Recently I was invited to give a presentation as part of a panel discussion hosted by Weave a Real Peace.
To manage the time difference, I pre-recorded my segment:
For those who prefer to read my presentation, the text is below:
My name is Wendy Garrity from Textile Trails and I run an annual tour to Bhutan that brings together my passions for traditional textiles and empowering artisans in grassroots economies.
Bhutan is in Asia, a small country in the Himalaya between India and China and east of Nepal.
Textile Trails has transformed over the last 10 years and developed 4 arms:
- Documenting traditional textiles
- A retail arm importing fair trade textiles
- Teaching Bhutanese weaving
- and textile tours.
I began Textile Trails 10 years ago primarily to share my documentation of traditional textiles and techniques. I have always been fascinated with how traditional textiles are created, and whenever I travel I am drawn to the dyers & weavers & embroiderers.
I also love learning by doing things with my hands, so I’m always asking to be taught.
I’m a music teacher by profession. From 2010-2013 I took a career break from music education to pursue my interest in women’s empowerment, grassroots development, microfinance and traditional textiles. As well as travelling through Asia & South America, I spent time volunteering with Kala Raksha in India, Ock Pop Tok in Laos, and I taught English in a tiny school in Nepal. I spent a couple of weeks in Bangladesh with the Grameen Bank to learn about their work in microfinance and social business, and I spent a year in Bhutan teaching music. All of these experiences expanded my understanding in so many ways, and continue to inform my approach at Textile Trails.
My career break also gave me plenty of opportunities to continue learning about & documenting traditional textile techniques. The highlight of these was learning to weave the Bhutanese brocade known as kushutara. I spent 8 months weaving before & after school during the year I taught music in Bhutan.
Before I went to Bhutan, I hadn’t been able to find details of how kushutara is woven, either in books or online. So once I’d learned the basics, I wanted to document & share what I’d learned in case others were looking for the same details. Then I went on to document other Bhutanese techniques. So the Textile Trails website began mainly to record techniques, but I had too much fun & it grew from there!
The next part of Textile Trails I developed was the retail arm. When I first returned to Australia, I was hesitant to return to music teaching, so I launched a business importing fair trade handwovens from Laos, Cambodia & Peru, which I sold at local markets.
Next I added teaching Bhutanese weaving.I was approached by a woman in my city
who wanted me to teach her weaving group what I had learned in Bhutan. Having learned on a backstrap loom, it was quite a learning curve for me to adapt this to western looms,
but I enjoy problem solving AND I love teaching, and I have now visited the US & Canada 3 times for teaching tours and recently produced a series of free instructional videos on the basics of kushutara.
All of this fed into Textile Trails’ tours. While I was living in Bhutan, I dreamed of being able to bring others to meet my Bhutanese weaver friends and to experience the culture and incredible textile traditions of Bhutan.
Textiles are absolutely integral to Bhutanese culture. Textiles were formerly used to pay taxes, are still given as gifts on significant occasions, used as a store of wealth & so on. The Bhutanese have unique and impressive weaving traditions. The pinnacle of their handwovens are the kushutara & aikapur, prized for their complex supplementary weft twining and warp patterning, and worn for tsechu (festivals) and other special occasions. Both aikapur and kushutara are intricate and time-consuming to weave, with a full kushutara kira taking around 9 months to create!
Here’s a few examples of kushutara, which is what I learned to weave when I lived in Bhutan, though I have never woven it on this scale! As you can see, there is great scope for variety of designs and creative expression.
For the remainder of this presentation, I’d like to outline some of the features of my tours.
Firstly: an emphasis on hands-on learning opportunities. I am a process-driven hands-on learner myself, and I find joy in facilitating these opportunities for others who seek them. So wherever possible, we get our hands on looms, into dye-pots, onto spindles.
I also understand the power of raising awareness of what goes into making these beautiful pieces, and as an educator it is natural for me to incorporate these activities and to see their wider effect. I have seen that people with with an awareness of these traditions and appreciation of the skills involved are more prepared to pay a fair price for them. I have also seen that when machine-made imitations undermine the local market, artisans often need to look for a wider market to sustain their traditional work economically and preserve their intangible heritage.
