vary, but a conservative figure of 700,000 people, and growing fast, suggests a significant amount of tablet weaving, especially considering many will have more than one kera. I also found tablet weaving used for bag straps, ties for prayer ‘books’ (collection of loose sheets, wrapped in cloth, which must be tied up), and thin band used as laces for knee-length yak boots. I have only found a single brief mention of Bhutanese tablet weaving, in a travel guide (Pommaret); this is unlikely to come to the attention of anyone interested in textiles. While in other countries these skills are rapidly being forgotten, in Bhutan they are very much in use and recognised. In Turkey, I have had mixed responses to enquiries about tablet weaving, ranging from blank looks, to vague memories of ‘Granny did it in the village, because she was a peasant’. Meanwhile museums and tourist shops have picked up on the foreign interest in some crafts such as kttim and kali carpets; but the museum curator lost interest when she found I only wanted to know about ‘those bands’.

It would be easy to write about the striking differences and make out that the people of Bhutan are strange and unusual, worthy tourist attractions for the entertainment of wealthy westerners. Our lifestyles are very different; if we are able to, we may have as much to learn from them as them from us, if we hurry. The Bhutanese culture, shielded from outside influences for so long, is vulnerable. Even the presence of well-intentioned foreigners affects how the people see themselves, challenging old values and causing change… without understanding? But this is another question.

Four traditional designs used in Bhutanese weaving Designs, in order: Dor/i, Peap, Yurtmg, Kit.


David Baker (1985) Designs of Bhutan, Bangkok, White Lotus Co

Peter Collingwood (1982) Tablet Weaving, Faber and Faber

Francoise Pommaret(1991) Introduction to Bhutan, Odyssey