Fine Weave

Features Issue 64 Jul, 2010
Text by Baishali Bomjan

When many Tibetans left their homeland and settled in Nepal, they started weaving traditional carpets within their settlements. From a small cottage industry, carpet weaving blossomed and became the second largest industry of Nepal.

Chozin was a little girl when her mother decided to leave their beloved homeland Tibet,and cross the high Himalayas with her, to take refuge in Nepal. With their country occupied by the Chinese and the Dalai Lama living in exile, hordes of Tibetans chose to flee, in the hope of finding a better life and freedom in neighboring India and Nepal. Given the hazardous nature of the journey across the mountains, the immigrants could bring only a few of their belongings with them, but they did bring their rich culture and heritage along. At the time, nobody could have guessed that out of the plight of these deeply religious people, a new industry would bloom in Nepal. “My mother had the skill to weave fine carpets. Not long after arriving in Nepal, we Tibetans began a cottage industry, weaving carpets in our little rooms where the entire family slept,”says Chozin. The Swiss geologist Toni Hagen who came to Nepal in the early ‘50s, was deeply concerned about the hardships of these Tibetans. With his initiative, the Swiss came to the aid of these industrious people. Soon carpet weaving factories were set up and their products were snatched up by well-meaning foreigners. A new industry was born and would become one of Nepal’s biggest foreign exchange earners, employing hundreds of thousands of Nepali workers.

There is a timeless beauty about the art of handmade Oriental rugs. Although carpets in general were primarily functional in nature, today they serve many a purpose- be it exquisite floorings, wall decorations, a status symbol, or a priceless collector’s item, no one can deny the fact that nowadays, carpets are an integral part of every home. This is true for Nepal too. But what many fail to notice is that some of the best value and world class oriental rugs are made this side of the world. Carpets made in Nepal today, are in a league of their own and make one of the biggest and most popular exports of the country.

With the resettlement of the Tibetans, by the mid 1960s many carpet factories had been set up in collaboration with British and German carpet companies.

Tribal past
Although agriculture and cattle tending was and still is the main source of income for Tibetans living in Tibet, nomads living in tents graze their sheep and yak herds on the slopes of the Himalayas from where the famous Tibetan wool for manufacturing carpets comes from. The wool is strong, glossy and supple and by tradition, Tibetans have traded their products with the neighboring countries where their respective carpet industries were on solid ground. But when did the Tibetans start to knot carpets? Different scholars give varying opinions and unfortunately there are very few authentic and antique Tibetan carpets preserved that can give a clue. However, the oldest Tibetan carpets preserved in museums and private collections can be dated back to the end of the 19th century. Because of Tibet’s long seclusion from the rest of the world, their art of weaving and carpet knotting have not been appreciated outside its borders until very recently. Today the most beautiful examples of Tibetan carpets can be seen in Nepal. Nepali carpets perhaps, best represent the Tibetan art of carpet making.

For centuries, Tibetans have been weaving and using carpets as bedding, saddle blankets and meditation mats for monasteries. As a means to making a living in a new land, these hardy Tibetan refugees, with support from the Swiss government, began a cottage industry of carpet weaving. They intended to sell rugs to the growing number of tourists arriving in Nepal. During this period, most of the carpets produced were of traditional designs in small sizes. In the late ’70s, buyers from Germany came to Nepal and began purchasing plain field (border only) designs in larger sizes. Within a short period, the German market became the hub of Tibetan carpet distribution throughout Europe. Owing to the high demand of European buyers during the ’80s, Tibetan carpet production in Nepal became the nation’s second largest industry. During this time, a few leading American importers began the importation of Tibetan rugs made in Nepal, with specific design and coloration ideas for the American market. To this day, Tibetan rugs are a leading commodity within the handmade floor-covering market in both Europe and the United States, and have continued to grow in popularity internationally. However the carpet industry in Nepal is constantly undergoing change and is plagued greatly by the political instability and upheaval in the country

Handmade rugs have been part of Tibetan culture for hundreds of years. They are an integral part of the daily life and Buddhist practices of typical Tibetan households. These beautiful pieces are highly valued and are passed on from generation to generation. In olden times some young women would spend months weaving a set to bring into their new home upon marriage. Traditionally, these rugs are used for sitting or sleeping on, rather than walking on. That’s why many antique rugs are about 3 feet by 6 feet in size; this size fits the raised banquettes that function as both seating areas and beds in many Tibetan homes. Particularly fine weaving or patterns of an enlightened nature are used in monasteries and by Buddhist practitioners during seated meditation. There are also smaller rugs, sometimes called meditation rugs, which are the right size for one person to sit on. However, these rugs are made in larger sizes today, to be used as floor carpets. New patterns and designs complement both contemporary and traditional home décor. But what makes authentic Tibetan textiles unique is the combination of traditional methods that have produced carpets that last centuries and the use of premium quality wool from Tibetan sheep that live above 16,000 ft.

Colors and Dyes
Color is the single most  striking attribute of any oriental carpet. It is a natural assumption that Tibetan weavings with vegetal dyes qualify as old carpets but chemical dyestuffs were introduced on the plateau at a relatively early date (circa 1885) and were enthusiastically employed by those who had access to them. It was certainly much easier to dye wool with synthetic red than to boil madder root for days in order to achieve a strong shade. And the Tibetan aesthetic calls for strong, contrasting colors, as is true of other weavings originating in barren, colorless environs in many parts of the world. Strong shades of red, blue, yellow or gold, and on occasion, green, can be masterfully combined in Tibetan rugs. But such impressive skill is rare. The Tibetans used a wide range of dye plants and it was not unusual to have up to five different sources for any particular shade. However, running colors and tips fading indicate the presence of synthetic dyes. Majority of modern carpet factories in Nepal still use vegetable dyes for carpets of higher quality. The most common of the natural dye sources are:

