Hand-knotted rugs have been made in the Nepalese highlands by indigenous craftmen for centuries, but these items (known locally as Raadi, Paakhi and Gailaincha) were almost exclusively woven for personal use, and, in a commercial sense, the Nepalese rug-making industry only began with the introduction of Tibetan refugees (a mass exodus of Tibetan refugees started in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and since then all Tibetan rugs and other arts and crafts have been produced by Tibetan exiles). Families, or groups of friends, set up simple wooden looms in their homes, and, as the market for their rugs began to expand, these operations developed into small workshops, often consisting of little more than two or three looms in a cowshed. With the added support of the Nepalese government and international aid agencies, rug-making has developed into Nepal’s single most important export industry.
Today there are over 500 workshops employing over 100,000 (mostly female) workers, in addition to the thousands who earn a living in the various support industries, ranging from tourist shops to printing and advertising.
Nepalese-Tibetan rugs are generally attractive, well made, durable and reasonably priced, but they are not subject to the same standards of consistently applied quality controls as Chinese rugs. Excellent items are produced, but there are others whose aesthetic and technical quality leaves something to be desired. It is therefore important to treat each rug on its own merits, and to examine several before making a final choice – particularly as there is often very little difference in price between good and mediocre rugs.
The vast majority of Nepalese-Tibetan rugs have woolen piles, and are woven in the traditional Tibetan manner, using good quality, sometimes hand-spun, wool on cotton foundations, and either synthetic or natural dyes, or sometimes a combination of both. In the very finest items Tibetan wool is used on its own, but most rugs are made with a roughly equal mixture of Tibetan and New Zealand wool.
Designs may be traditionally Tibetan or Westernized versions of Tibetan schemes. Traditional compositions are often copies of old rugs, and include dragon, phoenix, medallion, floral, chessboard, snow leopard and tiger designs. Westernized Tibetan schemes are usually based on variations of medallion, geometric and floral themes.
Color schemes are usually executed in pastel shades, using a wide range of pigments, particularly blues, violets, greens, and yellow, brown and orange ochres, although brighter, more traditional hues are sometimes employed. Much depends on the washing process, and the degree to which a chemical wash is used to tone down the intensity of the dyes.
Classifying Nepalese-Tibetan rugs is extremely difficult. There are no individual waving groups, as such; nor are there the same clearly defined ranges, as in China. However, Nepalese-Tibetan production can be broadly divided into what might be best described as ‘authentic Tibetan’ and ‘non-authentic, or Westernized, Nepali-Tibetan’ rugs.