Geopolitical Events and the Oriental Rug Renaissance

Little River Chinese Rug
A Little River carpet from Black Mountain Looms. Black Mountain Looms, in its formative stage, flew a spinner from Boulder, Colorado to teach Chinese weavers to spin wool by hand.

Oriental Rugs Today: Chapter 1 Part 5

Besides the movement of Tibetans into Nepal after China’s invasion of Tibet, several other international political events helped the rug renaissance along — although, for many of the people caught up in them, the consequences were disastrous. The first was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and Afghanistan’s subsequent civil war. These events forced the exodus of more than a million people from Afghanistan to Pakistan where they have since lived as refugees in giant camps near the Afghan border. Like the Tibetan refugees in Nepal, one of the very few ways they have had of generating money is by weaving. But the creation of their traditional designs has been disrupted. One can imagine that, thrown together in the camps rather than dispersed among small villages as they had been in Afghanistan, they became aware of the sameness of their rugs and the difficulty of selling ones that look like everyone else’s. So thousands of skilled weavers became available to weave rugs under contract, willing to create whatever they were paid to.

Chris Walter, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, in partnership with a Turkmen named Jora Agha, established the first production of rugs in Pakistan with natural dyes in 1987. That production and Chris Walter’s subsequent vegetal dye projects were successful, and paved the way for natural dye productions by scores, possibly hundreds, of other Westerners who are turning out some of the best rugs made in the past seventy years, both tribal and decorative. It is unlikely that any of this would have happened had Afghan weavers not been forced from home. I count the establishment of the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan as among the most important conditions contributing to the renaissance — as unfortunate as it was in other respects. But I must add that it was not conditions but people of vision like Chris Walter and Jora Agha who made the renaissance happen.

Another international political event affecting rug production was the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. It led to a complete U.S. boycott of Iranian carpets by 1987. That was a very frightening development for most American rug dealers. (Europeans continued to buy carpets from Iran.) It meant the loss of our largest source of Oriental rugs. But a decade later, it looks to me like a blessing in disguise — for two reasons.

First, it stimulated other countries such as India to improve the quality of their carpets. But even more important, losing Iran forced us to take our business to countries that were more responsive to Western needs than Iran had ever been. Persian weavers have always been uncompromising — stubborn, even. Simply getting Persian weavers to produce carpets in American sizes, for instance, has been impossible. (We need 8 by 10-foot rugs for our dining rooms, for example, but few weavers will comply. They make rugs in meter sizes, and the closest most Persian carpets come to 8 by 10 is about 6′ 10″ by 10′ 8″.) Eager for our business, Indian rugmakers will make rugs in any size. They cooperate in all respects, weaving designs submitted by Westerners, using the colors we request, and going so far as to re-learn the art of dyeing rugs with vegetal substances and the craft of spinning wool by hand.

Similarly, because of our boycott of Iranian carpets, Americans became more reliant on China. At times during the past eight to ten years, Westerners have had rugs woven there with vegetal dyes and handspun wool that are, in my opinion, better than anything that has come out of Iran in the last sixty years until very recently. China, too, is much more willing to accommodate Western needs than Iran ever was. In fact, all the countries Americans turned to when we lost Iran as a source of rugs have been willing and able to work with American producers and importers. The result is that, while we lost Iran’s marvelous rugs, we gained far more control over the rugs produced for our market. This has allowed Americans like Teddy Sumner, George Jevremovic, and others to make superb carpets in China and India that likely would never have been made had trade with Iran not been interrupted.

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