About Hand-Stitched Tibetan Applique

Known in Tibetan as göchen thangka (precious-cloth scroll images) or göku (cloth images), these pictures are a patchwork of fine silk satins and brocades. It is customary in Buddhist practice to make valuable offerings to enlightened beings in order to increase one’s merit or positive potential and to further one’s progress along the spiritual path toward enlightenment–as well as to enjoy good fortune along the way. Offerings of gold, silver, butter (a symbol of everything good to Tibetans), food, precious and semi-precious stones are common. Among the materials long valued by Tibetan Buddhists and Himalayan peoples is silk cloth, so naturally this became an appropriate offering material and was used to create religious images of great value, both materially and spiritually.

Far more commonly, thangkas (religious scroll pictures) were, and still are, painted with mineral colors and gold on a cotton canvas and then framed in silk brocade. The earliest known use of stitchery to create thangkas dates from the thirteenth century when images were woven and embroidered in China and given as gifts to Tibetan rulers or commissioned by them. These pieces combined Tibetan artistic style with Chinese textile techniques. Because of their precious materials and the long, painstaking efforts required to produce them, these images of enlightenment were the most precious and prestigious in ancient monastic and royal collections. In the fifteenth century, the first fabric thangkas were made in Tibet itself. Utilizing indigenous appliqué techniques long employed in the making of nomad and festival tents, ritual dance costumes, and altar decorations, Tibetan artists created a new form of thangka.

The popularity of these new pieced and embroidered thangkas increased through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and spread throughout the entire Tibetan Buddhist region, with examples being made in Mongolia, Bhutan, and Ladakh, as well as in Tibet itself. Most monasteries had their own sewing workshops and a few special pieced thangkas which they displayed at particular festivals. The pieced silk form was especially suited to very large pieces, some several stories high, which were rolled out on hillsides or down the sides of palace and monastery buildings for special holidays or ceremonies. Such huge images were made by groups of stitchers under the direction of a master tailor and/or a master thangka painter. In Mongolia the stitching work was largely performed by women, whereas in Bhutan and Tibet, it was done almost exclusively by men. Smaller images were also made for use in temples or on a practitioner’s own personal altar.

Pieced silk thangkas are especially durable and supple. There is no brittle paint to crack when the thangka is rolled and carried. There are no glues to come unstuck. Another applique thangka tradition exists in Amdo (northeastern Tibet) in which pieces are glued rather than sewn together and details are painted on the silk. Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo, however, follows the central Tibetan tradition in which all pieces are hand-stitched together, horsetail cords define contours, and details are embroidered. This technique renders a highly textured effect.

How Silk Thangkas Are Made

Though often referred to in museum catalogs as “appliqué” thangkas, the term inaccurately describes this unique craft because there is no single background cloth onto which pieces are applied. More accurately, it is a mosaic or patchwork of silk pieces outlined, cut, and arranged like a jigsaw puzzle to form a precise and intricate image.

To begin the process, Leslie creates a line drawing. Drawings of sacred figures like Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are made according to strict proportions passed down for centuries and believed to be important for the spiritual value and efficacy of the image. The proportions are a context in which to create an original drawing of the figure. They function as guides to the anatomy of sacred beings, allowing an artist to create his or her own vision of the Buddha while maintaining integrity with textual descriptions. The cloth or paper on which this drawing is made will not become part of the finished piece. Rather, it is used as a template or map to create a picture out of silk.

Each distinctly colored area is formed by a separate piece of colored silk. Silks are handloomed and dyed in Varanasi, India by family businesses which have been trading with the Tibetans for generations.

Individual portions of the drawing are transferred to the appropriate cloth with the help of tracing papers.

Contours are defined by cords of horsetail hair hand-wrapped with silk thread and couched to the silk cloth along precisely drawn lines. Because the thread wound around the horsetail and the thread used to stitch it to the cloth are the same, the stitches (if well executed) are not visible to the viewer.

When pieces are cut out and the edges turned under, a horsetail cord rests at the edge of each piece forming a raised outline.
Garuda in progress Pieces are then properly placed like a jigsaw puzzle using the line drawing as a guide, and first glued then carefully hand-stitched together.

Certain small features such as eyes and mouths are embroidered. The eyes–considered to be the most difficult aspect of the work and traditionally the last skill taught to students after years of apprenticeship–are embroidered in a distinct spiral pattern, creating a realistic effect.

Finally the completed picture is framed in a silk brocade border or stretched on a frame.

Because all work is done by hand to precise standards, each thangka requires several months to complete. The layering and resulting texture of the finished work make viewers want to reach out and touch it, to get closer to it. The sacred figures seem to come to life.

About the Spiritual Tradition

This art form is part of the rich tradition of Vajrayana Buddhist art. Images of Vajrayana Buddhism depicted on thangkas are intended for meditation by those who have received initiation and instruction from qualified masters. Such masters have themselves received the transmission of instruction and insight through an unbroken lineage of accomplished masters originating with the Buddha Shakyamuni. The images depicted represent positive and beneficial states of consciousness such as compassion and wisdom and, when visualized, function to evoke these states at a subtle level of the practitioner’s being, thereby facilitating inner transformation.

Until recently, these images and the spiritual tradition of which they are an integral part were securely cloistered in the remote and inaccessible reaches of the Tibetan plateau, protected by the virtually impenetrable walls of the Himalaya. But the forceful occupation of Tibet by the Chinese and the ensuing diaspora of Tibetan refugees, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama and many great masters, have brought the richness of Tibetan art and spirituality before the eyes of the world. Padmasambhava, the great Indian yogi who brought Buddhism to Tibet in the eight century, prophesied the spread of Buddhism to the Americas when he said:

When the iron bird flies and the horse runs on wheels, the Tibetans will be scattered like ants across the face of the earth, and the Buddhadharma will come to the land of the Red Man.

This is the silver lining in the dark cloud of the occupation of Tibetan land and the continuing destruction of the rich resources of Tibetan culture.

Leslie comments, “I hope my work can be a contribution to the preservation and appreciation of that culture. My art comes out of and is integrally connected with a profound spiritual tradition. Each piece should function to bless and inspire those who commission it as well as all those who see it. The form itself is imbued with spirit and I try to work in such a way as to enhance that essence throughout my process and in each completed piece.”