Chris Walter has quietly created one of the very best and largest productions of natural-dyed oriental rugs in the world in three separate businesses.
In our last post we mentioned that some Westerners take a very active role producing rugs in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. One of the earliest of these special rugmakers was an American named Chris Walter.
Chris Walter and friends in Haripur Refugee Camp.
Chris Walter is a thoughtful listener, a soft-spoken, serious man, not given to self-promotion. Now in his 40s, he seems most comfortable sitting Eastern style on a carpet with Tibetan or Turkmen friends around a meal of pilaf, lentils, naan, and slices of fruit, speaking Tibetan or Turkmen or, for the sake of Western guests, a pidgin English.
As a young man, he traveled in Turkey for two or three years, then attended and graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1980 with a degree in anthropology. After school, he returned to Turkey, learned Turkish, and scoured remote villages for rugs, kilims, and trappings, then sold what he had unearthed in the United States. As it happened, he was on hand in Turkey exactly when DOBAG was born, and he watched as other natural dye projects spun off and began to flourish in the area of Ayvacik, then in Konia. That was in 1982 and ’83.
A prayer rug from the Ersari Project. It is signed and dated at the top by the weaver.
The Ersari Project
By 1986 Chris Walter was spending most of his time in East Turkestan and Pakistan where he made friends with Turkmen refugees from Afghanistan. He could communicate well with them, first through Turkish and then in their own dialect. He had begun to see that it would not always be possible to buy old pieces in Asia, and it occurred to him that he could make vegetally dyed rugs in Pakistan based on what he had seen in Turkey. A Turkmen friend, Jora Agha, agreed, and with a small amount of money granted by a Cambridge-based organization called Cultural Survival, together they began to make Ersari rugs with handspun wool and natural dyes in an enterprise called the Ersari Turkmen Weaving Project. The weavers are Ersari refugees from Afghanistan, and the project was created largely for their benefit.
Just as Harald Bohmer had done in Turkey, Chris Walter and Jora Agha decided to limit themselves to designs indigenous to the weavers, in this case the Ersaris (one branch of the Turkmen people). But unlike Dr. Bohmer, they felt free to choose from the whole portfolio of Ersari weavings for designs, including some not woven in the last 100 years. For the next seven years they quietly experimented, improved, and perfected. No one else was doing anything similar in Pakistan, and they were left alone to work things out without competitive pressure. Even their awkward early products were well received in the United States because they were unique and captured the imagination. Some years later, Chris Walter and Habibullah were able to establish five schools for the Ersaris. The schools are now teaching over 1400 boys and girls with tuition paid by the Weaving Project.
Ersari weavers make rugs with traditional vegetal dyes, and I believe that they are the only Turkmen people weaving rugs in Ersari designs with natural dyes. I believe they are also among the best Turkmen rugs in the world at present. Designs are from the best Turkmen rugs made during the past 150 years. Their body is excellent, wool is lively, finishing first-rate. Above all, the Ersaris have managed to capture the exact shade of red that makes antique Ersaris irresistible. These are pretty rugs, enjoyable, often signed by the weavers. Prices are good and I recommend them highly.
Chris Walter speaks so matter-of-factly about creating industries and schools for refugees in Pakistan, about developing something like four hundred different designs among three projects, and about selling the rugs in the States and in Europe, that one loses sight of how difficult all this must have been.
A fine Pakistani rug by Yayla, made with about 170 knots per square inch. Yayla calls this line Nooristan.
Habibullah and Yayla
1990 Chris Walter began a new production in Pakistan with a Turkmen named Habibullah. The company was called Yayla Tribal Rugs. Yayla (pronounced Yilah, with the accent on the first syllable) is the Turkic word for the high summer pastures of nomadic shepherds. Chris Walter called the rugs they produced Aryana — the old name for northern Afghanistan, the Turkmen homeland. By the time he and Habibullah began the business, Mr. Walter already considered himself fortunate to have done so well with the Ersari project. Founding a large enterprise was not on his mind; instead, he was interested in producing rugs in natural dyes that he loved but could not make under the constraints of the Tibetan and Ersari projects. He certainly accomplished that, but inadvertently also launched what turned out to be a good-sized, important enterprise.