  • Madder red- root of the madder plant; safflower
  • Cochineal red- cochineal insect
  • Yellow- weld, vine leaves, or pomegranate peel
  • Brown- walnut shells or oak bark
  • Orange- henna leaves
  • Blue- indigo plant
  • Green- combination of weld and indigo
  • Purple- hollyhock
  • Black- gallnuts

Tibetan weave structure
Tibetan rugs are almost invariably loop-knotted – a technique which, although known and used in other cultures in earlier times, is now unique to Tibet. This so called ‘Senneh loop’ is a much faster and less demanding technique. The importance of knot counts is often exaggerated when determining the merit of a carpet. Older Tibetan rugs are generally coarsely knotted but some surprisingly sophisticated designs have been achieved with as few as nine knots per square inch. Even for a Tibetan carpet this is a particularly low count, but 15 knots per square inch is common. In pre-1930 Tibetan carpets both the warp and the wefts are sheep’s wool, sometimes mixed with goat or yak hair. Later carpets have cotton warp and handspun wool weft. The pile is usually hand-spun sheep’s wool.

Designs and patterns
What other criteria do we use when classifying oriental carpets as old, beautiful or important? Certainly the design and drawing must be examined. Understanding the symbolism is important in appreciating the weavings, as most rugs coming out of Tibet include these symbolic elements, in addition to animal (dragons, birds, snow lions) and floral designs. The typical designs of older carpets, however, have little to do with the common perception of Tibetan rugs. Boldly drawn medallions and graphic geometrics are outside what is generally considered to be the Tibetan carpet mainstream, though some types such as the checkerboard patterns have recently attracted attention.

There is no doubt that before the Chinese invasion, Tibetan carpet weaving was a folk art carried out not in factories but in the home. With the exception of carpets woven for monasteries or temples, where iconographic norms ruled, there was great artistic freedom. There is an imaginative use of color as well as incorporations of Buddhist symbols and ornaments used in daily life. Chinese silk and brocade too have been sought after and have greatly inspired Tibetan carpet weavers. The flowers, birds and animals get a fresh yet realistic look and the playful lions and dragons seem almost undisciplined. The influence is definitely from Turkish and Chinese textiles, porcelains and bronzes.

Listed below is the traditional interpretation of motifs and colors:

  • Cyprus tree- Life after death
  • Weeping willow- Sorrow, death
  • Dove- Peace
  • Lion- Power, victory
  • Peacock- Sacred bird
  • Dog- Vigilance
  • Pomegranate- fertility, riches
  • Camel- Wealth, happiness

Colors & interpretations

  • Red- Happiness, joy
  • Blue- Solitude, truth
  • White- Purity, peace, grief
  • Brown- Fertility
  • Black- Destruction
  • Orange- Devotion, piety
  •  Yellow- Power, glory
  •  Green- Paradise, sacred color

Weaving process
The raw wool sheared from animals is first cleansed of all dirt. It is then ‘carded’ – a process of combing the wool, which separates it into strands that can be used for spinning into yarn. This process can be either manual or mechanized. The carded wool, with all the knots taken out, is then spun into yarn. This is a skilled process which has not changed much since the earliest days of spinning yarn. Up to two kilograms of the 100-knot variety of hand- spun yarn can be produced per worker per day. The spun yarn, which at this point has a cream color, is then subjected to dyeing. The process of dyeing is different in different places. Chemical dyes are discouraged due to its hazardous effects and vegetable dyeing is more traditional and yields better quality products. The colored yarns are rolled into balls and sent to the loom for the actual weaving of the carpets.

The two-weave-knot system is unique to this variety of carpets. Knots are also not made one at a time, as in Persian or Turkish carpet weaving methods. Here, a continuous knot is made across the entire width of a carpet, and this is then cut to form open individual knots. The carpet weavers create patterns by alternating different colors of yarn in specific numbers of threads as they weave. Once the weaving is complete, the carpets are corrected for design clarity, which is followed by washing. Washing is one of the most important steps in producing quality carpets. The carpets are dried and then trimmed to make sure that the final product has a uniform surface. Trimming requires special care. The trimmed carpets are brushed and finally dispatched.

Many Indian and Chinese companies make carpets in a similar style—often employing the cheapest mechanical methods—without using Tibetan materials or craftspeople. Many carpets in the market today were made with short-cuts to save time and money, and as a result they do not have the beauty and durability of traditionally manufactured rugs which will retain their value and may even appreciate over time.

Buyers guide

  • Four elements of carpet construction serve as checkpoints in determining whether a rug is a genuine oriental rug. These are the back, knots and fringed ends. On the back of the machine made rug, the design is vague or indistinct whereas a hand knotted rug has a well defined design on the back and the front. If there is a jute backing to the carpet, this is a sure sign that the rug is not genuine. The fringed ends of genuine carpets are an extension of the carpets warp threads; those of fake ones are attached.

  • Does the carpet lie flat on the ground? Wrinkles and ridges are caused by improper warp tension and will not come out.
  • Are the sides crooked or are they relatively straight and parallel to each other? Slight irregularities in the rug’s sides are to be expected but very crooked rugs are objectionable.
  • Wiping a damp cloth over the rug is a good way of testing whether the dyes and colors will wear off.
  • Moths can be very harmful for oriental carpets as they eat up on the knots.
  • Vacuum carpets along the direction of the nap of the carpet.
  • Rugs may be classified into three age groups- new (one that has not been used although it can be several years old, semi-antique (25-50 years old) and antique (more than 50 years old but technically they have to be over 100 years old).

Carpet House, Thamel: 4250532

Dhondup Khangsar , Thamel: 4416483. Master Weaver, Ekantakuna, Jawalakhel: 5522736