Archaeologists discovered the spinning wheel and ancient needle, a proof that the ancient Tibetans had already woven fabrics with plant or animal fiber.
In 923 AD, the people of Tingri and Saga popularized the “Lhaewu” or “Glide” craft, which was a base for later creation of the authentic Tibetan technique. In early 11th century Nyachi in Shigatse region located in western Tibet was a center of rug production in the country beginning development of the craft that reached its final stage in the 17th century. The majority of rugmaking workshops were owned by aristocratic families and supplied monasteries with expertly woven goods. Much simpler carpets for domestic use were usually made at home with cheaper materials than those meant for religious usage.
Between 19th and 20th century, the Tibetan carpet industry suffered a serious decline due to political instability of the region. In 1950 the Communist Peoples Republic of China invaded the country, beginning its years-long occupation. Tibetan people tried to fight back, but without success – revolt in1959 resulted in thousands of families fleeing to neighbor India and Nepal, taking the secrets of carpet weaving with them. The refugee communities kept the ancient craft from being forgotten, making it their main source of income. With time, Westerners in Nepal started to set workshops which wove Tibetan rugs for the external market, however, soon they were filled with non-Tibetan artisans, who were quick to learn the technique.
In the 1980’s and 90’s the communist government established and re-established few workshops in Tibet. Sadly the rugs are rarely seen outside the internal market. Most carpets woven in Lhasa are meant as souvenirs for the tourists and Chinese political delegations. Using wool excess and cheap dyes, Tibetan rugs are inexpensive, but of low quality. Overseas investors were able to encourage the use of changpel highland sheep’s wool and natural dyes in weaving, beginning a small revolution in the industry.
Throughout the years, Tibetans found numerous uses for the rugs – from wall coverings to horse saddles. Carpets made in the 19th century are toned-down in terms of design and coloring. At that time, artisans were restricted to a few of natural dyes including red, blue, yellow, brown and gray. However, in the 1900s synthetic dyes became available to Tibetan weavers, stimulating the production of more complex designs. From 1900 weavers started to make carpets based loosely on the Chinese ones, with patterns including such characteristic motifs as dragons, phoenix, clouds, et cetera. Among the most popular contemporary Tibetan designs are so called “Tiger rugs”, associated with Tantric meditation – tiger skin is believed to provide protection to a person who meditates. Some of them consist of semi-realistic or abstracted depictions of tiger pelts, while another type is a “whole pelt”, complete with legs and a grinning face. Other very popular design is the “Potala” rug, depicting the Potala Palace, meant as a souvenir for the tourists.
Nowadays, Tibetan weaving art is slowly regaining its previous prestige and popularity, however there is still a long road before it reaches the levels of “Tibetan” Nepalese rugs. We can only hope that one day the market will see a bloom of traditionally crafted modern rugs made by the people of Tibet.