Tassie sheep
farmer rugs up

What do prayer flags fluttering at the top of mountain passes in Tibet have to do with a fifth generation Tasmanian sheep farmer?

Tibetan travellers hang these flags when they reach the summit of any of the major passes, but they have a special significance for those Tibetans fleeing from their beloved country to escape Chinese rule. Each winter, when ice makes big river crossings possible, some 4000 Tibetans risk frostbite, starvation and death to get to Nepal.

From there they usually plan to go further south to see their beloved Dalai Lama who lives in exile in northern India. Many settle in Tibetan communities elsewhere in these neighbouring countries, where they feel free to worship and live in their own way.

Which is where Paul Thomas came across them. The owner of a small sheep farm on the hillsides overlooking Randalls Bay, an hour’s drive south of Hobart, Paul was involved in the local carpet wool industry for some 20 years.

Paul Thomas

His farm looks out over the scenic D’Entrecasteaux Channel and Bruny Island and he says that in winter the snow-capped peaks of Mt La Perouse, Adamsons Peak and the Hartz Range remind him of the distant Himalayas where nomadic Tibetan shepherds grow wool for the carpet industry.

Tibet has been occupied by China’s Red Army since 1959, when the Dalai Lama and 80,000 fellow Tibetans fled south over the Himalayas to Nepal and India.

It was on a visit to Tibet in 1998, that Paul Thomas and his partner Bob Brown personally met Tibetans who told them they were secretly planning to walk over the high passes of the Himalayas to escape the repression.

the pair discovered the beauty and quality of the carpets that the Tibetans who have reached Nepal make by hand to sustain them in exile

In a later journey — this time to Kathmandu and the lakeside town of Pokhara — the pair discovered the beauty and quality of the carpets that the Tibetans who have reached Nepal make by hand to sustain them in exile.

The wool comes from nomadic shepherds in Tibet. It is washed, carded, spun and dyed by hand. And then with meticulous patience — it takes an average weaver 20 days of fulltime weaving to make a square metre of a 60 knot to the square inch carpet and 30 days for a 100 knot to the square inch carpet — the carpets are made on large vertical wooden looms to skilfully drawn patterns.

As the Tibetan carpetmakers explained their difficulties in accessing western markets, Paul decided to sell the rugs back in Australia. He found a National Trust classified building in Hobart’s Harrington Street and then went back to the Tibetan villages in Nepal to select his first shipment of carpets.

In September 2000 the Dalai Lama’s representative in Australia, Chope Tsering, opened the two-storey showrooms called Rugs of Tibet.

On the walls are photographs of the Tibetan men and women spinning wool and at the looms, with the designs on paper attached to the looms above their heads, and various coloured balls of wool in baskets behind them.

To reassure people worried about stories of child labour at carpet factories in India and Pakistan Paul also brought back photos of Tibetans’ creches for the very young children, and of six-year old boys playing on a vacant loom. He says he enjoys the great dignity and honesty of his Tibetan business associates, and describes the remarkably good schooling facilities for their Tibetan youngsters despite the fact they are in exile.

A little of every rug sale also goes to the Australia Tibet Council to help bring forward the day the Tibetans regain their freedom.

Paul Thomas’s web site shows his selection of rugs, from tiny prayer rugs to those big enough for a spacious penthouse. ¶