Oriental Rugs Today: Chapter 2
Most books on Oriental rugs describe how Oriental rugs were made in some distant time — without mentioning that what they describe is an idealized model that no longer applies. The men of the family are said to shear lambs of their wool, which the women then weave into rugs, guided in their designs by family tradition. The spinning is supposed to be done by hand. And yet when Teddy Sumner and George Jevremovic wanted to have wool spun by hand in India in 1990, they were lucky eventually to find two or three elderly women who remembered how to do it, only because they had been followers of Mahatma Gandhi, for whom spinning was a kind of mantra. And when they wanted to have wool handspun in China, they had to bring women over from Turkey in order to demonstrate how it was done.
So many of the details and so many of the conditions under which rugs are made today differ so profoundly from the model described in most rug books that it is time to re-examine how rugs are woven — or should I say produced? — since weaving is but one step in their production.
Weavers tie knots around two longitudinal (warp) threads, and the two ends of the knot form the rug’s pile. Though the drawing shows what is known as a Turkish or symmetrical knot, is it really a knot? Perhaps it would be better called a ‘wrap’. The horizontally running (weft) threads will be beaten down on the knots to keep them from slipping out. Several types of knots are used in Oriental rugs, each associated with a particular ethnic group or area.
Traditional Weaving Techniques
Before we look at how rugs are made today, let us look at the techniques that have remained the same for millennia, the techniques that define what Oriental rugs are. Oriental rugs differ from nearly all others in one important respect: their pile, the part we walk on, is tied to the rug’s foundation, rather than merely glued to it or passed through the foundation, as is the case with machine-made rugs. That may explain why Oriental rugs last much longer: their pile endures until the rug’s foundation is worn through. Weavers tie already dyed pieces of yarn to a rug’s foundation by hand, and hence Oriental rugs are known as hand-knotted carpets. In a sense, an Oriental rug is the aggregate of the knots tied in it, for its pile is constituted of the two ends of each knot.
At the same time that weavers are securing the pile material to the foundation, they are also creating designs by alternating the colors of yarns they tie to the foundation. You would be doing something similar if you were to draw a picture by filling in each square of a graph paper with an appropriate color. The tricky part, and one of the features of Oriental rugs that make them what they are, is creating the designs line by line, from one end of the rug (that is, from one of the fringed perimeters) to the other. Imagine that you wish to draw a picture of a boy on a piece of graph paper, but you must do it line by horizontal line, filling in the squares with color. Your first line would consist of the soles of his shoes, the next five rows might be the rest of his shoes, then his ankles, and so on. The last lines of your drawing would consist of his hat. This weaving technique defines what can be done in a rug — or at least done easily and naturally.
Close-up view of a plain-weave kilim. The decorative threads—that is, the ones intended to be seen—run horizontally across the kilim and are called wefts. However, the white warp threads, which theoretically should be covered by the wefts, are visible here and there. They run vertically.
The technique of knotting rugs is at least three thousand years old, but there are other methods of making rugs that predate it. The most important is the simple plain weave which produces rugs that are without nap or pile, and are said to be flat-woven. They are made about the same way that I used to weave popsicle sticks together as a child — although they are made on a loom, and they tend to hold up a little better. These rugs, known as kilims (ki LEEM), are made by interweaving longitudinal threads called the warp and transverse threads called the weft on a loom.
When the technique for making knotted rugs developed several thousand years ago, it was a breakthrough. Not only did it result in sturdier rugs, it allowed for a much higher degree of ornamentation than was possible with earlier techniques such as felting, a process of binding wool together by wetting it and forcing the fibers to shrink and adhere to one another as they dry.
A rug manufactory in Lahore, Pakistan, 1998. Even in modern, well-run productions, like this one, Oriental rugs are far from being cranked out on conveyor belts, as one might imagine when words like ‘factory’ are used to describe their production. In this medieval-looking courtyard, wool is sorted, dyed with natural dyes, and dried; rugs fresh off the loom are clipped, then washed and dried. Edges are flattened, irregularities are corrected. Rugs are inventoried and sent off to market. Dozens of workers, mostly Turkmen in this case, are employed, fed, and housed here as well.
