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  • Shila Desai

Bhutanese baby yak wool weaving

As soft as a baby yak's neck

On our recent Bhutan tour, I was struck by the softness of wool scarves. The wool comes from the underside of a baby yak's neck. One touch of these scarves and I was smitten.

I wanted to see the process in action, so I took a (long!) drive to the beautiful Bumthang Valley on endless tracks that pass for roads at dizzying altitudes.

Traditionally, weaving is women's work in Bhutan (unlike in India where weavers are men). It wasn’t so long ago that every woman learned how to weave, usually by watching the other women in her household. Some still do, beginning to learn their craft when they are as young as seven. In this way, techniques, designs, and materials for dying and weaving have been passed down from one generation to the next. Today, most women and some men continue to learn from their family members, but now there are also schools and workshops that teach the ancient ways as well as inspire creativity. With increasing demand from tourists, women now take on commercial work in order to supplement incomes.

In the heart of Bhutan, the mountainous terrain - and more importantly - the deep valleys ensured various ethnic tribes to remain isolated from each other until modern times. Consequently, their textiles reflect the weavers’ environments. As climates vary, so does the cloth. Silk and cotton clothing is favoured in the warm, dry eastern half while heavy wool fabric is worn in central Bhutan, particularly in the Bumthang Valley.

In the Valley, looms are ensconced at the ground level under stilts that raise the dwelling from possible flooding. Here, the weaver escapes her chores for a few hours in the loom's meditative click and clack.

I stayed in this Valley for a few days. Each dawn, brooding mists lifted to reveal farms dotted with temples, pagodas, and grazing yak. Come spring, weavers gather a precious quantity of wool fibre as yaks begin to moult in preparation for warmer weather. Carded, spun, and woven, this wool turns into fine, soft, and lightweight fabric. No itch, no clamminess. Just the right degree of warmth from under a baby yak's neck.

Baby yak wool is similar to cashmere and the oft-misnamed pashmina. All originate from the underside of goats', sheep or yak fleece. Typically, the palate is warm neutrals with contemporary motifs that appeal to the urbane traveller.

At my recent textile sale, I laid out two scarves I had purchased in order to gauge demand for a possible shipment that would showcase the weavers' work and help supplement their income. The scarves enjoyed runaway success. We are making a limited quantity of these handloom/handwoven beauties for purchase. Please contact us for information.

P.S. Never too early to shop for Christmas!

Join us in Bhutan in 2019

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