by Thomas L. Guta
|This article first appeared in The Nepalese-Tibetan Carpet, edited by John Frederick, a special issue for the carpet trade published by Nepal Traveller, January 1992; one of a series of issues on Himalayan carpets. Asianart.com will be publishing further articles from this now rare series.|
With each row the weft was laid, the shed changed, the loops slit, and the pile clipped; the weaving cycle would begin again with the hitching. The process was a three-dimensional tensioning, dependent on the spacing of the warp, the thickness of weft, and the tightness of knot. This was peculiar to each weaver, and perhaps each loom. Together they would yield a certain ratio. Some knots were square and others rectangular. This determined how many knots would fill a space or produce a curve. Somewhere within each weaver this ratio was known, as a tactile sensation of a mathematical certainty.
Carpet weaving was the original folk art of Tibet. Compendiums
of design and stylistic formulae were never compiled; most weavers were
illiterate. It encompassed generations of extended families, and an
oral tradition. It was truly a folk art, for it was totally anonymous.
There were no great schools, and no great artists. Carpets were woven
in such distant places as Nylam, on the Nepalese border, and Kum Bum,
in Amdo; yet no attempt was made to define the weaving styles geographically.
Old carpets were copied in new colors and arrangements. They were woven
for sale, or as offerings.
Individualistic to the extreme, they could not weave
a pattern straight without some alteration. They were reluctant to weave
on another's warp, yet it was rarely a solitary art. They wove on separate
steel bars in teams, and slashed and hammered through the weaving cycle
in unison. When they chanted, they chanted together. Some were weavers
of such excellence that they could weave from a template, a memory,
or even spontaneously. Whatever the design, it was only completed in
wool. Even while weaving in a patron's house, it was ultimately the
weaver who tied the knots that shaped the rug's destiny.
Actually, there was nothing to it. This, sooner or later, was the realization of every weaver. No matter how intricate the design, there was nothing outside the weaving cycle. From the knots to the stringing of the looms, right down to the very fibers groomed, spun and dyed, there was not one thing that could be seen as an independent entity. Behind the weaving cycle there was nothing but a web of tensions, and beyond that there was nothing at all.
There were no binding rules to follow, no yardsticks of excellence to apply. Carpet weaving was not a decorative art meant to flatter, nor was it a commercial art, for it wasn't competitive. It had a purity that was not merely child-like. Traditional weaves had a raw, unprofessional quality that transcended understatement. In the end, the weavers did not respond to popular trends and stylistic formulae. They did not look to the objects themselves and weave what seen, or what they wished them to be. Each knot was a response to the weaver's own weave and her own fertile imagination. She added nothing. This was only tradition.
While the yarn, staked to the warp face, spread like guy wires from their hands, they drank tea and told their dreams. Deep into the tangle, they would nap, head on hands, fingers embedded in the warp. The weaving state lies somewhere between the dream and the waking. Weaving means continuum. It means to know the world, and to complete it. Weaving connects all processes and peoples in one fabric, with one act.
The finished rug wasn't the end. Once it was trimmed, sheared and cut from the loom, they strung up again. Weaving was well-practiced; the rug, well-used. Carpets wore from the center out, and were replaced like their very clothing, by putting another over or under the worn piece, depending on occasion. Their rugs wore down to a pileless sheen. The final tribute to their craft was that almost nothing survived.
What survived was the practice of hitching, tying off, and cutting through. In it they grounded their vision, and perfected their view. In the space of one knot swooping down over the bar, they listened to wisdom's descent. It rolled off their looms, spilled out the doorways and onto the streets to mix with life's great tangle.