Making rugs by hand
This is where The Rug Company rugs begin: high up in the Himalayas in Tibet, where the snows of winter last seven months a year and where nomadic herders have been grazing their sheep, goats, yaks and horses for more than a thousand years. The actual rugs aren't woven here, but are made from the wool of hardy Tibetan sheep whose remote pastures are at an altitude of more than 10,000 feet. The wool thus produced is coarse, lustrous, hairy, and of high tensile strength. No other sheep anywhere in the world grow wool like it.
Those involved in the early stages of this magical metamorphosis from animal to artwork include nomadic herders, Buddhist monks and cohorts of Nepalese villagers - a vast team of carders and spinners who work from home. All these people help to create what will actually be a thoroughly contemporary artefact, combining ancient skills - which even today are the only way of preserving the wool's special qualities - with the most precise, state-of-the-art design technology.
The traditional process of rug-making has changed little for hundreds of years, and The Rug Company takes great pride in being able to support this wonderful craft, which is by nature sustainable and environmentally non-invasive. The company is a member of GoodWeave, which works to ensure that there is no child labour used in the manufacturing process. GoodWeave sends out inspectors unannounced to check the looms and also provides an education for children who otherwise might not have the opportunity to go to school.
However, although impressed by GoodWeave's operation in Nepal, The Rug Company takes further responsibility for the health, safety and wellbeing of the weavers and of their environment. To ensure that it adheres to the highest possible standards, The Rug Company has commissioned an independent specialist to continually improve the process both ethically and environmentally.
The Rug Company's rugs are made from the hand-processed wool of Tibetan sheep reared in Tibet, and woven using the Tibetan knot - essentially they are Tibetan rugs knotted in Nepal, Tibet's next-door neighbour. Their creation relies on a mixture of Tibetan and Napali expertise, and on Western design.
The weaving houses in Nepal are run by second generation Tibetan refugees, some of whom fled barefoot over the mountains with their parents in 1959 after the Llasa Uprising, when the Chinese fired on civilians. It led to a massive exodus, and today some 10,000 Tibetans live outside Tibet itself. The Tibetan government in exile, under the Dalai Lama, runs some of the workshops from its base in India.
Today, Nepal is the only country in the world into which Tibetan fleeces can be imported. The weavers of the rugs are Buddhist Nepalese who are mostly mountain folk.
Until now, there has been scant information to chart the journey of the wool and the different procedures neccessary to transform it into yarn ready for weaving. This page explains the evolution of a handmade rug as it goes through a number of extremely skilled steps required to turn an idea into a beautifully finished object.
Astonishingly, some two million of Tibet's five million indigenous people still live off the land as semi-nomadic herders. The light on the Tibetan plateau is so intense you can see for miles, but the terrain is hostile. Thanks to the extreme conditions, the sheep's fleece grows slowly but to an incredible thickness, so that the animal can survive and even thrive in the bitter cold, piercing wind and thin oxygen of the high pastures.
After the sheep are sheared in the summer months, their fleeces are carried hundreds of miles over the Himalayas to Nepal. Here they are subjected to a variety of traditional treatments to turn them into usable yarn that still retains the strengths of the original wool. The rugged, matted tresses are teased into flossy regularity, spun into long strands which are themselves bunched into loops, dipped into boiling vats of colour, whirled into balls of yarn and only then intricately knotted into a gorgeous rug that will last for many decades to come.
Tibetan sheep's wool is unusually long, springy, strong and shiny compared to that of other sheep, and takes dye well. This is why The Rug Company believes it to be the best in the world for making rugs. Crucially, the wool is also rich in lanolin, a naturally produced waxy oil which helps protect the animal from the ferocity of the elements and makes its fleece more durable and water-resistant. However, the lanolin only remains in the wool if it is processed by hand; if machines are used then much of the lanolin is rubbed off.
Lanolin is a natural stain barrier and helps the wool to stay soft and supple. Hand-processing is inevitably more time-consuming, labour-intensive and expensive but the benefits to the wool and the rugs made from it - as well as to the local community - are such that The Rug Company considers it enormously worthwhile.
