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Prized Rugs From the Roof of the World

Decor: Simple, supple, laboriously handmade Tibetan carpets are finding a growing market in the West.


At first glance, the link between global politics and home decor might not be obvious. But in fact, the two always have been linked. The opening of trade with Japan in the 18th century caused a frenzy in Europe for motifs and designs of "Japonaiserie"; Britons with links to India in the 19th century decorated their houses with wicker and paisley.

Today, events in Eastern Europe and Central Asia have opened previously closed borders and brought new attention to parts of the world once shrouded from outsiders.

Among today's hot spots is Tibet--in the news as celebrities such as Richard Gere and Harrison Ford campaign for its freedom from China. And as Western interest increases and trade barriers erode, Tibet and neighboring Nepal are beginning to enter the global marketplace with their distinctive carpets.

For centuries, Tibetans have spun the wool from their mountain sheep--which thrive at 14,000 feet above sea level--into simple, supple rugs. They use the rugs as saddle blankets, as sleeping mats and as temple decorations.

Until recently, the rugs were rare in the West, and the ones that could be found were mostly antique and prized as collectibles. Isolated by geography and by its own desire, Tibet tried to turn its back on West and East. But during the last 200 years, it was invaded by Indians, the British and the Chinese, all with various trade interests in mind. Ultimately it came under the domain of China.

With the downfall of communism and the Soviet Union, and some economic liberalization on the part of the Chinese, trade possibilities have again opened up in the 1990s for places such as Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Nepal and Tibet.

So Tibetan rugs are creeping underfoot in the West. Although there is a small output of rugs from Tibet, most are made by Tibetan refugees and Nepalese in neighboring Nepal.

The rugs are unusual for three reasons: the wool, the knots and the designs.

"The thing with Tibetan wool is the way the sheep are raised," says Jamey Levinson, a sales associate at Alex Cooper Oriental Rugs in Towson, Md., as he pats a brightly colored Tibetan carpet in the showroom.

The altitude and the dryness and barrenness of the terrain mean the sheep must be extremely hardy. "Their coats are different," Levinson says. "The wool has a very high degree of lanolin that makes it soft, like a sweater. And it resists stains as well."

The knots used to tie the pile to the warp threads in Tibetan rugs are called "sennah loops." Janice Summers, a Canadian Oriental rug expert and author of "Oriental Rugs: The Illustrated Buyers Guide" (Crown, 1994, $45), describes the process: "Instead of cutting the yarn after each individual knot, the yarn is looped around consecutive pairs of warp threads and then around (a metal rod). After the row has been completed, a knife is run along the rod, cutting the pile. This gives the pile a ridged appearance."

The rugs also are designed more simply and use fewer colors than the traditional Persian, Turkish, Pakistani or Indian Oriental rugs. A Tibetan rug may have just two colors, Levinson says, compared with 15 to 20 for a Pakistani design.

It takes about four months to weave and ship a carpet, Levinson says, and because Tibet and Nepal's part of the world is still so isolated, and so far from any ocean, many of its carpets are shipped air freight. Prices range from about $2,000 to about $4,800 for an 8-by-12-foot rug, he says.

One of the major players in the field is Tufenkian Tibetan Carpets, based in New York. Founder James Tufenkian "identified the opportunity to take Tibetan carpets and really create a market for them," says Josh Brooks, the company's special projects manager.

Tufenkian's Tibetan carpets are made in Nepal by Tibetan refugees and by Nepalese. The company has a team in the United States that creates most of the designs.

The company employs Jampa Tenzing, a Tibetan from Nepal who is a master weaver and helps coordinate designing, creating and marketing the carpets. Tenzing, 36, was born on the border of Nepal and Tibet and learned from his family how to weave. He estimates that 50% to 60% of the population of Nepal is involved in rug-making.

"To finish one rug, it has so many processes," he says. "There's the washing, the carding, the dying, the weaving--and all of it's done by hand. It takes about 3,000 hours to make one rug."

Making the rugs is a matter of survival for the Tibetans and the Nepalese they have taught, Tenzing says. Both countries are relatively poor. A growing market for the rugs means an influx of hard currency and possibly a higher standard of living.

The rugs are prized for their simplicity and subtle colors. "They've become a form of primitive art," says Qadir Khalje, of Khalje Oriental Rug Gallery in Cockeysville, Md.

"Tibetan rugs today are woven with a little bit different flavor," says Zubair Mohamed, president of Sennah Knot Fine Oriental Rugs of Baltimore. "Instead of the Chinese symbols of the old rugs, they're using arts and crafts designs, taking the old Persian designs and enlarging them--they're bigger, bolder designs. But the tones are very muted."

Umber, tobacco, brick and pale and dark green are common colors. "It makes it easier for [the rugs] to work with different kinds of furniture," Mohamed says. "The designs are not so busy, so they work better with prints and patterns. The design industry tends to like that."

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