MAIN STORY:  Nestled in the mountains of Khoma village in Kurtoe, Lhuentse, a young boy learnt the intricacies and the indigenous tradition of weaving and processing organic dyes. The myriad colours of threads that went into weaving a kushuthara excited and stirred his soul.

That was four decades ago. Today, Zhila, 60, is one of the finest weavers in the country whose works are admired by many. His delicate long fingers stands as a proof of this ageless craft.

Zhila recalled the days when all the villagers would come together to work on a piece of cloth, which started from collecting the different types of organic dyes, processing the dyes to colouring the yarns and weaving it. The process was strenuous and took a long time.

Family members would have to travel to Tibet, just north of Singye Dzong to collect yarns. The journey took about a week. They would then dye them organic way.

Various types of organic dyes used to be collected from rhododendron flowers (etho metho), dried madder (tshoe sangma), dried indigo (yang shaba), dried and soaked indigo (yang shaba) and dried walnut cover (tago khoptang) among others, Zhila said.


Yarn soaked in dried madder water (Photo: Bhutan Cultural Atlas)

“The colours (tshos) were applied to the yarns and were used to weave mathra and bura,” he said. “I remember how our hands used to crack because of the tiresome works that went into processing organic dyes.”

Organic dyeing process

Step 1
Get the water to boil and add shampoo into the boiling water. Let it simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.

Step 2
Add the yarn in the solution, bring it to boil and let it simmer for 30 minutes. Take the yarn out of the solution. Leave it to cool, rinse with cold water and wring out the excess water.

Step 3
Get the water to boil in another pot. Add an organic dye such as dry asiatic leaves into the boiling water. Simmer for 30 to 45 minutes.

Step 4
Add the yarn in the prepared solution. Bring the solution to boil and simmer for 30 minutes.

Step 5
Take the yarn out of the solution. Leave it to cool. Rinse with cold water. Hang it to dry.

Step 6
Pour fresh water in the pot. Add the dye, bring to the boil and simmer for few minutes. Once the colour is extracted from the dye, strain out the dye with a strainer.

Step 7
Put the yarn in the dye solution. Bring to boil and simmer for few minutes until the yarn gets dyed completely.

Step 8
Take the dyed yarn out of the dye. Leave to cool and then rinse with cold water. Hang it to dry.

Rarely did people experiment with different flowers, leaves and barks to draw dye.

“Now we can create so many colours mixing one dye with the other. It’s like we are mixing the colours on a paint,” he said. “Even the raw materials are plenty today.”

Although there is no record available, dyeing was practiced for a long time. Later, synthetic dyes became commercially available in the country, which was bought from India.

“Just a few locals still prefer organic dyes. Synthetic dyes are not only cheap but also easy to use,” Zhila said.


Today, Zhila is once again pulled back to his roots with the SAARC Business Association of Home based workers’s (SABAH Bhutan) initiative to revive organic dyeing culture. Along with Zhila, there are more than 170 women trained in different steps in organic dyeing process.

A member, who is also leading the training on organic dyeing process, is Sangay Lham, 50, from Mongar. Sangay Lham had been weaving her entire life but she never had the chance to experiment with organic dyeing process.

Sangay Lham accompanies Zhila and other group members on excursions around Phajoding and beyond to collect organic dyes such as rhododendron flowers (etho metho), dried apple and peach leaves, dried asiatic sweet leaves (zim), dried teak leaves (teak shing dahma), lac (jatsho) and gulmohar flower (sershing metho), among others. The group has produced a lot of products, which attracts foreigner and tourists who are interested in organically dyed products.

Head of the capacity building and management development unit with SABAH, Sonam Choden, said Bhutan is perhaps the only place where people still weave and use organic dyes.

“With modernization, culture and lifestyle have been influenced tremendously which affected the culture of weaving and use of organic dyes,” Sonam Choden said. “Easy access to synthetic dyes has made weaving from organic dyes uneconomical and dyeing practices in villages have changed since then”.

Therefore, through the organization’s initiative and with people like Zhila, a pioneer in organic dyeing process, training is being held to revive the dyeing culture of weaving with organic dyes.


Through the organic dyeing process, a high diversity of rich and complex organic dyes can be obtained, Sonam Choden said. “Different dyes go well together to produce unique colours.”

Textiles woven from organic dyes, different modern products such cushion covers, tablemats and table runners are made to attract customers, she added. “However, there are still a few limitations when it comes to organic dyeing process. We have to produce in large quantities and it takes time. Organic dyeing is also costly compared to synthetic dyes. Organic dyeing process requires firewood.”

Despite such limitations, women from Gelephu are excited to learn organic dyeing techniques and processes. Some of the members are going to Phuentsholing to get the required yarns so that they can dye them organically.

A housewife from Changjiji, Pema, said she also uses organic dyes from onion covers and different flowers. She attended a training conducted by Agency for Promotion of Indigenous Craft earlier this year.

“I was surprised to see so many different colours from organic dyes,” Pema said.

Today, Pema tries to use organic dyes on the kiras and gho she weaves. “I hope many will realize the benefits of using organic dyes and encourage other weavers as well.”

By Thinley Zangmo 


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