Anyone who comes into The Rug Company can look through hundreds of designs that have already been turned into rugs. However, if you don't find the exact colour, pattern, size or shape you have in mind, the custom design service makes it easy to adapt existing designs or to start from scratch and create something entirely new and one-off.
The changes that can be made to existing designs are legion. They include altering the size and shape of rugs that are already in production, making motifs larger or smaller, weaving existing patterns in entirely different colours and adding or subtracting other elements such as the border. Because it is a truly bespoke service, any combination of the above is possible. A custom rug can be commissioned for any space, even on stairs and landings or fitted wall-to-wall.
When it comes to creating a completely new design, there are also endless possibilities. The starting point could be a doodle, a set of colours, or just an idea; then again it could be an exact and fully realised design. It really is a question of working out exactly what you want.
It sometimes makes sense to get a sample woven to check the colours, design and yarn you are planning to use. This is typically 1'- 2' (30-60cm) square and will add some time to the overall production but will enable you to be sure before weaving begins that every element of the finished piece will be right. Many different effects and textures are possible. If you have a more precise and detailed idea, then this can be achieved with a higher knot count. Finer knotting enables a lower pile and a more intricate design, or you may prefer the coarser more woolly texture provided by a lower knot count. You can also specify different knotting techniques and vary the pile height to create interesting surfaces.
The Rug Company showrooms are a brilliant resource for those seeking inspiration thanks to the huge number and rainbow variety of rugs made since it was founded in 1997; they are libraries of rug possibilities. The dozens of samples available to browse through include a dazzling array of colour swatches, the finest natural yarns and samples of the different textures that can be achieved.
It takes around four months from the time you place an order to when the finished rug arrives.
Wool has extraordinary natural properties. It is springy, resilient and even flame-resistant - it smoulders rather than burns. It binds into yarn that can be spun, takes dye well, has impressive insulating qualities and is flexible and hard wearing. It is also hypoallergenic, resists static electricity and is warm, comforting and soft to touch. No wonder it has been used, felted and woven into clothes and rugs since time immemorial.
Many of the rugs made by The Rug Company also contain silk - the combination leads to a super-soft texture which designers adore. Silk is immensely durable and will resist physical wear, while its gorgeous lustre catches the light and its contrasting texture can be used to highlight a design. Silk is also very attractive to bare feet and deliciously tactile.
Two main types of silk are used in rug making. Hand-spun Indian silk is slubby and uneven, while Chinese silk, which is spun by machine, has a high shine and is more uniform. It costs more, but requires less preparatory work.
In Tibet in the past, yak and camel hair were sometimes fashioned into rugs as well as tent cloth and blankets. Today, linen is popular for its brilliant whiteness. Other fibres employed by The Rug Company include luminous mohair, tactile cashmere and pashmina, abaca (a type of banana-leaf fibre), hemp, nettle and metallic thread. Rugs composed of these other materials tend to be made plain rather than patterned, so that the focus is on their interesting textures. However, nothing is as fabulous as wool and silk, whose popularity is testament to their qualities.
The minute variations of colour available to 'paint' a composition in yarn are staggering. If someone wants to match a hue from a piece of fabric, a Pantone reference, a paint swatch, a picture or a scrap of wallpaper, The Rug Company can do it. It has a selection of 2000 colours - many of them incredibly subtle shades of the same hue. When commissioning a custom design rug you are free to choose as many colours as you wish. The natural colours of undyed wool and other fibres can also be very desirable.
The same 2000 reference colours are kept in Nepal and this ensures that it is absolutely clear which colour is wanted, each one is numbered and easy to read. There is still room for judgement and brilliance however, as perception of wool colour also depends on how light shines through it and colours can look different in different situations. It takes an experienced designer to know how they will work in situ. The Rug Company will help you to come up with the perfect colour combination.
The first stage in creating a rug is to translate the idea into a design. The Rug Company designers have a wealth of experience in drawing up differing styles and realising people's vaguest - or wildest - wishes. In all cases, the designers will work out on paper what you want - adjusting and responding as the design develops. This can happen quickly or take a number of meetings; the purpose is to ensure that you are entirely happy with the finished design.
When the design is settled on, a large print-out is made. This gives both the two-dimensional pattern and also shows the texture of the finished rug, thus providing a good idea of what it will look and feel like.