Connecting with artisans
On my tours, we connect directly with artisans as much as possible, often visiting them in their own homes to watch them work, and wherever possible we make our purchases directly from the maker. We do this on an individual basis rather than working with formal cooperatives. This is Norbu Lhaden, This is Phuntsho, Tshering, Bumpa. Here Karin & Thinley are discussing Thinley’s weaving.
My time selling fair-trade pieces in local markets taught me that in addition to valuing ethical production and connecting to a piece through understanding how it is made,
my customers were even more interested in who made the piece and the stories connected to it. So I create opportunities to establish a personal connection with the maker.
And of course, purchasing directly from the maker puts more funds directly into their hands. I find this particularly matters to me because I have seen how much of the tourist spend in Bhutan is funnelled through the tour companies and the booking systems, and I am conscious of trying to spread the tourist dollars more widely, and more directly into the grassroots communities when I can.
This is Jambay, a master-weaver who lives in the city, but who designs and commissions village weavers, keeping tourist funds flowing to many weaving families.This weaver was trying on some reading glasses that one of our tour group had brought as gifts. This is Chimi, a monk who can weave kushutara! Chimi became my friend when I stayed in his village for 5 daysto study kushutara. When he is not on a meditation retreat, he loves to host us.
We travel as a small group capped at 10 guests. I live in Australia but guests join my tours from across the globe.
We make a beeline for festivals for many reasons, but especially because, apart from being a great place to mix with the locals, this is when the Bhutanese put on their best ghos & kiras, and we can be close to all these gorgeous textiles! The effect is really quite stunning when the designs are moving around on bodies. The visual effect changes as the wearer moves toward us or away from us.
We usually try to attend at least one tsechu on the final day when the thondrol is displayed. This is a giant thangka that is appliqued and embroidered and hung on the side of a building.
Flexibility & serendipity
We are also quite opportunistic about visiting artisans where ever we find them. Unplanned interactions with locals are some of the highlights of our trip, so we try to leave plenty of time for them. Here we had stopped to view a nomad tent, and before we knew it, Kathy and this yak herder were spinning together.
We also take the opportunity to shop where the locals shop. Here we were buying backstraps for looms. Sometimes we picnic in the local style. We observe everyday local activities, gain insight into the lives of the people and immerse ourselves in the culture. These boys were closing the school gate as we were passing.
We also include a village stay, which allows us to slow down and immerse ourselves in whatever is happening in the village at the time. Whether that involves spending more time with the weavers, a bit of archery (which is the national sport), joining in the meal preparation, some impromptu spinning, or playing with the children. Here’s Pat bonding with a weaver. We always end up dancing together!
More hands-on learning!
One of the most unique features of these tours is that I offer to teach kushutara en route.
One guest said it is a little like a travelling workshop! Whenever we have some spare time & energy, we take out the looms I bring along& I offer instruction to anyone interested.
I can also weave aikapur. Here we were stuck waiting for the road to be cleared, so I demonstrated aikapur technique on the bus. We also have the opportunity to learn from local experts such as Rinzin & Leki, and I love that by the end of the tour, guests are identifying different weaves and have enough of an understanding of the techniques to confidently appraise the quality of the work.
Other arts & crafts
Although our main focus is on textiles, there are many other active art & craft traditions for us to learn about, and I enjoy finding out the particular interests of each member of our group and arranging activities to suit whenever possible.
Sights, landscape, culture
And of course its not only about textiles and crafts! Visiting Bhutan is often a once in a lifetime treat, so we also take in the major sights & soak up the culture & the landscape.
And every tour finishes with the opportunity to climb to Taktsang, the Tiger’s Nest monastery, which is the most sacred temple in Bhutan.
This brings me to the end of my presentation.
If anyone has any questions, I’d love to hear from you.
Not right now though, because it is 2am in Australia and I am sleeping,
but there are ways you can get in touch!
- Visit my website: textiletrails.com.au
- Follow me on Facebook: facebook.com/textiletrails
- Follow me on Instagram: instagram.com/textile_trails
- Follow my channel on Youtube: youtube.com/c/TextileTrails
- Sign up to my newsletter via Facebook or my website, or use this direct link: eepurl.com/c7cFDb
- and you can also find me on Ravelry: ravelry.com/groups/bhutanese-kushutara-weaving–more
If this kind of adventure sounds like your thing and you’d like to travel with me, you can sign up to be notified when I release the next tour. That signup form is on the Tours page of the Textile Trails website:
Thankyou very much for having me.