Although the birth of rug weaving in Tibet is generally unknown, the mainstream consensus is that Tibetan rugs have a long and rich history spanning hundreds if not thousands of years. The origin of this ancient and traditional craft can be traced through innovative tools native to the region. The spinning wheel and ancient needle crafted and utilized by these ancient artisans are thought to have originally been used to weave certain fabric such as natural fibers or beast hair into the textile form that has evolved as rugs. By the turn of the first millennia of the Common Era, the people from the area of Tingri and Saga in Tibet were already employing a technique referred to as “glide”, or natively called “Lhaewu”, which is considered one of the earliest methods of rug weaving in Tibet.

It is around this time that Tibetans began to develop a distinctive tradition of rug weaving, with the southwestern Shigatse region becoming the center of rug production in Tibet. The rugs, or drumse as they are locally called, produced in this region are historically known as Wangden Drumse and according to local oral tradition, as well as the opinion of some Western rug scholars and enthusiasts, they were also the first type of knotted pile rugs ever woven in Tibet. These rugs were once famous throughout Tibet for their unique style of weaving that was practiced nowhere else in Tibet and in constant great demand by monasteries from Lhasa to Amdo and Ladakh. Structure, particularly the distinct knotting method and warp-faced rug backing, and aesthetics, which as a group represent what is according to legend an ancient, strictly-preserved canon of designs that adheres to rigid knot-counting and arid color schemes in honor of a former Wangden Lama Jian Teppe Genshe with whom the designs, as well as the weaving tradition itself are associated, set these rugs apart from what eventually evolved into different Tibetan-style rugs.

As the craft continued to develop and expand, so did its borders. After years of dominating the rug production market, the epicenter moved from the Wangden Valley to other areas of Tibet most notably to a village called Gyangtse. It is said that over half of the population of this village were in the business of rug weaving in either their homes or in makeshift workshops. Lhasa, as a significant cultural and spiritual center of Tibetan Buddhism, also became another major hub of rug production. The halcyon days of the rug industry in Tibet was reached during the 19th century with organized weaving workshops that were owned and run by local aristocratic families. Although weaving was still an integral part of a Tibetan family’s heritage and many rugs were still being produced at home, it was these commercial workshops that manufactured the top quality decorated pile rugs, which were a vital component of Tibet’s economy. The buyers were mostly wealthy families, particularly in Lhasa and Shigatse, as well as the monasteries.

The decline of the rug industry in Tibet was accelerated and compounded in the second half of the 20th century with the invasion of the country by China in 1950. The aftermath of the invasion led to an extensive spread of social upheaval starting in 1959 and exacerbated by experiments in collectivization that left rural people with little time to weave, while effectively shutting down their main customers, the monasteries. All these events culminated in the subsequent exodus of Tibetan to India and Nepal, driving the aristocratic families, who formerly organized the weaving of the best quality rugs, and their skilled workers out of the country. As a result, the craft was essentially exported to these countries that sheltered the Tibetan refugees, who in most cases brought with them nothing but their knowledge and skills in rug weaving, as well as what little they could carry across the Himalayas. In an effort to preserve their culture, identity, and to keep their heritage alive, the Tibetan refugees began to weave the rugs they once proudly produced in their native land, effectively becoming self-reliant and not wholly dependant on the country hosting them.

In an effort to help Tibetan refugees transition smoothly into their new settlements, European countries, particularly Switzerland through the Swiss Association for Technical Assistance (SATA), took interest in their rug weaving skills and contributed to the development of the rug industry in Nepal. The primary focus of this initiative was to help the displaced Tibetans earn an income from the skills they had acquired in their homeland through generations. Initially, the rugs that the Tibetan refugees weaved were aimed for the tourist market, however, it gradually came to attract consumers abroad and in 1964 the first commercial shipment of authentic Tibetan-style rugs were exported to Europe. Ever since then, these Tibetan-style rugs have been in high-demand throughout Europe and the Western hemisphere and have significantly become a leading industry in Nepal.

On the other hand, in Tibet, where the craft originated and nurtured, rug production workshops have fallen into two categories: government-sponsored enterprises and private businesses started by foreigners or expatriates. The establishments sponsored by the government primarily concentrate their efforts in producing rugs for the tourist industry and the “official delegation gift” market. Although the weaving is competent, rugs produced in these workshops fall short of ideal in both the wool and dye quality. Since the wool in these workshops is imported, cheaper, and has a short staple that is far less than strong, the rugs manufactured there are more likely to shed fluff and become matted after cleaning. Designs at these workshops are mostly a variation on traditional designs and the ever-popular “Potala” rugs that depict the Dalai Lama’s Potala Palace and are intended to be hung on a wall like a tapestry. The second type of establishment producing rugs in Tibet today is private businesses funded by foreigners or returning Tibetan exiles. Now, these businesses lack any type of government support and ready-made markets willing to purchase their products, so they have had a somewhat tougher time developing and seizing any considerable market share. However, the most successful of these workshops have once again resumed use of high-quality wools and dyes and have also effectively managed to export their products beyond the domestic market of Lhasa. Nonetheless, the market share and sustainability of these workshops, in either category, weaving high quality rugs in Tibet still lag a long way behind Nepal and India.

Upon seeing the substantial demand that Tibetan-style rugs command in the world market, many Western importers have began offering Tibetan rugs with colors and designs that focus on contemporary styles. These modern style rugs are a source of fascination for consumers who are not fond of the antiquated look of traditional oriental carpets and are also not willing to sacrifice genuine quality. Since the majority of the contemporary designs often have simple, complex, random, or recurring patterns without borders, they offer the flexibility to have these rugs placed under, adjacent, or away from furniture without fear of creating an imbalance in the room. Today, many of these shops that were set up after the Tibetan refugees’ arrival in Nepal offer custom, authentic, traditional, Tibetan hand-made rugs in the current fashionable colors and motifs that are constructed to last for centuries. 

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