It’s simply not true that all Chinese Oriental rugs are low-grade knockoffs. For instance, there are some very high quality…um, knockoffs.
For many years the U.S. did not trade with China. At least one respected American rug dealer caught smuggling Chinese rugs into the U.S. was sent to jail by the U.S. government. After President Nixon went to China, the U.S. in 1973 provisionally accorded China most favored nation trade status, and trade resumed.
At first, access to Chinese rugs was by invitation only. A Chinese governmental agency called ‘the head office’ kept a short list of American Oriental rug firms with whom they were willing to deal. About thirty names were on the list. Peculiarly, the head office encouraged an even smaller group of importers to form a kind of cartel that would have effectively prevented anyone from competing with them. But those who were asked to participate were skeptical about the legality in the United States of such an arrangement, and it did not get off the ground. Foreign buyers conducted business with state corporations and had no direct contact with the manufactories. Buyers selected ready-made stock from government warehouses and had little or no input into what the Chinese produced.
Strangely, the Chinese government did not seem especially concerned about making a profit. Instead, their interest was in keeping people employed. With that as their goal, they had frequent problems with over-production, and at times they were very motivated sellers. Some American firms are said to have walked away from millions of dollars they owed Chinese state corporations with no consequence to themselves. Government losses did eventually cause the head office system to break down. As branches of the head office lost money, they lost clout, and soon they no longer controlled which foreigners were allowed to do business there.
By about 1990, essentially anyone with enough money could buy rugs in China. Secondly, buyers began to have direct access to manufactories: they now had input into what was produced. They could discuss designs and color, and for the first time China became responsive to the needs of the American consumer. I judge this to be one of the elements that furthered the Oriental rug renaissance. Not very many years later, visionary Americans were commissioning the Chinese to produce some of the best rugs made in the past seventy years.
The very first rugs to come out of China when trade resumed were a handful of mat-sized antique Chinese pieces that, for old rugs, were quite inexpensive. It was said that China misprized native artifacts since they represented her imperial past. The vast majority of the carpets imported from China were the pieces known as 70-line, 90-line and 120-line Chinese rugs. These were made in traditional Peking designs and colors, with thick pile and excellent wool. The rugs were distinctive in having sculpted pile. The dyes were chrome and their pile was machine-spun. Designs were spare and usually consisted of traditional Chinese motifs. They were an exotic addition to the market when they first appeared and were very popular.
But in the 1980s, these classic Chinese rugs became the object of price wars among rug dealers, leading to a situation where no one could make a profit on them. Classic Chinese rugs were banished from many dealers’ showrooms by the end of the decade. In the 1990s they had found a niche in some of the large consumer outlets where they are still sold at very low prices, usually in the bottom-end 70-line grade. The design of these and all other Oriental rugs should be visible on their backs.
Do not confuse them with rugs made in China, often also sold at consumer outlet stores, that look much the same but whose backs are covered with cloth. These rugs are not knotted: a machine is used to insert pile into their foundations, and they are not Oriental rugs at all. They are even less expensive than 70-line Chinese rugs, but will not last as long and have no individual character.
I was told this story: There was a British gentleman who owned a suit that he loved dearly. He heard that Chinese tailors were able to copy anything, so, at his first opportunity, he gave it to a Chinese tailor, asking that he make three suits just like it. He was annoyed, though, when a short time later the tailor produced the three new suits. Except for one thing they were perfect. All three were missing the same button. This story may say something about some Chinese rugs. Critics fault them for being too-perfect copies. They are without flaw or irregularity. Their edges and ends are perfectly straight, their colors perfectly consistent. A design figure in one quadrant of the rugs is repeated without fail in the other three. The other side of the coin, though, is that their quality control may be unsurpassed.
Paul Gertmenian of the Henry Gertmenian Company in San Francisco was one of the first American rug importers on the scene after trade resumed with China. He attended the second China Rug Fair in 1977, and has imported rugs from China since then. When Paul Gertmenian’s father, Henry Gertmenian, turned 72, Paul left the ministry to join his father’s business. Some other American firms importing rugs from China are much larger, but the Henry Gertmenian Company’s inventory of Chinese rugs represents mainstream Chinese production perfectly. The company, for instance, offers an excellent selection of Chinese Persian rugs — the ones that, in a sense, have replaced classic Chinese rugs.
A name like ‘Chinese Persian’, which is analogous to calling an automobile a Ford Chevy, reflects the confusing merger of styles, countries, and peoples encountered in today’s market. As the hybrid name suggests, they are Chinese rugs made in Persian designs, with elaborate, curvilinear lines. These rugs, with wool pile on cotton foundations, almost always have traditional Persian colors with clear reds. Their wool pile is machine-spun, dyes are chrome. Quality control is excellent, and prices are always very competitive.
When Teddy Sumner of Michaelian and Kohlberg took control of his family’s business as a young man in 1982, he was too naive to be intimidated by the prospect of manufacturing Oriental rugs. After watching European-style needlepoint carpets, which his grandfather Frank Michaelian had produced in China beginning in 1917, sell at auction for giant prices, Teddy Sumner began a new production of needlepoint rugs in China. The rugs began to come onto the market at about the same time — 1985 — that, by my reckoning, our present rug renaissance began to assert itself.
Many of the prototypes his grandfather had developed were still in storage in China forty-five years after they had stopped being made. Mr. Sumner cleaned them and picked up where his grandfather had left off in 1937. They are in French, Italian, and English styles, very formal and elaborate. Michaelian and Kohlberg produced them uncontested in the marketplace until 1990, and produces them to this day.
