Tibetan rugs are now some of the brightest stars in the oriental rug market. Just twenty-five years ago things could not have been more different. Here’s the story.
In 1949 the Chinese invaded Tibet, and inadvertently changed the modern history of Oriental carpets. Before then, Tibetans made rugs for their own uses, which often involved religious ceremonies. There was little, if any, commerce in new Tibetan rugs outside Tibet (though today the oldest rugs from Tibet are among the most desirable to collectors). The Chinese invasion forced thousands of Tibetans to flee, and many who survived the journey out of the mountains took weaving skills with them to Nepal and India, where they established carpet industries to support themselves. In Nepal, no carpet industry had existed before the Tibetan refugees created one.
Today, Tibetan rugs (by which name all rugs made by Tibetans are known, whether woven in Nepal, Tibet, or India) are among the brightest stars in the rug firmament. A retailer in Reno, Nevada tells me that 60 percent of all his sales are in Tibetan rugs. Twenty-five years ago, during the formative stages of the Tibetan rug industry, things could not have been more different. Most of the Tibetan rugs reaching the United States were made with luster-less, machine-spun Indian wool in bright synthetic dyes. Sizes were limited and designs were interesting only in their novelty.
Behind the scenes, though, a family of Tibetan rug dealers in Katmandu, Nepal was quietly learning the moribund art of dyeing with natural plant dyes.
These are the words of a Tibetan refugee named Dorje written in August of 1998 and faxed to Stephanie Odegard: ‘Early 70s during my school vacation, I used to be at our shop Lhasa Curio Shop in Jochen tole, probably the first Tibetan antique shop that time. I found lots of people asking me about the dyes on the old carpets with veg-dyes. It interest me to inquire and learn too. I have been asking many older Tibetans and finally in 1977 we had invited two old women teaching us the indigo dyes in Tibetan methods. I learnt indigo dyeing with this women and others I learnt through Tibetan medical institute when my cousin sister and her husband were student in the institute. Vegetal dyeing they found in Medicinal Buddha textbook. They gave me the theory and I experimented myself and learnt them. In 1975 I started working for Tamdi and Sons…I think Thombo and Tent Tom were working in carpets around the same time…Natural and vegetal dyeing is very old tradition of this world. The only thing exception is the different recipe of one person to another person. It is like wine making or even cooking.’
Later, Dorje became Stephanie Odegard’s producer. Dorje’s brother Tsetan became James Tufenkian’s producer, and Namgyl, who was ‘one of [Dorje's] staffs for a few years’ became Steve Laska’s producer. But I have gotten ahead of my story.
In 1975, the rugs reaching the American market from Nepal were poor things with bright synthetic dyes and Indian wool; but there were a few Tibetans like Dorje who retained knowledge of the old ways of making rugs. This is what Americans and Europeans encountered as they began to explore the possibilities in Katmandu in the 1970s.
One of them was called Tombo, a young American who has become a semi-mythical figure to the expatriates who knew him and those who have merely heard stories about him. In the mid to late 1970s, at the same time that Harald Böhmer, later of the DOBAG Project, was researching natural dyes in Turkish rugs, Tombo (Thomas Guta) was weaving rugs in Katmandu with natural dyes he had mixed himself. Almost certainly he had been taught by Tsetan or Namgyl, who in the ’70s ran a shop called Vegetable Dyed Carpets. Inexplicably, Tombo was able to achieve rich, saturated colors with natural dyes more than a decade before that feat was duplicated by other Westerners.
I met Tombo and saw his rugs sometime in the early 1980s when he visited my shop in Berkeley. My memory of the meeting is hazy, except that he seemed quite intense. But I remember his rugs. I admired them, but recall suggesting that he was asking too much for them. I wish I had bought at least one and kept it; I believe his may be the first natural-dyed rugs woven by any Westerner. Along with Dorje, Tsetan and Namgyl, he influenced a number of Westerners living in Nepal at the time, who were soon experimenting with rugs made in natural dyes. Dorje writes of Tombo: ‘Thombo is what people used to call for Thomas Gutta who died several years ago in the plane accident in Katmandu. I heard Thombo had a Japanese wife and they did fine silk brocade weaving. I think his whole family died in that plane accident.’
For some years, a small number of Westerners made rugs in Nepal with natural dyes and imported them into Germany and America. But in the end, natural dyeing barely managed to survive, kept alive by just one or two Americans (including Stephanie Odegard) and a few Tibetan refugees.
