Oriental Rugs Today: Introduction to Chapter 1
The best Oriental carpets woven today, are more beautiful and of better quality than any woven in the previous seven decades. After years of being regarded as inferior to old rugs, suddenly new Oriental rugs have won respect among rug fanciers. But people in the market for new Oriental rugs need to be armed with much more knowledge about them than they did just a few years ago when choices were fewer. And information is hard to come by. Almost without exception, books about Oriental rugs are about antique rugs and practically irrelevant to new rugs you’ll actually see in the market. Oriental Rugs Today surveys new rugs and carpets; it sorts the good from the bad, and discusses the issues you need to understand in order to make wise choices among modem Oriental rugs.
Why is it that today’s rugs suddenly outshine rugs woven between 1920 and 1985? Weavers have rediscovered techniques and materials and designs that seemed to be lost forever, and some of them are now making rugs almost exactly as they were woven 2500 years ago. A few dyers are once again creating colors from natural plant dyes, and now a sizeable number of craftspeople spin the wool pile by hand. The very best designs of the past two hundred years have been restored to the weavers’ repertoire and are back in rugs again, replacing designs that had become corrupted in recent decades.
New Oriental rugs have improved so fast and so dramatically that people who walk into a rug store for the first time in ten years are captivated but puzzled. The last they knew, Chinese rugs still looked like Chinese rugs (!), and new rugs were invariably made with synthetic dyes. They assume that to buy rugs with soft colors and natural dyes they will have to purchase antiques. It takes time for them to adjust to the notion that today they can spend far less money and buy a new rug with natural dyes. They are especially surprised that Indian rugs are no longer the inferior products they were twenty years ago, but instead are among the best and most interesting in the market. And it comes as a shock to learn that Pakistan, now populated by hundreds of thousands of rug-weaving refugees from Afghanistan, produces rugs that are among the most desirable in the world. New rugs that people see on showroom walls look startlingly good to them.
A Renaissance of Oriental Rug Weaving
In the past 100 years, Oriental rug weaving has come full circle, from a fertile period between 1880 and 1920, to a period of decline that lasted about sixty-five years, and now, beginning in about 1985, arriving at a new golden age. I use the word ‘renaissance’ to describe the present era of rug weaving. Is it the right word? A renewal of life, vigor, interest, etc.; rebirth, revival’—according to my dictionary. Yes, but it is even more: Like the original Renaissance in Italy, this period also involves a rediscovery of older artistic ideas and antique composition (like the traditional designs again revered in rugs), a return to nature and naturalism (like the rediscovery of natural dyes and handspun wool), and a new sense of freedom—like the way some rugmakers now feel at liberty to innovate their own designs.
Not everyone agrees. A colleague argues that carpets made from natural dyes and handspun wool make up a small percentage of the Oriental rugs woven today, possibly no more than 5%. The great majority are made with machine-spun wool and synthetic dyes, and are in designs that both he and I would agree are tired. So if such a small percentage of the available rugs are of the kind I am extolling, are we really in a period of renaissance? Is this really a golden age of Oriental rugs?
Yes, I think so. After all, the production of great art in any era, including the Renaissance, has always been tiny compared to ordinary fare. If a mere 5% of today’s rugs are woven with natural dyes, that is still 100% more than were produced during the preceding decades. The rug renaissance is just beginning to assert itself. Rug producers have only relearned how to control ancient redyeing techniques. Only recently have they been able to find or train craftspeople to spin wool by hand. But now the knowledge and tools and skills are in place— and so is the market for them. Yes this is a renaissance. It’s young, it’s growing, and it’s exciting.
In any case, shoppers for new carpets now have the opportunity to choose between vegetal and synthetic dyes, between handspun and machine-spun wool, and between new rugs that look new and new rugs that look old. These are more than academic matters: the cost of a rug will be determined by such choices and so will its quality. But how will you know whether the extra cost of some options is worth the money? And how will you make sense of the confusing labels today’s rugs bear? The same rug in different stores might be labeled ‘Sultanabad’, ‘Mahal’, ‘Pakistani’, ‘Turkmen’, Aryana’, and ‘Yayla’, or some combination of these, like ‘Turkmen Mahal’—each with good reason. (Recently our company was invoiced for a newly made Oriental rug as follows: ‘Ireland Mongol Aztec Green.’ The rug was woven in China. Not even with this book can you make sense of that. It’s nonsense!)
Most books on Oriental rugs don’t help at all. Very few of the ones in print even touch on the subject of new rugs, and almost none written in the last twenty years discuss new rugs in depth. They are geared toward collectors of antique carpets, and do an admirable job of describing rugs of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Their authors, for instance, typically explain that a weaver’s designs are inherited from her mother, who in turn inherited designs from her mother, and so on. But now the rug world is different. Take this improbable but actual example: a Turkish-born rug producer hires Hazara weavers from Afghanistan to weave rugs in Pakistan in traditional Iranian and Caucasian designs—with New Zealand wool. Today, rather than being passed from mother to daughter, rug designs are more likely to have been copped from a Christie’s auction catalogue. Few, if any, rug books help you understand the rugs actually in stores today.
I wrote this book to help guide you through this brave new world. It is designed to give you information you need to make wise decisions—and to have fun while doing it. I have not intended this to be a dry, academic book, though I have worked hard to keep it factual, and have resisted the temptation to romanticize Oriental rugs. Often we take the reader backstage, where things can be less glamorous than where the audience sits. I fear that I will disappoint readers who have been led to believe that designs in Oriental rugs spring from the collective unconscious of primitive weavers and that every one tells a symbolic story. Oriental rugs are miraculous enough without hyperbole.
I will admit to another purpose: I would like to change the minds of those who believe that good rugs ceased to be made in 1250, or 1700, or 1850, or 1920. (I myself thought along those lines for many years.) Some of the rugs among these color plates should be evidence enough that this prejudice is ill founded. Many rugs woven today are really, really good!
The carpets in this book are our carpets, the rugs of the twenty-first century. They will become antiques during the next century, and a few will live on beyond that. A very few, by some chance, may survive for 1000 years. It pleases me to think that someday, a long time from now, a scholar, seeking to solve the mystery of a rug found locked away in an attic, wondering when it was made and by whom, may read this book and find in it a photograph and a little information recorded when the rug was new, and say, “Aha! That’s it!”