Nepali rugs have long been heralded for their exceptional craftsmanship and aesthetic quality. Naturally, they have also been important exports and are sought after by keen-eyed consumers across the globe.
The unique hand-knotted process, by which Nepali rugs are made, is one that has been passed down through communities over generations; and stands unique in an era where everything is machine-made. These rugs are a product of exquisite artisanal labor and stand as a testament to the Nepali spirit of craftsmanship.
The weaving community started flourishing in Nepal during the 1960s when Tibetan refugees first settled in Kathmandu. Tibetan immigrants also brought with them their rich culture and ancient knowledge. Traditional looms were soon available in the country and the elaborate hand knotting technique that is used to manufacture rugs was taught to others by Tibetans.
While intricate, through the years the craft managed to spread across Nepal too. And at the same time, the establishment of institutes such as the Jawalakhel Handicraft center not only aided the commercialization of these styles of rugs but also helped in the rehabilitation and employ of Tibetan refugees in Nepal.
But what is it that makes these Nepali rugs so special? One key reason is the quality and rarity of these rugs. Nepali rugs are unique because they are made using an ancient Tibetan hand-knotting technique, a skill that is little known in other parts of the world.
The rugs produced in this manner are complex and customizable to an incredible degree. It takes months to create these rugs and the weaving technique creates an artwork that is durable and long-lasting. The carpets are made of Tibetan wool that comes from high-altitude mountain goats. It is coarse and has a sheen that no other animal has.
However, not everything was sunshine and rainbows in the Nepali carpet industry. One particular problem that plagued the industry during the 90s and aughts happened to be that of child labor; with some studies indicating percentages as high as 50 of laborers who were under the age of 18.
Things have fortunately come a long way since then. More recent studies have shown considerable improvement in the use of child labor in the industry. Today the carpet industry in Nepal operates at a much smaller level and has actors that are more dedicated to the ethical and sustainable sourcing of their products as opposed to their predecessors.
These days, companies like Vijaya Laxmi work hard to make sure that not only are their rugs of the best possible quality but also that their products have been sourced and manufactured ethically. Vijaya Laxmi in particular is a handmade carpet and craft manufacturing company that has partnered up with Label Step to source ethical fairtrade carpets from Sarlahi. The district of Sarlahi also happens to be home to the second-largest weaving community in Nepal.
Adhishree Shrestha, one of the co-founders of Vijaya Laxmi, details more about the tedious but enchanting process that goes behind making Nepali carpets today.
Shrestha shared, “The rugs go through a long journey that is a process that has existed for hundreds of years. Before sourcing the wool, the artwork of the rug is designed by the graphic designer. Our designs in particular range from modern abstract art pieces to traditional motifs. While most Nepali-made rugs have traditional designs, we wanted to expand to a younger clientele as well.”
She goes on to add that their designs are then processed through a Galaicha software, a Nepali-created software specifically made for rug designs. Once the artwork is finalized, a looming map is created and the actual physical process begins.
The first step of the sourcing process is carding the wool, which is the process of untangling and opening up the fibers of the raw wool to produce uniformity in the wool. The wool is then spun in spinning wheels called chakras to make it more thread-like and easy to handle. Then they are dyed with synthetic and natural dyes and are further segregated into balls of yarn. Balling is a low-effort process so a lot of it is done by elderly women in villages. Then these balls are taken to respective weaving villages where traditional wooden looms are set up and are then woven to create rugs. Each step is done manually by skilled hands.
Once transported, the weavers get to work and their month-long knotting process begins. It is extremely tedious and requires patience because every single knot requires equal attention. On average an experienced worker can create around 2 square meters per month depending on the number of knots per centimeter. It usually ranges from 60 knots to 150 per centimeter. The more the number of knots per centimeter, the more compact the rug is. Finally, once it is ready, they are trimmed, washed, cleaned, and ready to be shipped.
There are several types of handweaving techniques too besides the Tibetan hand-knotted rugs. Handwoven rugs that are also called flatweaves are less tedious to create than knotted ones. Dhurrie and Sumak are some techniques that are mostly made with natural fibers such as jute and allo which are suitable for outdoor use. However, the weavers in Nepal are most knowledgeable in hand-knotted rugs as opposed to hand-woven rugs.
“During the year that I have worked in this industry, I have had a lot of insights regarding the amount of work that goes into it. The primary labor force of the weaving community is women, and the labor force does not require formal education, which makes it accessible to many villagers,” shared Shrestha.
She goes on to add, “This industry has empowered entire generations of families. The reason that I got into carpet manufacturing is that it’s intricate, beautiful, and a product of labor. It is an art form that is at risk of being lost to mass production. I also believe that transparency in this process is a must, which is why Vijaya Laxmi has worked hard to be a fair trade label.”
Shrestha shares that the best part of the process is to see a finished rug. To see the outcome of the numerous steps it takes from sourcing the yarn, designing, weaving, and finishing is certainly a gratifying experience. While the process is tedious, its value is priceless because it results in a product that will last a lifetime and becomes an extension of your home or space. She and her team at Vijaya Laxmi believe that purchasing a product of labor such as these carpets, is not just an attempt to beautify the space, but is also an act of supporting an art form, an industry of hundreds of years of tradition, which could easily be lost in an era of mechanized mass production.