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Bhutanese textiles and their symbolic expression

The Bhutanese art of weaving

The patterns on Bhutanese textiles look like embroidery, but these are made on portable traditional backstrap looms (called 'Pang Tha') by weavers that use a pick-up technique to create bespoke patterns. Additional motifs and patterns are added to the design using warp threads. These complicated techniques have been developed and practiced widely for centuries by Bhutanese women. Interestingly, there aren’t any written documents for these patterns and motifs; rather the patterns and techniques have been traditionally passed down from one generation to another, from mother to daughter.

Bhutanese textile colours and patterns

Bhutanese textiles are an integral part of the Bhutanese culture and reflects the country’s distinctive identity. The textiles are rich, colourful and consists of sophisticated and complex patterns. Every textile product has its own distinctive combination of colours, motifs and fibre (e.g. cotton, silk or wool) and gets its inspiration from Himalayan Buddhist art. The vivid colours of the yarns are made from sustainable natural, vegetable and herbal dyes. Though, more recently, some components, like fruit dye, are being abandoned or combined with modern processed raw materials like synthetic dye, which helps offset unavailability issues during off-season. The art of dyeing is usually a family secret and carried out behind closed doors.

The colour selection and the complex geometric symbols on these sustainably-made Bhutanese textiles are a spiritual expression of its people’s religious belief and have deep religious symbolic meanings that come from Buddhism:

• the dorje/vajra or diamond sceptre - a Sanskrit word that is usually defined as "diamond" or "thunderbolt" signifies the lighting-bolt power of enlightenment and absolute, indestructible stability;

• The dorji jadram - the double thunderbolt represents the indestructible powers of Buddhism;

• the yurung or swastika is an auspicious Buddhist symbol representing continuity and eternity which invokes long life for the wearer;

• the dramey/peyab or the eternal knot, a classic Buddhist symbol, which represents one of the eight auspicious symbols, and the idea that one’s deeds are interlinked with the universe;

• the phenphenma – resemble the butterfly and the eight-pointed star;

• the phub/tenkheb or rainbow is a triangle pattern with successive rainbow colours and said to promote long life;

• The sorjephub pattern is created by incorporating the dorje symbol within the phub symbol;

• The therpochay (jana chagri) or the China Wall pattern is said to originate from the designs on Chinese brocade and is usually seen next to the phub design on women’s garments;

• the yudrung is the crossroad where the four directions meet, and it symbolises the balancing forces of the universe, when rotating. It is an ancient pattern and its epicentre is considered a spiritual place;

• the shinglo, the most difficult pattern to weave, represents the “tree of life” and is reserved for the royal family;

• the tshebum or vase of longevity, the torma or offering, ritual dough figures and the pema or lotus flower are some of the other symbols used on the textiles.

Regional diversity of textiles

East and central Bhutan have the reputation for the widest variety of textiles and patterns. The long-established regional diversity of materials used for Bhutanese textiles: cotton and nettles in Trongsa, sheep wool in Bumthang, and yak hair (and their underbelly wool) in the highlands of the country, silk and raw silk (bura) (often from India), remain popular materials in many districts. Such is the diversity of textiles that each of the country’s twenty districts can be associated with a unique pattern.

Weavers of Bhutanese textiles

Weaving is the main source of income for women in rural Bhutan. Women in eastern Bhutan are among the best weavers in Bhutan and highly skilled at weaving, and they are known to produce some of the best and highly prized textiles. Bhutanese men have been encouraged to take up weaving via a legend that textiles woven by a man have potent protective powers that safeguards the wearer, though this narrative has not been very successful and there are fewer men who take up weaving.

Support heritage art and skills

At Made In B we support artisans and endeavour to promote heritage skills and art forms that are in danger of dying through our unique products. Explore some of our sustainable textile products from Bhutan which include accessories such as scarves, bags, purses and pouches and table line. Every purchase will help keep alive the traditional art form and provide sustainable income to the artisans of Bhutan.

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