Among Persian rugs made with natural dyes and handspun wool are those known as gabbeh rugs (usually pronounced gah BAY). Until recently, this word referred to a class of rather crudely knotted rugs made in southern Iran by Qashqai and Luri weavers for their own use rather than for commerce.
Today, the term “gabbeh rugs” has come to stand for several styles of rugs that have the following in common: all are from southern Iran, all are woven by tribal and village people, all are dense rugs with heavy body, all or nearly all are woven with natural dyes and handspun wool, all (or nearly all) have “barber pole” selvages (that is, edges that are wrapped in two colors), and all are constructed with wool pile on wool foundations.
They have one other thing in common: they have been discovered by the West! No longer are gabbehs viewed as quirky and uncommercial. On the contrary, they may be the most commercially successful of all Persian rugs in the market, or at least were so a couple of years ago. Why is this so, and how did they come to be woven with natural dyes? Here is the story.
Abbas Sayahi inpects yarn seeping in a batch of natural dye near Shiraz in southwestern Iran.
Even after the weavers of most other countries had switched to synthetics, many Persian dyers persisted in working with natural dyes into the 1940s. Even in Iran, however, the art of dyeing rugs with vegetal materials might have died with the old-timers and been lost altogether were it not for the efforts of one man in southern Iran who persistently kept the craft alive. This individual was Abbas Sayahi from Shiraz, a “dye master” and now a famous actor in the prizewinning Iranian film Gabbeh. After virtually everyone else had turned to the cheaper, easily worked synthetic dyes, Abbas Sayahi continued to perfect his skill. In the words of one observer, “Abbas was a prophet, preaching in the wilderness.”
By the late ’80s, news reached Iran of the commercial success of naturally dyed rugs in Turkey, and it occurred to several producers to approach Abbas Sayahi and gain his cooperation in experimenting with vegetal dyes in Iran. In this respect Iran had one great advantage over Turkey and other rug-producing countries: they did not need help from Europe or the U.S. They had a native resource in the perpetuation of this traditional craft in the work and commitment of Abbas Sayahi.
Traditionally, Persian gabbeh carpets had been charming but, with some brilliant exceptions, relatively crude. Many were woven in simplified city designs. Others featured large lion or tiger figures. Inexplicably — but quite appealingly — still others resembled nothing so much as cubist paintings of the early 20th century. Few of these rugs were very large. Some lacked borders. Some featured a succession of stripes, squares, or diagonals, or an array of colors with few figurative elements. Small animals adorned many traditional gabbeh rugs.
Naturally dyed yarn arranged around a bowl of ground and raw dyestuff in southwestern Iran.
The first modern experiment in making vegetally dyed gabbeh rugs took place in the mid-1980s, sponsored by the Iranian sculptor and writer Parviz Tanavoli. He drew on the already well-established gabbeh design traditions. Soon afterward, Gholamreza Zollanvari of Shiraz, aided by Abbas Sayahi, took up the cause and began producing gabbeh rugs in larger quantities, also based on traditional patterns. Specific design elements varied according to the tastes of individual weavers. The Zollanvari family commissioned Qashqai and Luri weavers to produce a new generation of gabbeh carpets with vegetal dyes. Gholamreza Zollanvari managed to keep his new gabbehs playful and delightful by encouraging his weavers to improvise.
By 1995, gabbeh rugs commissioned primarily by the Zollanvaris, but also by several other active producers in southern Iran, had made an enormous impact on European rug markets. The Zollanvari operation expanded and new producers joined in. As they had for hundreds — probably thousands — of years in Iran, patterns moved from weaver to weaver and producer to producer, greatly enhancing the creative level of Iran’s wonderful gabbehs.
In the U.S., in 2000 the Zollanvari family joined forces with James Opie, the author of two respected Oriental rug books, Tribal Rugs of Southern Persia and Tribal Rugs. With Opie as general manager, the company began producing gabbeh rugs in sizes suitable for American homes, including such standard American sizes as 4 feet by 6 feet, 5 by 7 feet, 8 by 10 and even 10 by 14.
A Gabbeh rug from Looms of Persia. 4 feet 10 inches by 6 feet 4 inches.
Though rooted in traditional designs, gabbeh carpets look remarkably modern, and their success in the market probably has more to do with that and their luscious dyes than anything. The remarkably good quality of Persian wool is also significant. This wool is arguably the best in the world. It is lustrous, buttery stuff. Only Chinese and Turkish wool rival it, in my opinion.
In gabbeh rugs, the marriage of lustrous handspun, Persian wool and dyes made from natural substances is simply irresistible. People of future generations may look back on gabbehs and other naturally-dyed Persian rugs as the most collectible pieces of our era.
After his partnership with Zollanvari ended, James Opie made his own productive arrangements in southern Iran and now imports gabbehs in a business simply entitled James Opie. While speaking with near reverence of the pioneers of the gabbeh rug ‘movement’ (such as Abbas Sayahi and Gholamreza Zollanvari), and of the weavers themselves, James Opie has put his own stamp on gabbehs. The Opie gabbehs are still evolving, but already they have their own character, with good colors, good designs, good quality control, excellent wool, and an upbeat, pleasant look.