Under the direction of Habibullah and his family (who were originally from Andkoi in northern Afghanistan), Turkmen weave Aryanas in Haripur and Attock, and finish them in Lahore. These people, along with roughly one million Afghans, fled to Pakistan in 1982 to escape Afghanistan’s endless civil war, and are not entirely welcome there. Pakistani police have shaken down members of Habibullah’s family for money and have arbitrarily confiscated their passports. When Chris Walter met him in the 1980s, Habibullah was one of eight people living in a single room. Just 22 years old then, Habibullah was a hardworking force who pulled everyone else along. Both Habibullah and Chris Walter are thoughtful and quietly charismatic men. They are problem solvers who work very, very hard.
Habibullah, center, and Emmett Eiland, left. Lahore, 1998.
Turkmen weavers, whose tradition goes back hundreds of years, are among the most respected of tribal weavers. In the nineteenth century, weavers were making rugs of astonishing beauty, some with more than 400 knots per square inch and a rich palette of vegetal dyes. By 1960, Turkmen production, at least that part that reached the market, was sadly degraded. Most consisted of just two colors — red and a blue so dark it looked black — and both were made from synthetic dyes. There were no other colors to relieve the monotony, and the design invariably was the repeated large-gul. When I first traveled in Afghanistan in 1971, I saw thousands of these rugs in all sizes, often stacked to the ceilings in rug stores. Afghan merchants assured us that Germans would buy them all.
Against this background, it is astonishing thirty-five years later to find Turkmen weavers, now refugees in Pakistan, weaving and exporting the exciting and beautiful rugs trade-named Aryana in partnership with Chris Walter. Aryanas are among my favorites and they are quite decently priced. Their dyes are natural, the wool pile is handspun. In construction, Aryanas are asymmetrically knotted. Body is medium to heavy. Warp and weft are of white cotton. Their warps are somewhat-to-fully depressed. Their selvages are wool, with a single wrap. The knot-count is a sturdy, if unspectacular, 64 per square inch. Designs are eclectic: in a recent shipment of Aryanas, I saw designs modeled on northern Iranian rugs, Turkish embroideries, Caucasian rugs, the 2500-year-old Pazyric rug, a Turkmen embroidery, and Turkish village rugs. In fact, there are over 350 Aryana designs, an astonishing number when you consider that each design has to be recorded, knot for knot, and every color chosen carefully, then sampled in actual rugs, and most likely experimented with a number of times before the final version is accepted.
A Yayla version of the Pazryk rug, the oldest known complete carpet. The original has been carbon-dated to 500 BC.
As guests of Habibullah and his family in Lahore, I observed firsthand how meticulously the Turkmen finish their rugs, carefully clipping and washing them, blocking them until they lie flat and straight, and reweaving any irregularities. Aryanas are consistently good. They have good quality control, good color, good finish, good designs: these are really pretty rugs. More than anything, perhaps, their artistic success is due to Mr. Walter’s taste in antiques. He has chosen the best examples from the history of tribal and village weaving to model his own rugs after. Add to that a kind of controlled irregularity — and, of course, natural dyes and handspun wool — and you have rugs that are full of character. They receive a moderate finish to soften them slightly. It should be clear that I like Aryanas and recommend them enthusiastically.
A second Yayla production, called Antique Aryanas, have been finished to look like old rugs. If anything, they are even more attractive than regular Aryanas. But there is a trade-off. Their pile is clipped short, and the rugs are distressed to soften their colors. Foundation material is sometimes exposed on their surface. I have spoken elsewhere in this book about my uneasiness with distressing new rugs so heavily that they show wear.
Yayla has arrived at a happy compromise. Most antique Aryanas are now clipped short enough to impart a nice old look, yet thick enough to give decades of honest service — and it is these pieces I recommend. They cost a bit more than regular Aryanas. Yayla produces eight or nine other lines beside Aryanas and Antique Aryanas. I like them all!