A Brief History of Tibetan Carpets

The history of weaving pile rugs in Tibet probably stretches back some nine hundred-odd years but there are few surviving examples dating from before the end of the nineteenth century. The main distinguishing feature of all Tibetan rugs is the use of the cut-loop technique (curiously also found in Finland), which can encompass anything from two to five warp threads. Another characteristic is the thickness of the pile which can be as much as two centimeters (three-quarters of an inch). Rugs are usually, but not always, backed and bordered by a red cloth. The designs are strongly influenced by Chinese and East Turkestan carpets, drawing heavily on Chinese iconography by often incorporating cranes, bats, lions, vases with flowers and dragons, sometimes paired with phoenixes. The borders are usually decorated with swastikas (a symbol of auspiciousness in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism), T-shapes or naturally drawn flowers. A vibrant color palette is very typical. Ground colors tend to be blue, black, red, orange and occasionally yellow and ivory. Tiger rugs are a very distinctive Tibetan design and are popular in Europe and America.

Today carpet production in Tibet is limited, but the tradition is continued by refugees based in Nepal and India, who often weave carpets specifically for the western market. From its heyday in the 19th and early 20th century the Tibetan carpet industry fell into serious decline in the second half of the 20th. Social upheaval that began in 1959 was later exacerbated by experiments with collectivization that left rural people with little time to weave, while effectively shutting down on of their main customers, the monasteries. Many of the aristocratic families who formerly organized the weaving of the best quality carpets fled to India and Nepal during this period, dealing the industry a further blow.

When Tibetan rug weaving began to revive in the 1970s it was not in Tibet, but rather in Nepal and India that the process began. The first western accounts of Tibetan rugs and their designs were written around this time, based on information gleaned from the refugee communities. Chance encounters between western travelers in Kathmandu and former Tibetan weavers led to the establishment of workshops weaving Tibetan rugs and their export to the west. Weaving in the Nepal and India carpet workshops weaving was initially done by Tibetan refugees, later by local non-Tibetan workers who replaced the original Tibetan weavers. The Nepalese weavers in particular quickly broadened the art of the Tibetan carpet from the small traditional rugs with classical designs to large area rugs suitable for use in western living rooms. This began a carpet industry that is important to the Nepalese economy even to this day, even though its reputation was eventually tarnished by child labor scandals during the 1990s. During the 1980s and 1990s several workshops were also re-established in Lhasa and other parts of Tibet, however these remained relatively disconnected from external markets, a situation that has remained to this day.

Today, most carpets woven in Lhasa factories are (with a few exceptions) destined for the tourist market or for use as gifts to visiting Chinese delegations and government departments. Quality is variable, with inexpensive imported wool and cheap dyes marring the quality of much of the output. There have been several attempts to make a better quality carpet capable of meeting the standards of the international market in the last decade and there have been some notable successes, however a gap still exists between Tibet-made product and the "Tibetan style" carpets made by successful businesses outside of Tibet proper. To read more about Tibetan rugs and their history, visit our Tibetan Rugs section.

Sources and inspiration: Bérinstain, Valérie, et al. L'art du tapis dans le monde (The art of carpets in the world). Paris: Mengès, 1996. Print.; Jerrehian Jr., Aram K.A. Oriental Rug Primer. Philadelphia: Running Press, 1980. Print.; Herbert, Janice Summers. Oriental Rugs, New York: Macmillan, 1982. Print.; Hackmack, Adolf. Chinese Carpets and Rugs, Rutland and Tokyo: Tuttle, 1980. Print. ; De Moubray, Amicia, and David Black. Carpets for the home, London: Laurence King Publishing, 1999. Print.; Jacobsen, Charles. Oriental Rugs A Complete Guide, Rutland and Tokyo: Tuttle, 1962. Print.; Bashir, S. (n.d.). Personal interview.; Web site sources and dates of consultation vary (to be confirmed). Without prejudice to official usage.