The Making of “Dream Weavers – Textile Art from the Tibetan Plateau”

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by Thomas Cole 26 January 2005 

Jozan Magazine has asked Thomas Cole to write an article about the making of his book: Dream Weavers – Textile Art from the Tibetan Plateau. 

My thoughts on Tibetan rugs are quite well known at this time, even prior to the release of the book, Dream Weavers.   I had moved to Kathmandu in 1984 with little background or knowledge in Tibetan weavings, but a firm foundation in non Turkmen Central Asian rugs and textiles.   Curiously, I was drawn to a certain type of rug distinguished by simple patterns and a somewhat subdued palette.  Eschewed by all who had much more experience than I, these rugs were cheap and accessible; no one else wanted them! And from there I started my ‘career’ in the Tibetan rug market. I was curious about these rugs and engaged in buying as many of the old travelogues of travel in Tibet that were re-printed by publishers in India in an effort to find out as much as I could.  I stumbled upon more than I bargained for and wondered why others had not used the information I was finding.

In 1990, upon returning to the States to live, I had too much time on my hands as I tried to acclimate myself to the western lifestyle.  In what was obviously a sub-conscious effort to avoid the inevitable, I buried my head in serious books on early Central Asian history, starting with Rene Grousset’s  “A History of Central Asia”.  A gift from a dear friend, I actually read this book and took notes.  I was due to speak at the VI ICOC in SF on Tibetan rugs and thought I should prepare myself as much as possible, though I had already formulated many thoughts, theories, etc. but mostly undocumented.  At the conference, I met someone else who turned me on to some other good reference books, incl. Parker’s book entitled, “A Thousand Years of the Tartars” as well as “Contemporaries of Marco Polo”.  A third person sought me out as he had heard of my odd interests and sold me a copy of Beckwith’s book, “The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia”.  With these books in hand, I read, and read, and read, eventually concluding that my thoughts on the origins of the Tibetan rug weaving tradition were in fact documented in these scholarly tomes.  Curiously (or not), the Hsiung-nu and the Ch’iang tribes are always mentioned in these books and play a crucial role in the course of ancient Inner Asian history, affecting the movement of tribes who later became a people whose names are possibly more familiar to the students of Central Asian history as rug people might know it, ie. Tokharians, Scythians, Kushans, Oghuz, etc.

Writing a book on Tibetan rugs was something I had wanted to do years ago and finally, at one point in the past, assumed would never happen. At the time that Adraskand, Inc. mounted the Tibetan rug exhibition (reviewed in ORR and reproduced on; Articles/ Misc. Articles-Design& Reviews), we lamented the fact that this show would go undocumented.  But before it was dispersed for good, I had solicited Lawrence King in London to entertain the prospect of publishing a book including those rugs.  They refused, due to budget constraints and a change in direction, away from such rug book endeavours, a dangerous venture in terms of profits. So the idea disappeared into the back of my mind, along with the extensive notes and references that I had accumulated over the years and had, at one point, written up into a 16,000 word document on an OLD Toshiba laptop.
But the opportunity to publish seemed to be lost, as the incredible collection of rugs I had gathered were subsequently sold and dispersed, and my own travels to Tibet terminated in 1995 as my business interests evolved with an emphasis on Baluch and Turkmen weavings and textiles. The 1996 ACOR in Denver re-kindled a bit of interest as an exhibition of Tibetan pile weavings was organized, some of which were stellar examples of the genre. Bill Liske, one of the featured speakers on the subject at the conference, acknowledged my presence and thanked me for contributions I had made to Tibetan rug studies.  I watched and listened to the subsequent speakers and wondered why no one had engaged in more elaborate research.

But there were reasons for that, some of which were involved with personalities and economic concersn rather than scholarship.  The HALI 49 article, “A Tribal Tradition” was a source of ire among the Tibetophiles and Tibetan rug dealer/collectors in Kathmandu.  Misconstrued as promoting a “Moslem” influence or origin for the Tibetan rug weaving tradition, the article was reviled and ridiculed by most who had been involved with these rugs from the plateau for much longer than I.  But there was more to it than that, as I had, rather undiplomatically, declared the later rugs that constituted the bulk of the Tibetan rug market as “forgettable”. My apparent  disregard for Buddhist influences was shunned by many as the fascination with Tibetan culture and the Buddhist religion is naturally prevalent among many who are patrons of Himalayan art.  I had always assumed the rug weaving tradition was a secular craft and, subsequently,  was a bit confused when those who had been involved with the Tibetan rug trade for years thought otherwise.

