Windhorse Rugs mixes colors, cultures
“It’s really nice to work in a place you can go barefoot,” Tammis Vaatveit said as she walked in stocking feet across a stack of colorful, hand-woven rugs.
Vaatveit owns Windhorse Rugs, a Grass Valley shop that sells rugs hand-woven in Nepal according to traditional Tibetan methods. She imports them directly from the weavers, none of whom are children. She offers traditional designs, and also works closely with clients to create custom pieces.
In the store, rugs with tiger, lotus, phoenix, dragon, flaming jewels, checkerboard and stripe motifs hang next to weavings influenced by Navajo Indians.
She pointed to a piece modeled after a pre-Columbian Peruvian design. The retro-looking pattern was woven in earthy shades of chartreuse, lavender, periwinkle and sea foam.
“I love color,” Vaatveit said as she unrolled another rug influenced by the robes of Tibetan monks. “I love getting these rugs in front of people.”
A fateful meeting
It all began in 1969 when she was studying anthropology in India. She was vacationing in Nepal when she met Kunga Chosang, a Tibetan man working in the office of a refugee camp there.
They exchanged telephone numbers and a year later Chosang, who was married to a weaver, contacted Vaatveit to see if she would be interested in selling a few rugs from his new Nepal-based workshop, Yarlung Carpets.
“He was destined to do this and I guess I was destined to meet him,” Vaatveit said.
She may have been predestined to work in the textile field in general. Her mother named her after Tammis Keefe, an in-house textile designer for Lord and Taylor, the exclusive New York department store during the 1950s.
Throughout the 1970s, Vaatveit sold Chosang’s rugs to friends from home. It was a side business to her profession as a dental hygienist.
After the Chinese invaded Tibet, Chosang had fled with his family to Nepal. Eventually, some family members emigrated to Canada. For years, Vaatveit worked to help Chosang, who had stayed behind to run the workshop, reunite with his family. That dream was fulfilled in July.
“I am relieved that he is there, because he has a better future,” Vaatveit said.
Now, a friend of the Chosang family manages the business in Nepal.
Vaatveit retired from dental hygiene in May. But four years before, In May 2002, she opened the storefront with the name Windhorse, the American translation of “lung-ta,” or what we call Tibetan prayer flags.
“I like to say the rugs come directly from the foothills of the Himalayas to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada,” she said.
Custom-made rugs are Vaatveit’s specialty. She visits clients’ homes to collaborate with them to produce one-of-a-kind rugs in colors and styles that suit their taste. Thirty percent of her business comes from people who want a rug to match their furniture and living space.
She draws inspiration from her dreams, local landscapes and indigenous textiles from all over the world.
One popular design was influenced by the ridgeline in her backyard.
Knot the design
Tibetans have been making rugs for centuries and are known for their quality craftsmanship.
The wool comes from sheep raised in the Tibetan highlands at 10,000 feet elevation. It is then sheared, cleaned, hand spun and dyed with synthetic Swiss and German dyes. Traditional vegetable dyes – vibrant, costly and somewhat unpredictable – are rarely used commercially.
In her partner’s workshop, small groups of Nepalese men and women have been weaving together on frame looms for 20 years. They spend three months to a year to complete a custom rug.
“It kind of flies in the face of a throw-away economy,” said Vaatveit of the heirloom pieces.
After they finish the rugs, the weavers wash them without chemicals and size them to match specifications. The Tibetan wool is rich in lanolin, making the pieces soil-resistant.
The distinctive knot used in the Tibetan technique creates a very durable rug. It is the knot count per square inch, not the color or complexity of the design, that dictates the price. The knots are like pixels: The more there are, the sharper the image.
Prices range from $30 to $50 per square foot.
Thinking about the future of her business, Vaatveit predicts many changes.
“This is a really pivotal year. I’m not sure what direction it will go,” she said. She would like to move away from commercial pieces and work closer with architects and interior designers on custom rugs. She also envisions a cooperative shop with fine furniture and products from other artisans.
To contact Staff Writer Laura Brown, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 477-4230.
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