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DECOR : Special Wool Weaves Beauty, Texture Into Tibetan Rugs

January 22, 1994|Associated Press

Although rug weaving is one of Tibet's oldest arts, dating back to at least the 11th Century, the craft was close to extinction when Kesang Tashi, a Tibetan-born, Dartmouth-educated entrepreneur, began importing them to the United States in 1986.

Some in Tashi's collection are exact reproductions of antique carpets; others are newly created designs. All are hand-knotted, using methods that are 800 years old, and all are based on traditional Tibetan motifs.

The beauty of the rugs begins with wool. "If you want to make a really great table, you don't use second-rate wood," Tashi said.

The wool for Tashi's rugs comes from the northern mountains of Tibet, 17,000 feet above sea level, where nomadic herders tend the semi-wild changphel sheep. The wiry changphel are among the few wool-producing sheep in the world that have not been hybridized for uniformity. Their wool has staples that are much longer and significantly thicker than typical commercial wool. Naturally variegated and unusually rich in lanolin, the wool has a textured appearance when it is dyed and woven; the large surface scales of the long fibers reflect light with a soft luster.

"Once you knot the wool, it stays that way," Tashi said. "Because it is so thick, it has great tensile strength, so it springs back into shape easily."

Long isolated by geography and by a reclusive religious hierarchy, Tibet became even more remote after a 1950 takeover by the Communist Chinese, who declared it an autonomous region within China's borders. As China moved to establish trading ties with the West in the 1980s, however, Tibet began to receive visitors. The practice of traditional rug weaving, long Tibet's most important cottage industry, diminished rapidly, edged out as tourism increased the demand for cheaply produced rugs of machine-spun wool and poor dyes.

Tashi decided to put his banking career aside and try to revitalize Tibet's folk art of rug weaving. He would bring Tibetan carpets to the Western market.

The fruit of his efforts is InnerAsia Trading Co.'s Gangchen carpets. Tibetans call their country Gangchen, which means "land of the snows." Tashi chose this name to distinguish his carpets from Tibetan-style rugs produced outside of Tibet.

Although technically Oriental rugs, Tibetan carpets are less formal than traditional Persians.

In small village workshops, craftspeople card the wool, spin it and dye it in huge copper pots in preparation for the intricate hand-knotting that creates the rugs' dense pile. Tashi supplies the craftspeople with Swiss dyes that replicate the vibrant blues, greens, yellows and reds that Tibetans have used to decorate their homes for hundreds of years. Tashi estimates that it takes 2 1/2 days to create a single square foot of carpet.

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