Bhutan is well known for its tradition of the thirteen arts and crafts known collectively as zorig chusum (བཟོ་རིག་བཅུ་གསུམ་). The thirteen arts and crafts include (1) calligraphy or yigzo (ཡིག་བཟོ་), (2) painting or lhazo (ལྷ་བཟོ་), (3) carving or parzo (སྤར་བཟོ་), (4) clay sculpture or jinzo (འཇིམ་བཟོ་), (5) metal casting or lugzo (བླུག་བཟོ་), (6) silver- and goldsmithery or trözo (སྤྲོས་བཟོ་), (7) needlework or tsemzo (ཚེམ་བཟོ་), (8) carpentry or shingzo (ཤིང་བཟོ་), (9) textile production or takzo (ཐགས་བཟོ་), (10) paper making or delzo (འདལ་བཟོ་), (11) bamboo craft or tsharzo (ཚར་བཟོ་), (12) blacksmithery or garzo (མགར་བཟོ་), and (13) masonry or dozo (རྡོ་བཟོ་). Some of the high arts such as calligraphy, painting, embroidery, and silver- and goldsmithery have been actively promoted by the state since the 17th century while others such as masonry, carpentry, and bamboo worked thrived primarily among lay people as folk crafts.
Textile production and weaving are among the richest and most advanced folk crafts in Bhutan, practised almost entirely by women. The quality and richness of Bhutanese textile culture, including yarn production, dyeing, and textile patterns—not to mention the beliefs associated with textile production—suggest evolution and refinement over a long history. Bhutan also has a very diverse culture of textile production. People in the highlands traditionally used yak hair and sheep wool as the main raw material for textiles while those living in the south and east cultivated cotton to produce yarn. Some in eastern Bhutan, raised silkworms to produce raw silk. Some north-eastern parts of Bhutan used nettles and other fibres to make clothes.
Once the yarn is spun, it is dyed using colours derived from plants such as madder for red, indigo for blue and green, buckwheat for green, etc. The yarn production and dyeing both involve very sophisticated and nuanced processes that expert weavers have fully mastered. Next, the yarn is woven using one of the three types of looms found in Bhutan. The traditional backstrap loom or pangtak (པང་ཐགས་) is generally used for broad clothes and clothes with intricate designs and patterns. The treadle loom or tritak (ཁྲི་ཐགས་), which reached Bhutan in the 20th century, is used for smaller pieces often with chequered designs. The card loom, using cards with four holes, is used for smaller, more narrow items such as belts.
In eastern Bhutan, most young women learn how to weave, as it has long been considered an important skill. Women wove clothes for their family and also for sale. Textiles were produced as offerings to religious figures, as well as to fulfil a textile tax that the government imposed on the people. Some women have also worked as professional weavers, especially in aristocratic establishments. Traditional women wove two types of textiles: one for their own use and the other for sale. Cloth was also used a major commodity in the barter trade.
Bhutanese textile traditions encompass a wide range of patterns and designs. The yathra pattern is common to the woollen textiles of Bumthang. The plain black, the blue, and red box patterns and the yellow serthra and mathra are also commonly found in central Bhutan, while the red- and yellow-striped adamathra pattern and multi-coloured uethama patterns are associated with western Bhutan. Similarly, thara and montha patterns are common in the cotton growing areas of south-central Bhutan while plain white textiles are frequently found in southwestern areas. Eastern Bhutan has a very rich variety of textile patterns ranging from simple plain cotton and silk clothes to the most intricate kushuthara, which is packed with intricate embroidery-like fine silk designs. Common designs include animal and plant motifs and cultural symbols.
These diverse textiles are used to make a wide range of traditional clothes including the gho robe for men, kira wrap for women, scarves for men and women known respectively as kabné and rachu, denkheb bedcovers, bundi bedding, tego jackets, and other clothes. As Bhutan’s rich and refined textile culture has attracted a great deal of admiration at home and abroad, local textile traditions continue to thrive in spite of the competition posed by cheap machine-made clothes from India that bear facsimilies of traditional Bhutanese patterns and designs.