Oriental Rug Weaving Today
As I have said, the traditional model of how Oriental rugs are made is obsolete. What follows is an account of how rugs are most often woven today.
Most of the rugs and carpets that enter the U.S. are made by weavers who are under contract to produce rugs in designs and sizes specified by Western importers. These importers may be more or less involved in the details of production. But let us assume that you are a Western importer and that you are one of the relative few who are involved in every phase of the rugmaking process.
Consider, first, the problem of what to make. No village or family tradition exists to help you decide. Are you, a manufacturer, going to design a rug from your own imagination? Almost certainly not. You would have to be a very unusual person to be capable of pulling a successful design out of thin air. You are much more likely to search books and magazines for photographs of the best rugs you can find, guided as well, of course, by your judgment
of what will be fashionable when your rugs come off the loom.
Dyer working with natural dyes in an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan.
In this case, let us say that you own an antique Ferahan Sarouk and believe that a reproduction of it would sell well — if you really could capture its wonderful grace. You begin to consider the matter of color. It is axiomatic in the Oriental rug business that color is what sells a rug. In fact you are not quite comfortable with the field color of your old Sarouk. It seems a bit too pink, and you decide that in your production the field color should be deeper and darker. You select a bit of commercial yarn that you believe is the right color for the field and you save it to show to the dyer later. Now it is time to analyze the construction of your old Ferahan Sarouk. You find that it was made with a Persian knot (open to the left) on a cotton foundation; its weft is blue, and two wefts pass between each row of knots. It has a fully depressed warp and 200 knots per square inch. In fact, there are many other such details to be analyzed concerning how the edges are wrapped, the ends finished, and so on.
Now, the question is, given the structure of the rug, who can weave it? Can Afghan weavers in Pakistan handle the technical requirements? You confer with producers in Pakistan and find that your rug is a bit finer than what is usually woven there, but for extra money it can be done. You contract to have a number of pieces (as rug people call rugs) woven, and the producer makes plans to devote a number of looms to your project. But first, you must provide him with a number of important things before work can commence. The first is a drawing of the rug, knot for knot, made on graph paper. This is a job for a specialist and it takes significant time. You will need a different drawing for each size of rug you intend to make.
A Turkmen weaver on a horizontal loom. Haripur Refugee Camp, 1989.
In the meantime, you have calculated how much wool you will require, and you have asked an agent to comb the markets for the best available, for which you will be forced to pay a significant premium. He may well have to go to Afghanistan to find it and more or less smuggle it into Pakistan. Most likely he will find a number of different types of wool, and knowing that each type produces different effects in a carpet, you will have to decide which kind is appropriate for your rug. You must then commission to have the wool carded, a process in which individual strands of wool are separated. Then you must have it spun into strands, or yarn. Since you are reproducing an antique rug, you must have the wool spun by hand, for which you will pay steeply.
At the same time, you must find suitable cotton for the foundation, and that must be spun by hand as well, at extra cost. Since you are making rugs that you hope will look like your old Ferahan, you must darken the fringe to give it an antique appearance, and you elect to do that before the rugs are woven. After some discussion you authorize the producer to use a simple tea bath to darken the fringe. Of course, you must also have the wool that will go into the pile of the rugs dyed with natural substances if they are to look as good as the original rug, and a specialist must be commissioned who is able to make the exact shade of red you have decided on (and of course all the other colors as well). Few dyers can do this. His esteemed services cost extra.
Now that you have a drawing and the right materials, the producer is ready to string the looms and begin work. The producer is an astute person who is absolutely indispensable. For starters, he knows whether your rug must be made on a vertical or horizontal loom (horizontal, in this case, since the weavers are Turkmen), how to calculate the number, size, and spacing of warp threads to be strung, and just how tightly he may string them without distorting the loom. He also knows which weavers are skillful enough to weave finer-than-average rugs. Master weavers are no less deft at their jobs than the producer.
