An Indian-made Black Mountain Looms rug in a Persian vase carpet pattern.
Teddy Sumner and George Jevremovic were the first people to make Oriental rugs on a commercial scale in modern India with natural dyes and hand-spun wool. Together they formed a project called Black Mountain Looms.
Mr. Sumner studied painting as a fine arts major in Seattle (when pressed he admits to being ‘a painter with a small “p”) then joined his family’s carpet business, Michaelian and Kohlberg, in New York. His grandfather, Frank Michaelian, was active in the business in the ’20s and ’30s, when travel to and from the source of rugs was by steamship, and travel in the East itself was often by camel.
By his own admission, when Teddy Sumner joined the business in 1982 he was too uninformed about rugs to be intimidated by the prospect of making them. Within a short time he began producing Aubusson – inspired needlepoint rugs in China. By 1985, he was importing carpets from Nepal.
At some point he had become aware of the Azeri rugs George Jevremovic was making in Turkey with natural dyes, and, inspired by them, he began to experiment with natural dyes in India. Quite likely he was the first American to do so, and at a time when probably no Indians were using natural dyes except, perhaps, as hobbyists. At this point, in 1990, he and George Jevremovic became partners in a business called Black Mountain Looms, which ultimately became the first full, natural-dye production in India.
Rather than take credit for being a pioneer of natural dyeing, Teddy Sumner treats his accomplishments rather lightly. “It was not that complicated. We found a good book on indigenous natural dyes and plenty of reference material. Working with natural dyes, after all, is not rocket science.”
George Jevremovic of Woven Legends (left) and Teddy Sumner of Michaelian and Kohlberg (right).
On the other hand, organizing Indians to spin wool by hand was a challenge. The difficulty the partners encountered was ironic in view of Mahatma Gandhi’s famous promotion of hand spinning, which he recommended to his countrymen as a path to self-reliance. No one in India seemed to have retained the skill. Finally, Messieurs Sumner and Jevremovic applied for help to an organization devoted to keeping Gandhi’s ideas alive, and they found several older women who could still spin. Black Mountain Looms asked them to train thousands of other Indians in the art, and Teddy Sumner and George Jevremovic were then ready to start production.
The partners had interests in common, but they especially looked forward to benefiting from their different backgrounds in the business. Eventually they collaborated in productions in India, Turkey, Eastern Europe, and China, and their rugs are among the best each of these countries produces.
As a result of his association with George Jevremovic, Teddy Sumner says, he has come to see carpets differently — with the focus less on design than on the materials as ends in themselves. Details of the border, for instance, may shrink in importance compared to a carpet’s luscious wool, or gorgeous natural dyes. It is interesting to me that people looking at the same rug can see it quite differently.
Haynes Robinson, an importer discussed elsewhere, sees things differently still. He pictures a rug in a room, in reference to its setting. Does seeing rugs differently result in rugs that look different?