The next step of the rug-making process takes place in Nepal and involves using the design as the template for an extremely precise graph. The graph is hand-drawn in the workshop's graphing studio and is literally a map indicating the position and colour of every single knot the rug will contain. It is created on graph paper specially made for the weavers and each one is a beautiful drawing in its own right.
Amazingly, the graph is done to exactly the same scale as the finished rug, which means that graphs range from fairly big to really enormous. While a rug is being woven, the graph is pinned to the loom, so that its directions can be read off. By the end of the process, the graphs are inevitably a bit crumpled and battered, but they are carefully folded up and stored in shelves containing the blueprint of every rug woven there - a Rug Company archive for posterity.
Many graphs are done in a few days, but new and complicated designs can take a few weeks to prepare. At the same time as the graphs are being plotted, the dyers will, with great precision, be conjuring up the required colours for the design, using the requisite amount of wool.
Wool arrives in Nepal by the truckload. When raw and unwashed it has a strong, pungent smell. The majority is taken to the beautiful lakeside town of Pokhara (the second biggest in Nepal after Kathmandu), which has an abundance of fantastically clear and clean glacial melt water- wonderful for washing wool in. Pokhara is situated at the base of the Himalayas, which rise dramatically behind its lakes. In recent years it has become the starting point for many of Nepal's trekking expeditions and is home to numerous guest houses and bars. Even so, a large proportion of the town is involved in the preparation of wool for the weaving of rugs.
A monastery of Tibetan Buddhist monks organises the preparation of the wool. When this arrives in Nepal in its raw state - mostly dirty white, but with some brown and black - it is tangled, miscoloured and full of thorns and grasses from the Tibetan pastures.
The monks sort the wool into its natural shades and wash it roughly in the river in big wicker baskets. Huge quantities of the sodden wool are then spread out on the banks to dry, looking like fallen clouds. Even after washing it is still relatively raw and unprepared. The monks put the dried bales in storage ready for the next stage.
Carding is the magical process whereby the jumbled-up wool is teased out into long fibres. It has to be detangled and straightened out and, like the most recalcitrant human hair, ends up frizzy before being spun into something manageably smooth. In most parts of the world this process is done by carding machines, which are relatively quick and efficient, but this has a major downside: namely the machines chop up the wool, weakening it as well as removing much of the all-important lanolin. It is always preferable to hand card, leaving the fibres intact and strong.
After the raw wool has been washed and dried, hundreds of carders and spinners turn up to collect it. The wool is carefully weighed out into bundles; it takes a week to turn two kilos of the raw stuff into yarn - which is what the wool is called once it has been prepared for weaving.
The carders retain every bit of excess fluff and thorn that comes out of the rough wool to ensure that nothing is missing. The monks check that the total weight of the carded wool and the scraps is the same as the weight of the wool originally given out.
Hand carding ensures the longest possible fibres - exactly what you want in yarn. In fact, the fibres will all be of different lengths and this has the advantage of making the final thread stronger. The difference between carding wool by hand or by machine is easily visible: hand carded wool is less even and more natural looking. Another reason it is so nice is that the high lanolin content gives it a softer texture.
The carders work with two wooden boards not dissimilar in size to ping-pong bats and with an inner surface covered in little spikes. Being handmade devices, each pair is different. With a bat in each hand, the carder moves them forwards and backwards against each other, teasing small amounts of the wool between them and combing it. The end result is something fluffy - like woolly candy floss - which can then be spun.
At any one time, there will be hundreds of carders and spinners at work, and this is detectable from the streets thanks to the dull knocking together of the carding bats and the gentle clicking of the spinning wheels.
Little by little, the flossy, carded wool is fed into the handmade spinning wheel or charka and, as it goes through, it gets spun - or twisted - together into a much longer and unbroken piece of yarn, which is wound on to a spool. The amount of wool you add makes the yarn thicker or thinner; The Rug Company weaves with different thicknesses depending on the knot count of the rug. The use of spinning wheels was first recorded in the 11th century. Those used in Pokhara are operated by the spinner's foot while sitting on the floor, leaving hands free to feed in the fibres.