The weavers (all of whom, at your insistence, are 14 years old or older) begin tying knots, following the design you have provided. Heaven forbid that you should run out of dyed wool during this time. If that were to happen, no one could wait while you have new yarn dyed, and, anyway, other people are clamoring to hire away your weavers for projects of their own. If you do run out of dyed wool and work stops, the producer is liable to cut the unfinished rugs off the looms and say, ‘Here.’ Fortunately you have planned well, and work proceeds. As the weaving draws to a conclusion, you must make certain that the producer understands that you do not want the finished edges of the rug to be perfectly straight. They must be pleasantly (but not radically) irregular if they are to look like your old Ferahan Sarouk.
Turkmen using an electric clipper. It is equipped with a vacuum to pull off clipped wool. Lahore, 1998.
When the rugs leave the loom, they are extremely thick, having had only a preliminary clipping, and — no getting around it — they look brand new. They still must be clipped and finished. Clipping is especially hard, though, because you have chosen to use handspun wool. The traditional method of clipping handspun wool is to clip it in stages: up to six separate clippings with washings in between. The easy way to handle this problem is to wash the rugs in a kind of conditioner that untangles the fibers of handspun wool. With this treatment, the rugs need only be clipped twice, with one intermediate washing. You believe that the conditioning process harms the wool, and you decide that the rugs must be clipped without conditioner at a far greater cost. None of the washing involves chemicals except soap because you are unwilling to compromise the wool. The long process of cleaning and clipping is interrupted several times by ‘load sharing’, during which electric power is suddenly cut off in your part of town for mysterious reasons.
Rug washers and senior staff members in a Lahore manufactory, 1998
After the final clipping, you have a number of attractive rugs, but they do not yet look like antiques. You absolutely will not use harsh chemicals on them to simulate age. What are you going to do to impart the wonderful look of an old, well-used rug? Here we enter an area that will require experimentation and luck. After all, you want your rugs to have the same look as your old Ferahan Sarouk, and there is no formula for that. You will have to be resourceful. So you experiment first on one rug by clipping its pile quite short. But the surface is too regular after the first round of clippings, so you have the rug clipped a little unevenly to simulate natural wear. This helps, but it still does not have the patina of your old Sarouk. Your producer suggests an ‘herbal wash’, a solution composed of tea and henna (a natural red dye). You are lucky. The wash succeeds in imparting a nice old-rug look, and you are ready to finish the rest of the rugs that have come off the loom in the same manner.
And that is how rugs are most often made today, or rather that is how the best rugs are made — though of course there are any number of variations. There is not much that is romantic about the process, but it involves a very high degree of skill and industry on the part of many craftspeople, plus the vision of one person who sees the process through from beginning to end.
Great Oriental Rugs Cost Extra
Great rugs, then, cost extra to make. Corners can be cut at every step of the way, and often are. We see the results in the mediocre rugs that clutter many rug stores. I have enormous respect for anyone who can make an exceptional carpet. Only a small minority of the people who import rugs can claim to be rugmakers. Most simply buy goods in India, for instance, and negotiate an arrangement to be the sole distributor of a particular line of rug. They may give that line their company name, but they had no part in making them. What they do is honorable and difficult, but it is not rugmaking. Many Easterners and a handful of Westerners are rugmakers. Jack Simantob is a rugmaker. Mason Purcell is a rugmaker. Chris Walter, Teddy Sumner, George Jevremovic, and a small number of other Americans are rugmakers as well.
For many years, Indian rugs were boring. They’re not boring any more. This detail of a Mahindra rug from Black Mountain Looms is full of fun, and packed with natural dyes.
They design, they ride herd on their looms, they gather supplies, they keep child labor out of their productions, they insist on things being done exactly the way they want. In some cases they learn to speak the language of the weavers, live much of their lives in rough conditions, and suffer exotic diseases and parasites. That so many of today’s rugs are so good is especially surprising when we consider that many of the people making rugs today have not had the benefit of learning the old rugmaking skills at their mother’s knees. Rugmakers have had to experiment and innovate and learn from scratch. My hat is off to the manufacturers, of course, but also to the dyers, spinners, weavers, designers, producers, graph makers, clippers, washers, as well as the people who repair mistakes, uncurl edges, and straighten crooked rugs.