Vanishing traditional weaving revived in Tibet

Tsethang serge, considered the finest of all Tibetan traditional fabrics, has reemerged decades after disappearing from the market.

Traditionally reserved for lords and high-ranking monks, Tsethang serge has been a symbol of status in Tibet since the 1300s. But the craft of weaving the fabric became obsolete in the 1970s and for decades only existed in memory.

Until 2007, when Pasang, a Tibetan living where the cloth originated in Tsethang, Nedong County, was talking with one of the town's elders while teaching a traditional painting class.

"He told how much he wished the Tsethang serge could be preserved," Pasang recalls.

Shortly after, Pasang became obsessed with the traditional craft, spending two years searching for weavers capable of creating the special cashmere fabric.

Most weavers were dead. The few survivors had not weaved for more than 20 years. Pasang managed to put together five weavers in their 80s, who gathered to rebuild the tools and retrace the 18 procedures of the complex weaving with their memory.

The fabric was invented in the 1350s at the Tsethang Temple, when monks modified the weaving techniques of the more common traditional Tibet Pulu fabrics. It is much thinner, finer and smoother, but the weaving is extremely complex and time-consuming.

It takes 40 days to weave the fabric for one outfit, Pasang said. The fabric uses the best wool from the back and neck of Tibetan sheep or goat. Fine weaving plus quality raw material makes the fabric tender, smooth, durable and static free, he added.

When he spent all his savings in building a workshop for weaving the Tsethang serge, his sole goal was to preserve the tradition. But the fabric turned out to be as marvelous as the elders remembered. Its fame soon spread by word of mouth.

More and more Tibetans have began travelling from Lhasa for tailored traditional clothing made from Tsethang serge. Orders are also coming from other parts of China as tourists talk of a kind of Tibetan fabric that is "cool in summer, warm in winter".

A traditional Tibetan outfit made of Tsethang serge now fetches 13,000 yuan (about 2,033 U.S. dollars). A Tsethang serge scarf costs about 1,300 yuan.

Tsethang serge is bringing much-needed income to the remote area.

"I can earn 3,500 yuan a month. It's a very handsome pay for me," says weaver Dawa Tashi, whose legs are paralyzed, but has the delicate touch to create the valuable fabric. Many of the weavers are from low-income families.

Pasang's workshop is expected to earn 2.1 million yuan in sales and 420,000 yuan in profit. It employs 72 weavers. Another 60 weavers are working at home in three counties. Pasang wants to expand, not by buying machines but by training more people on the art of Tsethang serge.

Tsethang serge's value lies in tradition and craftsmanship. "More importantly, it proves anyone with a skill can make a decent living," he said.