In 1990, Teddy Sumner and George Jevremovic of Woven Legends cast lots together in a new business called Black Mountain Looms. While George Jevremovic concentrated on a joint production in Turkey, Teddy Sumner began to gear up in China for a production of natural-dyed, hand-spun rugs and carpets that became known as Little River. Natural dyeing, at least on a commercial scale, was unknown in China at the time, so Black Mountain Looms shipped vegetal dyes from Turkey to China where Mr. Sumner and Mr. Jevremovic set up a workshop and taught Chinese dyers to use them. To teach the Chinese how to spin wool by hand, Black Mountain Looms brought an experienced spinner from Boulder, Colorado who spent ten days training Chinese craftspeople in the technique.
In discussing Chinese spinners and weavers, Mr. Sumner mentioned the stereotype about Chinese craftspeople suggested by the story about the three suits—the stereotype, of course, being that Chinese craftspeople are capable but unimaginative. Teddy Sumner disagrees. He believes instead that they are cooperative and happy to please and, he adds, are extraordinarily skilled and flexible. For instance, weavers working for Black Mountain Looms are able to tie both the Persian and Turkish knots. I have never heard before of weavers able to do that.
China has a unique system of quantifying the fineness of a rug’s weave. It is expressed in terms of the number of warp threads strung on a loom in one running foot. For instance, a 120-line rug will have 120 pairs of warps lying side by side on the loom in one running foot. To convert this figure to knots per square inch—the standard way of expressing fineness of weave in the U.S.—divide 120 by 12 (inches) and you have 10 pairs of warp threads in one inch, on which 10 knots will be tied. Chinese rugs have a ‘square knot count’, meaning that, if ten knots are tied vertically in one inch, ten will also be tied horizontally. So, in our example of a 120-line rug, the knots in one inch are 10 times 10, or 100 knots per square inch. If you are like me, you will forget that formula at least fifty times.
The flagship rugs of Black Mountain Looms were known as Little River, and they are personal favorites of mine. They recreate some of the most desirable carpets ever woven: late 19th-century Ferahan Sarouks, antique Bijars, old Tabriz carpets, antique Serapis, and others. My wife and I collected them just as we had collected antique rugs for many years. Now the partnership behind Black Mountain Looms has broken up and the first generation of Little River carpets is no longer being produced — possibly making them more collectible than before. (Some very good pieces can still be found.) On his own, Teddy Sumner now makes a new generation of Little River carpets that are contemporary in design.
Chinese silk rugs are among the most lavish Oriental rugs in the market. I have counted 2500 knots in one square inch of a silk Chinese rug! (Counting them may not have taken as long as you might imagine. To measure knots per square inch, we count knots in an inch running horizontally and in an inch running lengthwise and multiply them. Of course.) Reliable people have told me that one very small silk rug in China contains 7000 knots per square inch and is priced at some ungodly sum like $100,000. Rugs as fine as the finest silk Chinese rugs allow for the most astonishing shading and detail. I don’t believe that anyone can fail to be impressed by them. But not all are as fine as 2500 knots per square inch. Chinese silks are made in a number of knot-counts, starting at about 250. Only Hereke silks from Turkey can compare with the finest Chinese silk rugs in this respect, and Herekes cost far more.
Megerian Brothers Oriental Rugs from New York City make among the best European-style carpets, kilims, and tapestries. These most formal looking of all rugs are lavish in design and are exquisitely made.
In about 1995, we began to see inexpensive kilims from China, woven in Caucasian and south Persian designs. They were amazingly cheap, but looked it. Every year they have improved, and now they are both inexpensive and very good.
Lately I have seen a small number of Chinese-made carpets woven with Turkish knots. I had thought that all Chinese rugs were made with either the Persian, Tibetan, or Mongolian knot, so I was surprised. But I was astonished to find that each knot has four tufts of wool forming
the pile instead of the usual two. I had never seen this before. Apparently weavers double the yarn before they tie it to the foundation, presumably to get a very dense surface with a minimum number of knots.
I was puzzled by their exact provenance for a day or two, but, by luck, I met Wenjun Cheng. Mr. Cheng was visiting from China where he is an agent or broker in the carpet industry. He was originally assigned the job by the Chinese government, but as the structure of the Chinese economy changed, he was allowed to go into business for himself. As an agent, his business is to represent American and European importers. He matches their needs with appropriate producers and makes sure that the quality of the carpets is up to specifications. Mr. Cheng was as surprised as I was to see the four-tufted knots, but he was familiar with Chinese rugs with Turkish knots. He believes that they were made in the town of Hetian in Sinkiang Province, in the far west of China. With the possible exception of Hetian, Wenjun Cheng knows of no center in China capable of producing carpets in a full range of vegetal dyes. He thinks that one or two natural dyes may be used here and there in China, but evidently there is no widespread use. Hand spinning, however, is ‘no problem’.
An American rugmaker I spoke with personally watched a Turkish dealer buy $500,000 of fine silk Chinese rugs. It was clear to him that they would be sent to Turkey and sold as silk Herekes. Others have reported to me that they have seen fine wool and silk rugs in Persian designs — Nains in particular — made in China expressly to be sold in Iran as Persian rugs. This says much about the quality of Chinese rugs and their relatively low prices. It is also a warning to be on your guard.