A Brief History of Tibetan Rugs

Photography Courtesy of Napoleonka/Shutterstock.com

Since they were introduced to the West in the 1970s, Tibetan wool rugs have been admired for their texture, colors, and patterns. But how did they become a popular import, and how do they differ from other hand-knotted rugs? The history of Tibetan rugs is uncertain. The first time that they appear in historical writings date back to 1903 when they were described by members of Francis Younghusband’s military exhibition, but it’s thought that the craft must date back thousands of years.

Mainly used as floor or sleeping mats—although they’re also displayed vertically on walls—Tibetan rugs are a common staple in Tibetan culture that really weren’t exported out of the country until the 1970s. Following a brief period of autonomy in the early 20th century, China’s Communist party under Mao Zedong’s leadership took control of Tibet. In 1959, there was a failed uprising, during which time the Dalai Lama fled to India to avoid being captured and killed by the Communist party. From the uprising onward through the 1960s, Tibetans likewise fled the country with many settling in India and Nepal. Today there continue to be pro-independence protests in Tibet, which began in 1987. Due to the unrest, Chinese authorities have severely restricted religious and cultural freedoms within Tibet, so the craft of Tibetan rugs are actually maintained and exported from India and Nepal rather than Tibet itself. India is home to around 120,000 Tibetans while Nepal has become a permanent settlement to around 20,000.

Appearance and Craft

Tibetan wool comes from local highland sheep known as changpel. It is unique due to the fact that it is rich with lanolin, a waxy substance that is secreted by the sheep and makes their wool extra soft. Due to the continued unrest between Tibet and China, it is more difficult to get Tibetan wool because the export taxes are so high, but it is still possible to buy a traditional rug from India and Nepal that uses changpel wool. Other wool used today come from countries such as New Zealand where they are similar in texture to Tibetan wool. Regardless of where the wool comes from, the need for importing especially soft wool and yarn is reflected in the market value of Tibetan rugs.

One of the hallmarks of Tibetan rugs is the coloring. Originally, carpet makers only had a few natural dyes that could be used: madder (red), indigo (blue), Tibetan rhubarb (yellow), and walnut (brown or gray). Although more colors are available today, Tibetan rugs tend to keep within a limited color palette that is more muted than other rugs that come from the region.

Another big difference between Persian and Tibetan rugs are the knots used. Tibetan knots are faster to tie than Persian knots, leading Tibetan rugs to appear thinner. These thinner, faster knots also limit what motifs can be used; Tibetan rugs are traditionally plainer than those that can be achieved using Persian craft, utilizing geometric patterns and medallions. They also will use decorative traditions that come from Chinese culture due to the long-standing occupation of Tibet. The more minimal aesthetic of Tibetan rugs adds to the allure in the West. Since being introduced in the 1970s, they continue to be highly sought after, and are a common staple in international and fair-trade markets.

More to Learn