My own research continued, as I continued to collect more books from the dealers in Asia, obscure reprints of old travelogues that are generally unavailable in the west for affordable prices and by 1993 my very rough draft or the basis for a book was complete, safely nestled on the fragile hard drive of one of the first Toshiba lap top computers made.  I graduated from that machine to a Mac and stored that machine in a desk drawer.  Translating those documents from an outdated ClarisWorks program and floppy discs to a Microsoft Word and a cd was not impossible, but that was not done until 2002.  But still the idea for actually putting together a book was the furthest thing from my mind.

In October, 2003, I received an email from Giuseppe de Giosa in Singapore, proposing the idea for a  book featuring his collection with my text.  I agreed to do it, and after engaging in a bit of email communication back and forth, a cd arrived with photographs of his collection.  I never heard again about the project for months and months.  But in April, 2004 while on a business trip to Turkey, I checked my email to find that de Giosa had finally received a formal contract from a publisher in Singapore and that I had two months to deliver a text!!   My initial reaction as I sat in an internet café was to laugh.  How could anyone expect me to put together a well considered text in such a short time and I dismissed it as a dream on his part and decided not to respond until I returned to the States.   Upon my arrival, after chatting with some friends, including Robert Pinner as well as Daniel Shaffer of HALI, I decided I could do it, and started.   Realizing my own familiarity with my previously written words from so long ago was actually detrimental to producing a finished text, I engaged an editor and project director for the task, Lesley Gamble.  Her skills and input proved invaluable and the book would have never achieved the clarity I believe it has without her.

So I started to write, using my previously written words and research on the history of the Tibetan people as well as composing the more mundane and required standard words on rug types, dyes, and designs.   It was an arduous task to work with my editor as she had no personal access to a computer on which to edit text, and we dealt with hard copy editing which, in retrospect, was absolute madness.  But we persevered, and by late June had the makings of what is now the text of “Dream Weavers”.  As the de Giosa’s needed technical analyses on every rug and no one in Singapore was really confident enough to do it correctly, they offered us both airplane tickets to Singapore.   In the meanwhile, my thoughts on Tibetan rugs and ancient history continued to wander.  I was alerted to a web site going by the name of the pre-Buddhist empire which ruled Tibet prior to the 7th century and discovered some interesting articles written by John Bellezza.  I contacted him, we engaged in email communication and his thoughts and comments were incorporated into the text.  Similar questions were posed about weaving techniques, and I contacted Elizabeth Barber and she, too, offered some salient remarks and observations that clarified certain points of discussion.
But it is the discussion of designs that I believe really distinguishes this particular book on Tibetan rugs, a discussion that transcends one on Tibetan rugs and may be applied to speculation on the origin of all medallion or ‘gol’ patterns seen in all Central Asian weaving.  The work of obscure scholars as Asika Parpola, a professor based in Helsinki specializing in Vedic studies, HM Frankfort and his contributions on Bactria and Margiana for Oxford University Press as well as the work of renowned archaeologists, Frederik Hiebert and VM Masson, clarified the possible symbolism represented within these medallions.  With a final flourish to this section of the book recounting the female representational aspects of these patterns contributed by Ms. Gamble, the depth of discourse on the subject of Tibetan rugs and the design pool far surpasses what has been previously published.

The trip to Singapore was exciting, but very difficult in many respects.  I knew I had to get these technical analyses done as soon as possible, as I did not want this formidable task hanging over my head.   The first day there, I sat down, with a strong cup of espresso, and examined 45 rugs before succumbing to fatigue.  Finishing the final 23 rugs the following day was easy, and miraculously that part of the job was completed without delay. Meeting with the publishers to discuss technical issues as well as with the editors to resolve final questions they had was not without problems.  But we persevered, and with relative ease, got exactly what we all wanted out of the project including 68 colour plates (rather than a paltry 36 as proposed by the editor in chief of Marshall Cavendish), and our original text published intact with no major changes.

Photography then became the one final obstacle.  The original photographs were digital images of decidedly poor quality and no one in Singapore realized they were absolutely unsuitable to use in a book.  I gently urged the de Giosa’s to think about shooting them again and told the publishers that these images cannot be used at all.  They both agreed rather quickly and new images were produced rather quickly.  Going to press was the final stage of the process, and given the expertise of the publishers and their experience in the trade, they succeeded in printing more than 1000 copies for distribution and sale.

A rather long story in terms of chronology, a 20 year saga from my initial move to Nepal in the fall of 1984 to the publication of the book in October, 2004.  A lot has happened over the years, and a number of people contributed to this book as it appears in its final form.  Those thanks and acknowledgements are a part of the text itself, so I will not go into it now, but rest assured, it is literally a miracle that this book is now available to the public and I hope that the everyone gets the opportunity to read it and understand who the Tibetan people are and why their rugs look the way they do.

Thomas Cole 26 January 2005

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