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Articles from Nepal Traveller on the Tibetan Carpet

The Weavers of Tradition
by Thomas L. Guta

July 10, 2007

This article first appeared in The Nepalese-Tibetan Carpet, edited by John Frederick, a special issue for the carpet trade published by Nepal Traveller, January 1992; one of a series of issues on Himalayan carpets. will be publishing further articles from this now rare series.

She would come in, hang up her bag, and just sit there before the loom, doing nothing, as if waiting for a crowd to pass. Then, slowly, she would raise her bar, and sink her hands into the warp. As soon as she touched the strings she was home. In a blurred series she lashed the bar with yarn and tied the first few knots. Her left hand separated the strings and proffered them in pairs to the right hand's looped yarn. The yarn slipped around the pair of warps and over the bar; hitched. A double hitch; seven casual movements in two or three visible motions. She would hitch, and thump, and pound, and scrape with every finger and joint on either hand. The tools were extensions of her own knuckles and nails.

With each row the weft was laid, the shed changed, the loops slit, and the pile clipped; the weaving cycle would begin again with the hitching. The process was a three-dimensional tensioning, dependent on the spacing of the warp, the thickness of weft, and the tightness of knot. This was peculiar to each weaver, and perhaps each loom. Together they would yield a certain ratio. Some knots were square and others rectangular. This determined how many knots would fill a space or produce a curve. Somewhere within each weaver this ratio was known, as a tactile sensation of a mathematical certainty.

Carpet weaving was the original folk art of Tibet. Compendiums of design and stylistic formulae were never compiled; most weavers were illiterate. It encompassed generations of extended families, and an oral tradition. It was truly a folk art, for it was totally anonymous. There were no great schools, and no great artists. Carpets were woven in such distant places as Nylam, on the Nepalese border, and Kum Bum, in Amdo; yet no attempt was made to define the weaving styles geographically. Old carpets were copied in new colors and arrangements. They were woven for sale, or as offerings.
A woman, looking after her cousin's small child, tied knots in her free time. Young couples wove, while their parents spun and skeined. The weavers were men and women of every manner and bearing. They were occasionally combed and oiled; but generally they wove through the bazaars with their long hair dishevelled, a timeless hunch and a preoccupied look. Weavers were a low rung on the feudal ladder, yet carpets were used by all segments of society. For king or nomad, the carpet was an essential element of every occasion, from picnic to wedding party. Their craft was a dimmer light in the spectrum of graphic arts. They were inevitably associated with alcohol, snuff, fleas, gossip, and many a colorful story.

Individualistic to the extreme, they could not weave a pattern straight without some alteration. They were reluctant to weave on another's warp, yet it was rarely a solitary art. They wove on separate steel bars in teams, and slashed and hammered through the weaving cycle in unison. When they chanted, they chanted together. Some were weavers of such excellence that they could weave from a template, a memory, or even spontaneously. Whatever the design, it was only completed in wool. Even while weaving in a patron's house, it was ultimately the weaver who tied the knots that shaped the rug's destiny.
They may have been prideful and partisan, but their craft followed an old, well-worn path. And they followed it religiously. Their motives were not artistic. They did not hope to develop their craft. The purpose of weaving was to weave, year in, year out, before the looms. They would weave and weave, and with each hitch tied, another would loosen inside them.

Actually, there was nothing to it. This, sooner or later, was the realization of every weaver. No matter how intricate the design, there was nothing outside the weaving cycle. From the knots to the stringing of the looms, right down to the very fibers groomed, spun and dyed, there was not one thing that could be seen as an independent entity. Behind the weaving cycle there was nothing but a web of tensions, and beyond that there was nothing at all.

There were no binding rules to follow, no yardsticks of excellence to apply. Carpet weaving was not a decorative art meant to flatter, nor was it a commercial art, for it wasn't competitive. It had a purity that was not merely child-like. Traditional weaves had a raw, unprofessional quality that transcended understatement. In the end, the weavers did not respond to popular trends and stylistic formulae. They did not look to the objects themselves and weave what seen, or what they wished them to be. Each knot was a response to the weaver's own weave and her own fertile imagination. She added nothing. This was only tradition.

While the yarn, staked to the warp face, spread like guy wires from their hands, they drank tea and told their dreams. Deep into the tangle, they would nap, head on hands, fingers embedded in the warp. The weaving state lies somewhere between the dream and the waking. Weaving means continuum. It means to know the world, and to complete it. Weaving connects all processes and peoples in one fabric, with one act.


The finished rug wasn't the end. Once it was trimmed, sheared and cut from the loom, they strung up again. Weaving was well-practiced; the rug, well-used. Carpets wore from the center out, and were replaced like their very clothing, by putting another over or under the worn piece, depending on occasion. Their rugs wore down to a pileless sheen. The final tribute to their craft was that almost nothing survived.

What survived was the practice of hitching, tying off, and cutting through. In it they grounded their vision, and perfected their view. In the space of one knot swooping down over the bar, they listened to wisdom's descent. It rolled off their looms, spilled out the doorways and onto the streets to mix with life's great tangle.

Articles from Nepal Traveller on the Tibetan Carpet | articles