Once spun, the yarn is ready to be woven into a rug. It is still undyed and, being an unassuming, natural off-white colour, it still bears some resemblance to what comes off a sheep's back. The spun wool is twisted into skeins, taken back to the monastery and then weighed again before being trucked to Kathmandu for dyeing, drying and winding into balls, ready for the final transformation. This journey, on poor roads, can sometimes take weeks when the rains fall heavily in the summer.
The Dye Master is the key man in the crucial dyeing process and has been likened to a nose in the wine industry. Each workshop has its own dye master, and most are Indian. The best are keenly sought after and brought from India at vast expense, usually from Bhadohi, in Uttar Pradesh. They are treated with reverence - and poaching of the most brilliant also occurs!
The Dye Master has his own laboratory; a mysterious and exciting den of bubbling pots, bottles of liquid and brilliantly coloured powders. This is where he conjures up the colours. He works to recipes he has devised from creating the same shades in previous rugs. However, to add to the challenge, environmental factors, such as the difference in air temperature and humidity in, say, June or January, will have some effect on the colour. This has to be taken into account, so the formula tends to require fine-tuning and good light is essential. When mixed up, the dye is a different colour to the yarn when dyed and dried and judging this is another part of the Dye Master's skill. The Dye Master makes up a batch for each colour required in a rug and when he is happy with it, the formula is recorded in his recipe book - which looks rather like a book of spells.
Due to the colour variation of the natural wool and the way in which dye is absorbed to different degrees, there can sometimes be a varying density of colour in the finished piece. This effect is known as abrash and is part of the beauty, desirability and individuality of a handmade rug. Abrash is more prevalent in large areas of saturated colour and in very pale or undyed areas of the design.
The Rug Company uses very high quality and expensive Swiss aniline colours. These are the most photo-stable available, meaning that they are highly resistant to fading in sunlight. They come as powders that are dissolved in water.
Apart from computer design, this is the newest part of the rug-making process. For centuries Tibetans were obliged to use vegetable dyes to colour their rugs which led to a subtle but very restricted palette: yellow madder, indigo and red insect dyes would have been imported and to these shades were added less fast local dyestuffs of largely tawny hue, such as walnut, rhubarb (the chief Tibetan source of yellow dye), safflower, buckwheat and tea.
The introduction of affordable synthetic dyes in the mid-20th century led to electrifyingly bright colour combinations, which aren't favoured by purists, but were popular with Tibetans themselves. Vegetable dyes are still used but rather unpredictable - not advisable if you're looking for a precise colour. With custom design rugs, huge efforts are made to be accurate with colour matching, so aniline dyes are recommended.
There is something splendidly old-world and traditional about the pot dyeing process - apart, that is, from the huge variety of colours that are now available which weren't in the past.
Pot dyeing also requires very little machinery; skeins of yarn are attached to hand-wound metal loops, and these are rotated and repeatedly dipped into the dye until they are thoroughly soaked.
If only a small amount of yarn needs to be dyed (approximately 2.2lb or a kilo), the colour can be heated up in a saucepan on a stove. Pot dyeing - where the pot is like a cauldron or trough - is enough to dye the yarn for half a standard rug (measuring 9'x 6' or 2.74 x 1.83m). This will weigh 33lb (15kg) when finished, and it takes some 77lb (35kg) of raw wool to make it.
The workshops also house bigger vat dyeing machines for larger quantities of wool, though they use them less frequently. These are essentially big iron ovens, heated by steam from a furnace, with the wool and the dye inside them.
After dyeing, the yarn has to be dried. Sometimes it is put in a drying chamber but, weather permitting, the finish is better when the yarn is dried naturally. It is therefore slung over all kinds of unlikely objects so it can dry in the sun - wherever you go in Kathmandu wool is draped on every available space: on the back of bicycles, on washing lines, in rows on pavements. The dry, dyed skeins are then taken to the weaving room, placed on a traditional wheel called a 'kholo', and reeled into balls.
The Rug Company rugs are woven on vertical looms, as traditional Tibetan ones always have been. In fact the technique is knotting, though it's often referred to as weaving, and it is done directly on to metal rods. The loom consists of a wooden crossbeam at the top, supported by two uprights, with another crossbeam at the bottom completing the frame. In Tibet, the loom used to be all wood, with no glue or nails, and propped against a wall; today, with plentiful metal, looms stand upright rather than leaning.