German importers had long been interested in Tibetan carpets, but quantities available in the market were limited by a lack of wool. Wool was scarce to begin with, but the greatest impediment to obtaining adequate supplies was corruption among the government officials who regulated it. Working through the World Bank for which she was a consultant, Stephanie Odegard helped apply pressure that finally allowed wool to flow freely into the market. The logjam created by the lack of wool was finally broken in 1987, and by 1989 a kind of stampede was under way. Germans in particular were in a buying frenzy (Nepalese rug people joked that Germans ate Tibetan rugs for breakfast), and rugmakers in Nepal geared up to supply them. The majority of German buyers are not known to be choosy, and no effort was made to supply them with naturally dyed carpets. In fact, German buyers generally do not like the irregularities that natural dyeing entails. So the natural dye movement in Nepal stalled around 1987, de-selected by market conditions.
One of the early producers of rugs in Nepal was Steve Laska from Northern California. He went to Nepal in 1977 with an antecedent interest in naturally dyed rugs, stimulated by an earlier adventure importing Mexican Indian rugs to the U.S. He lived in Nepal from 1977 through 1979 and was aware of Tombo’s rugs, all of which were in traditional Tibetan designs. Mr. Laska realized that there was no reason to restrict designs in Tibetan rugs to traditional Tibetan motifs. Any design (except the finest) could be woven in Tibetan rugs. But, strapped for money, he simply didn’t have the resources to launch anything but a tiny production of naturally dyed carpets even as he watched other Americans become big players. By the mid-’80s, Steve Laska was designing his own rugs and selling them in the San Francisco Bay Area. Eventually he named his business Endless Knot Rug Company, which he ran part-time at first while earning a Masters degree in psychology. Eventually he gave up his practice as a clinical psychologist to concentrate on making rugs.
Over the years, Endless Knot has continually moved forward with new and better designs in a huge range of colors (about 160 currently). Endless Knot rugs strike me as having good staying power, not soon to become unfashionable as styles change. They are priced moderately. Today Mr. Laska’s contemporary designs are among the best around. Incredibly, Endless Knot is able to make custom rugs within three months and often less. I believe this to be a record in the industry.
From the outset, the modern Tibetan rug industry has been geared to the decorative rug market. It differs in that respect from the productions of other countries. The company most successful at capturing a national reputation in the decorative rug market is Tufenkian Tibetan Carpets, established by James Tufenkian. As a young man, James Tufenkian graduated from law school and moved directly into the Oriental rug business. Though based in New York, he paid his dues like many another small importer at the start of their career by motoring rugs to distant parts of the country to sell. More than once I bought rugs from James Tufenkian in Berkeley directly out of the trunk of his rented car. At first, beginning about 1982, he imported Afghan and Turkish goods, attracted by their tribal character. At that time most other Oriental rugs, though made by hand, lacked personality and may as well have been made by machines. After several years of importing and wholesaling, he experienced one of those moments that change people’s lives. He bought a group of fine Turkmen rugs which he was very enthusiastic about, sold them all in two or three days, and was left to contemplate the fact that he could not replace them. It became clear to him that he had to manufacture rugs himself, so he headed to Nepal in 1984 to get something going.
At the time that James Tufenkian began to make them, Tibetan rugs were considered a risky specialty item, but probably more than any other single person he succeeded in making them leaders in the decorative rug market. He worked hard, told me once during those early days that he would retire in four years, and still is working hard two decades later. His are probably the only Tibetan rugs in the market that a sizable number of customers ask for by name. All but a very few Tufenkian rugs are made with handspun wool, which is standard in the best Tibetan rugs. In addition, Tufenkian rugs are often made with wool that has been carded by hand. Carding is the process of untangling the wool fibers, essentially by combing them, before spinning them into yarn. Carding is almost always by machine now; Tufenkian’s decision to continue with hand-carding adds to his rugs’ handcrafted look. In addition, they all have excellent wool and good chrome dyes. They clearly take aim at the decorative rug market.
Of all the major importers of Tibetan rugs, Stephanie Odegard may have the deepest personal roots in Nepal and Tibet. She lived in Nepal in 1985 and 1986 while she worked as a consultant to the World Bank, helping to promote business in Nepal. During this time she began to produce rugs herself. It is interesting how influential she was in the carpet industry before she had made a single rug. Besides helping to open up the supply of wool in Nepal in her capacity as consultant to the World Monetary Fund, she helped sponsor workshops in natural dyeing in Nepal in 1985. During her time there, she was deeply engaged in collecting textiles, including old Tibetan rugs, and they came to inspire the designs of her own Tibetan rugs. At first, Ms. Odegard tried to interest Stark, the prestigious East Coast retailer of fashionable carpets, in her product but, as she says, “They didn’t believe in them.” For several years, Teddy Sumner of Michaelian and Kohlberg imported and marketed Stephanie Odegard’s rugs and carpets, before she established her own wholesale business. Ms. Odegard’s production has received extraordinary acclaim. In 1998 she was commissioned to create eight carpets for the new paintings galleries at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Southern California, and The Art Institute of Chicago licensed her to produce an entire line of rugs based on its collection of seventeenth-century textile fragments. The Odegard carpets at the Getty Museum are in natural dyes, as are many of the rugs she makes. Ms. Odegard may be the only person who has continued to use natural dyes in many of her Tibetan rugs after the Germans’ strong entry into the market in 1987. Odegard rugs always look like Odegard rugs, even though their designs vary greatly. Her signature rugs are simple one- and two-color pieces that radiate a kind of quiet dignity and comfort.
