Known in Tibetan as gochen thangka (precious-cloth scroll images) or göku (cloth images), 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.
Thangkas (religious scroll pictures) were, and still are, painted with mineral colors and gold on a cotton canvas and then framed in silk fabric 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 fabric thangka is 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 fabric . Rinchen, however, follows the central Tibetan tradition in which all pieces are hand-stitched together, horsetail cords define contours, and details are embroidered. The technique renders a highly textured effect.