The height of the loom depends on the length of the rug being woven, though particularly long rugs can be looped over as they are fashioned, meaning that there is no limit to the length of a rug.
A number of looms for making standard-size rugs are set up in the workshops, their width from 3' (0.92m) to 10' (3.05m). It becomes more challenging to make a loom as width increases, and special ones are constructed for particularly broad rugs. In 2005, The Rug Company made a 40' x 36' (12.2m x 11m) custom rug for a shooting lodge in Scotland. Seventeen weavers worked on it at the same time and it remains one of the largest rugs ever made in the Kathmandu Valley. More recently an all-silk custom Catella design measuring 36' x 35' (11m x 10.7m) was delivered to a client in Mumbai. By contrast samples are made on tiny looms.
Cotton warp threads are stretched from the bottom crossbeam over the upper crossbeam in a continuous loop. They are evenly spaced according to the knot count, which ranges from 60 to 300 depending on the detail of the pattern. A standard size 9' x 6' (2.74 x 1.83m) rug with a knot count of 300 will contain 1,500,000 knots. The warp threads provide the rug's structure, while the weft threads - which run horizontally - hold in each line of knots and are threaded in after the line has been completed. Both are made from high-quality cotton, which keeps its shape, unlike the less suitable wool warp and weft threads used in the past.
Tibetan rugs employ a unique knot. This is quite different to the more common Turkish and Persian techniques in which each knot is tied singly and then cut. In the Tibetan manner, each looped knot is half of both the previous and the next one; a line can continue for as long as desired and the yarn is only cut when the colour changes or the whole line is complete. The weaver passes the yarn around the warps and knots it around a metal rod that rests in front of the loom and then repeats the process. This is a fast way of weaving - twice as quick as a Persian knot but just as strong. It's also totally traditional; if you examine rugs several hundred years old you will find that they were made in exactly the same fashion.
The weaver starts at one end, tying a knot around a pair of warp threads and the metal rod, pulling them tight and repeating the process until he or she comes to the end of the line or needs to change colour. The process is dictated by the graph - the master plan for the design - which the weaver follows from the bottom upwards.
The rate of progress depends on the complexity of the pattern and the knot count. On an average day, each weaver can complete 2" to 4" (5-10cm) for 100 knot, or just 1"" to 2" (2.5 to 5cm) for 300 knot. The rug can be wound round the loom at the bottom if the warp is slackened and this is done so the weavers can work at the same height. In other words, the rug rotates around the loom.
The thickness or gauge of the metal rod depends on the knot count, which ranges from 60 to 300. (60 is shorthand for 60,000 knots per m2, while 300 is an astonishing 300,000 knots per m2). Most of The Rug Company's stock designs have a knot count of 100 or 150. Thicker yarn is used for simpler patterns, woven with a lower knot count on a bigger metal rod; a higher knot count allows more complex patterns and a lower pile height, worked with thinner yarn around a narrower rod. The latter is understandably much slower to work and needs a more experienced weaver.
For a loop pile, the rod is pulled out and the yarn left uncut when the line of knots is complete - thus a series of loops is achieved. There's also a no-rod loop, or flat loop; the yarn is tied directly round the warp - without a rod - and the result is a flatter surface with an interesting texture.
Once a rug has been completed, it needs to be thoroughly cleaned and this is done with a plentiful supply of soapy water and many rinses. The washing process is testament to the fact that the colours are absolutely fast, and a mild detergent is used to protect the wool's lanolin. The rugs are washed on both sides; soap and water are squeezed through the pile with wooden paddles or 'pharwa'.
When the rug is cut off the loom, its tensions are released and it rebounds slightly; when washed, it shrinks a little further, generally in the warp direction (lengthwise) rather than in the weft, because that's how it was stretched.
Rugs need to be dried flat after washing and stretched out to ensure this happens evenly. To this end, they are stitched squarely onto metal frames and put out in the sun to dry. The final finished size of a rug is therefore slightly different to its dimensions on the loom - a calculation about the different amount of shrinkage in each direction is made, but it's hard to be accurate to the nearest centimetre. In a situation where a precise size is essential, the rug can be made very slightly larger and cut down if necessary.