Teddy Sumner of Michaelian and Kohlberg in New York is one of the pioneers of the rug renaissance. When he joined the family business (founded in 1921 by grandfather Frank Michaelian) in 1982, he quickly took it in unexpected directions — specifically, northeast to Nepal. By 1985, just as the rug renaissance was beginning to be felt, Teddy Sumner began importing Tibetan rugs, Stephanie Odegard’s designs at first, then Mr. Sumner’s own. They were in marked contrast to the simple, open-field Tibetan rugs that were made for the German market. Still in production today, they draw on many prototypes, including modern art, Arts and Crafts design, European textile design, traditional Tibetan motifs, and others. They are lavishly textured rugs with wonderful wool, and, though they are made with chrome dyes, their wool pile is spun by hand; prices are good.
A New York company named Inner Asia Trading Company produces an excellent line of Tibetan rugs called Ganchen. They are the only ones made in Tibet by Tibetan weavers in Tibetan designs. The wool they are made of, called ‘champhel’ (Tibetan wool from the northern highlands), feels wonderful and is among the best in the world. The sheep that contribute their coats to the production of Ganchen rugs are raised at altitudes of up to 15,000 feet. Wool grown at those frigid heights develops very long strands and is rich in natural oils, making it lustrous and resilient. Most of Inner Asia’s production is in 80 knots and made with hand-carded and handspun wool. One line, called Folk Arts, is made with natural dyes on a wool foundation, but Ganchens are made from chrome dyes on cotton foundations.
Chris Walter founded the Tibetan Natural Dye Weaving Project in Nepal in 1990. Formed largely for the benefit of Tibetan refugees, the Project makes only naturally dyed rugs and carpets. Mr. Walter was familiar with the Nepalese natural dye rugs from the early 1980s. But he found their dyes lacking in saturation. (I can attest that at least some of those early naturally dyed rugs looked great but were unable to withstand even indirect sunlight. My wife and I bought a very pretty 6 by 9 rug that today is well loved but hopelessly faded.) Chris Walter’s goal was to produce saturated colors in genuine Tibetan designs. As a result, the Tibetan Natural Dye Weaving Project rugs look very different from all other rugs made in Nepal. They have no ‘decorator’ look at all. Rather, they are like what old, unwashed, pre-synthetic Tibetan rugs must have looked like when new. Mr. Walter makes no effort to make them look old. Their prices are startlingly low.
Very recently I saw a groundbreaking Tibetan 100-knot rug made by a company called Noreen Seabrook Marketing, Inc., run by longtime rug guru Mike Marcy. Inspired to make something that hadn’t been made before, Mr. Marcy conceived the idea of simply not clipping the pile of a Tibetan rug that is otherwise manufactured the standard way. Let me explain: Unlike other rugs, the knots in Tibetan rugs are normally tied over a wooden rod. When the row of knots is completed, the rod is slipped out and the pile is clipped. Mike Marcy simply instructed his producer not to clip the pile in the final stage, leaving it, instead, looped and looking a bit like the pile in Berber carpeting. In most of the rugs he makes, some of the pile is clipped and some is not, a mixture of techniques that he calls ‘cut and loop’. The effect is very pleasing. Noreen Seabrook has developed the idea since its inception in 1994, and now offers rugs with this finish in seventeen different qualities. With simple designs and light colors, these rugs are understated and very decorative.
During the past two or three years, certain manufacturers of rugs in Nepal have begun adding silk to the pile of their finest carpets, thus creating sumptuous rugs of lavish materials, often in light colors. Spreading one of them on the floor at home may be compared to wearing a white suit in the tropics: a luxury enjoyed by folks who aren’t tramping around in the mud. Jahanshah Nazmiyal makes among the best of these opulent rugs. After going to school in New Jersey, he began working with antique decorative carpets on a retail basis, eventually opening two stores. When he was exposed to the new generation of Nepalese rugs, especially the work of Teddy Sumner and James Tufenkian, he became fascinated by their texture, he says, and began to explore the possibilities of combining materials such as exotic wools, linen, silk, hemp, and jute. Traditionally, rug producers and consumers have focused on color, but Mr. Nazmiyal’s creations are inspired by texture. That’s an interesting approach and one that I believe may not have been explored by rugmakers until the past 15 or 20 years. Mr. Nazmiyal goes to Spanish and French deco for design inspiration, as well as old Chinese and 17th to 19th-century European designs. His are among the most attractive of all the new decorative rugs and carpets, we think.