Xining City Guide: Magical appeal of Tibetan carpets

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The traditional handicraft of making Tibetan carpets has been transformed into a multi-million-dollar industry in Xining – and the opening of the New Silk Road will see the carpets flying to new markets throughout the world.

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In a vast aircraft-hangar sized workshop on the southern outskirts of Xining, hundreds of women toil on gigantic imported mechanical looms as fine carpets of every imaginable size, colour and design are slowly woven together.

Outside the factory gates, thousands more women in homes across Xining use small hand looms to make individual carpets, expertly working the wool as they produce the exotic and unique carpets that have been made by their ancestors in Qinghai and Tibet for centuries.

Meanwhile, more than 7,000km away in St Petersburg, customers line up to buy the carpets in one of the first of a chain of overseas shops that cater to global demand.

These three threads – the factory and homes in Xining and the shop in St Petersburg –tell the colourful story of the successful commercialization of a traditional skill that is now spreading from Qinghai’s capital Xining around the world. In a hi-tech world where business is done at the push of a button, it is the refreshingly old-fashioned story of the continuing appeal of a commodity that is as much in demand in homes today as it was centuries ago: A beautiful carpet to cherish for life.

And in a fitting twist to the story, the carpets being made in Xining today are following the same route from Qinghai around the world as they have done throughout the centuries – along the Silk Road. The difference today, of course, is that with the help of 21st century infrastructure and communication networks, they go much faster and further and arrive on doorsteps in Russia, the US, Europe and Asia far sooner.

Weaving wonders    

It is Qinghai’s unique geography that makes the carpets so special, says Ma Xin Min, general manager of the Tibetan Sheep Carpets Group, as he proudly shows off a collection of ornately patterned hand-made rugs in his factory’s showroom. "The art of Tibetan carpets goes back 2,200 years and this area is renowned around the world for weaving carpets. The Qinghai-Tibetan plateau is 2,500 metres above sea level and the hair of Tibetan sheep grows to 22cm in length. They are sheared only once a year, between June and August."

rugs2-266x400The unique material provided by the sheep from the plateau provides a particularly hardy and fine wool for the manufacture of the carpets. His factory also produces carpets made with yak hair, which is renowned for its softness but comes at a premium: three times the price of sheep hair.

Ma’s factory employs more than 12,000 but 70% of them weave carpets in their homes, working to designs and using looms provided by the company. The rest make carpets on modern machines at the factory imported from Europe since 2008.

The factory turns out a staggering 1.68 million square metres of carpets a year and sells in countries and territories including the US, Germany, the UK, Russia, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong. It also makes Muslim prayer mats that are sold throughout Asia and the Middle East.

The appeal of Tibetan carpets is global and growing. Ma says there are powerful reasons for their popularity. "They are principally made by hand and the weaving technique is very unique and idiosyncratic," he said. Tibetan carpet making in particular uses a knotting method not used in other countries and regions.

"They aren’t just carpets – they’re works of art. They are very special and they have a different feel to them. The other element is the Tibetan culture that gives the carpets their distinctive design and colours. This culture is very famous throughout the world."

Domestic surge

The Tibetan Sheep Group encompasses 13 enterprises and produces 48 types of hand-made and machine-made carpets. One of its objectives is to make Xining the centre for Tibetan carpet production.

The carpet factory in Xining was founded more than 50 years ago and moved to its current home in 1996. Until 2008, all of its carpets were exported but since then there has been a surge in demand from the domestic market. "There is a tremendous amount of potential in China," says Ma. "In 2008, the economic crisis hit the US and Europe and demand slowed down. In China, though, demand is growing rapidly. There are a lot of people who want carpets for their homes. People are going up in the world and demand is rising.

"The economy in China is getting better day by day and living standards have improved. People have money and they can afford to buy high quality carpets. China is now the number one country in the world for buying carpets as well as the number one country for making carpets. That is why we are paying more attention to the domestic market."