The ideal way to dry rugs is in the sun - the fresh air gives a nicer finish to the wool; if they're artificially dried you don't get the same look. The monsoon season between June and August can cause delays - in fact it's the commonest reason for a rug to take slightly longer than usual. For three months, the heavy rains of the monsoons drench the country - it doesn't rain all day, but it does every day - 'Soaked by Buddha's tears' as a haiku poetically puts it.
The Buddhist saying that 'rain does not penetrate a well-roofed house' is of little consolation when there is drying in the sun to be done! Every day, when the raging rains start, several people have to run outside, take the rugs off their stretchers and bring them quickly inside. When the rain stops for a while the rugs can be stitched onto their frames and put outside again. In fantastic weather conditions it takes a day to dry a rug; more usually, it's three or four days, which gives the rugs time to breathe.
Once a Rug is washed and dried, it is laid flat and the surface is treated with a variety of special implements in order to poke, tease, and smooth any slight irregularities. For example, a long iron rod called 'gopani' is used behind the rug to smooth the back surface. Fine hairline carving is done along the contours of the different colours with "jam-tse', which are Tibetan Scissors with 16-18 inch long blades.
A rug requires neat finishing, both to its edges – especially where the warp threads stick out – and to its surface where strands of pile yarn hang from each color change. The ends are stopped with a few lines of kilim (essentially running stitches) to ensure that they will never unravel, while the sides of the rug - the last warp - are wrapped with extra yarn in the same color (a selvedge).
The entire surface is trimmed depending on the design to achieve the required pile depth. In most other places, electric shears are used but, at The Rug Company, it's all undertaken by hand. Hand shearing is to an exact level – it's a very skilled and specialist job – so that the final pile is smooth with an overall effect. Designs that call for a variation in pile depth are more complicated; different sections must be sheared to different levels for a more three-dimensional effect. Careful contouring – rather like beveling on mirrors on a minute scale – is done where two colors meet, to emphasize the delineation.
A desirable effect in hand knotted rugs where the shade of colour varies. This is due to inconsistencies in the colour of the undyed yarn or in the amount of dye absorbed.
The process of teasing and straightening the jumbled fibres of raw wool so that it can be spun into yarn.
A technique that is part of the finishing process. The boundaries between different colours or pattern elements are defined and differences in pile height are smoothed.
The usual type of pile for rugs, where the yarn is cut to form a plush velvet-like surface.
The most important person in the dyeing process, the Dye Master is responsible for matching colours and preparing the dyes.
The warp threads at top and bottom of the rug are finished with a few lines of kilim and then folded under and stitched down. In traditional rugs, a decorative fringe is added.
A technique of weaving which produces a flat surface with a pronounced texture. The yarn is knotted directly around the warps without the use of a rod.
A plan of the design, followed by the weavers, specifying the colour and position of every knot.
A flat-woven rug. The design is formed of weft threads woven under and over the warp threads and tightly packed so that the warps are hidden.
The density of knots in a rug. Finer rugs will have a higher knot count and coarser rugs a lower knot count. The knot count of Tibetan rugs is given as A where A = (Number of knots)x1000/m2
A natural waxy substance in wool that has softening and waterproofing qualities and which acts as a natural stain barrier.
The apparatus on which the rug is woven.
A type of pile where the knots formed around the rod are left uncut forming loops.
In the Tibetan technique, the yarn is knotted around the warp threads and a metal rod. The gauge of the rod is determined by the knot count.
The sides of the rug. These are wrapped in yarn to match the design.
After weaving has finished, the rug is laid flat and the pile is cut smoothly to the required height by hand.
The process of turning carded wool or other fibres into yarn.
A technique of hand knotting rugs in which the yarn is tied around two warp threads and a metal rod.
The long threads running from one end of the rug to the other; they are the foundation on which the rug is knotted.
The threads, normally cotton, woven across the rug from side to side after each line of knots is completed.
A long, continuous length of interlocked fibres forming a cohesive thread.
Image 1: Jan Reurink.