Book Reviews

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Of Wool and Loom

The Tradition of Tibetan Rugs

by Trinley Chodrak and Kesang Tashi

2000. 160 pp., richly illustrated with 154 colour plates. 29 x 22 cm.

ISBN-10: 974-8304-15-9 Softbound $35.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-8304-15-1
ISBN-10: 974-8304-13-2 Hardbound $48.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-8304-13-7

Of Wool and Loom

The Tradition of Tibetan Rugs
Book review by Dhondup Tsering,

(The Centre of Tibetan Studies)

The most interesting thing about this book is the fact that both its authors are Tibetan and that too well qualified ones. Hallvard Kare Kuløy, the author of Tibetan Rugs that was published in 1982, wrote in the preface to this present book: “…the views and insights of informed, native insiders are indispensable, but most often they remain anonymous contributors relegated to footnotes and other scholarly apparatus in ponderous volumes written by outsiders.” Indeed popular literature on Tibetan Studies are almost always written by non-natives and learned ‘insiders’ help are acknowledged in forgettable prefaces. The present book on Tibetan rugs provides a rather different perspective for it is written by Tibetans; they would truly understand the layers of meaning that each carpet embodies within its own cultural and religious sphere.
   Tibetan rugs are an integral part of a Tibetan family. Everyone has to have one, except of course for the very poorest. Occupying a very important position in the Tibetan cultural milieu, they are recorded as having been offered as gifts to high lamas in several historical sources. From a monastic runner, to the square Khagangma to the most common Khaden, they are as varied in their purpose as in their colour, design, and structure. Their “unique weaving technique and the physical structure of Tibetan rugs reinforces the notion that Tibetan rug weaving was distinct from that of neighbouring India and China…” Influences from Turkestan, India, and China, created a “fusion of indigenous textile weaving” that was Tibetan in every sense of the word.
   The first recorded reference to Tibetan textile occurs in the New Tang Annals. In what is today Gansu province of China, the Tang Chinese describe Emperor Songtsen Gampo’s army camping: “Below the Wongtho region of Drugu, the Tibetan army set up black tent encampments on their journeys.”
   These black tents are woven from yak hair and can withstand heavy snowfall and rain. A unique weaving of the yak hair insulates the people inside from the extreme cold weather and keeps the warm air inside. At least dating from the seventh century, these tents have been around for more than 13,00 years.
   Woolen flat-weaves, yak hair textiles, twill garment fabrics, and planted-pile textiles are woven on back-strap looms and horizontal frame looms. While these looms reflect a mobile society, the bulkier and upright vertical looms to make Drumtse (knotted-pile carpet) were used by a sedentary population. This weaving technique produces “more elaborate designs and a finer uniform texture…displays more complex pictorial, geometric, and abstract designs in a wide range of colors.” Although much prized, drumtse are expensive and remain beyond the reach of many; they continue to use the Tsukden (planted-pile carpet) woven on back-strap looms and horizontal frame looms.
   Falling in between the primitive tsukden and the more developed drumtse is Wangden Drumtse. Located in Tsang province. Wangden valley produces a drumtse that “resembles the tsukden and other ‘planted-pile’ textiles in pile length, density, and yarn thickness, but…are woven on the same upright vertical looms used in weaving the classical drumtse caipet. Though the technique of mounting the continuous warp in Wangden drumtse is identical to that used in drumtse weaving, the knotting is simpler and produces pile less securely knotted to the warp.”
   The modern drumtse is believed to have originated from Khampa Dzong, a town bordering the present eastern Indian state of Sikkim, and made famous by the Younghusband Expedition. Unfortunately, the town no longer produces carpet of any merit nowadays.
   Modern drumtse acquired its international market after 1959. To earn a livelihood in a country of which they knew very little, Tibetan refugees in Nepal started doing what they had done for centuries in Tibet: weave traditional carpets. Initially meant for monasteries and other local patrons in Nepal, it quickly acquired western customers, notably from Europe. There was even a boom for a decade in the 1980s. New carpet factories sprang up overnight. Many Tibetans became millionaires. Primarily due to allegations of child labour being used in such factories and the revival of carpet industry in Tibet, demands dropped dramatically. Only the bigger and more experienced carpet factories survived the bust. Now Tibetan carpet industry in exile is trying to find new markets, particularly in USA.
   Of Wool and Loom, The Tradition of Tibetan Rugs, is a wonderful book that provides a native insight into the world of Tibetan rugs. The first part discusses the origin of the weaving craft in Tibet, early textiles, evolution of drumtse, Wangden drumtse and influences from neighbouring countries. The second part describes the emergence of Gyantse as a center of rug weaving, rise of commercial weaving centers, apprenticeship, and traditional carpet designs. The third part is about the use and functions of Tibetan carpets. This is followed by a visually breathtaking collection of illustrations on all the different types of rug that play such an integral role in Tibetan culture. The book could have done better with illustrations of the three types of looms.

[Read a review from Hali] [Read a review from The Journal of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers] [More Orchid Press Reviews]