Tibetan Rugs & Carpets

The carpet making industry in Tibet stretches back hundreds if not thousands of years, yet as a minor art it was not thought important enough to be mentioned in detail in early writings, aside from occasional references to small personal rugs owned by prominent religious figures. The first detailed accounts of Tibetan rug weaving come not from Tibetans but from foreigners who entered Tibet with Francis Younghusband's military expedition of 1903-04. Both L. Austine Waddell and Perceval Landon described a weaving workshop they encountered near Gyantse, en-route to Lhasa. Landon records "a large two-storied house with a courtyard entirely filled with the weaving looms of both men and women workers" and was highly complementary about the rugs which he described as "really beautiful things". The workshop was owned and run by one of the local aristocratic families, and this pattern seems to have been the norm for organized weaving in Tibet at that time.

Many simpler weavings for domestic use were made in the home, but dedicated workshops made the top quality decorated pile rugs that were an important economic product. The buyers were mostly wealthy families, particularly in Lhasa and Shigatse, and the monasteries. The monastic institutions housed thousands of monks, who sat on long, low platforms during religious ceremonies, that were nearly always covered in hand-woven carpets for warmth and comfort. Wealthier monasteries replaced these carpets regularly, providing income, or taking gifts in lieu of taxation, from hundreds or thousands of weavers.

Antique Tibetan Khaden Carpets
Antique Tibetan Carpet Designs

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.

Nepali Carpet Weavers

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 labour 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.

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.