The Decline of Quality in the Twentieth Century

Heriz 1935
Heriz from about 1935. Earlier Herizes were relatively simple and open. By 1935 they had become busy and cluttered—like this example.

Oriental Rugs Today: Chapter 1 Part 1

Americans and Europeans of a certain stripe have been in love with Oriental rugs for over a century. But we have preferred old rugs to new. Nearly all collectors and many home decorators have perceived a beauty in the soft colors and polished wool of rugs that have been walked upon for decades, and they have found new Oriental rugs too bright. Before the twentieth century, Americans imported old rugs almost exclusively, and began to buy new rugs only when the supply of good old pieces in the Middle East was exhausted. (For more on this, see Edwards, The Persian Carpet, pages 55-56.) No doubt our preference for old rugs was merely a cultural prejudice. The people who made them preferred the cheerful colors of new rugs. But as the twentieth century wore on, Americans seemed to have more grounds for their prejudice, because over the early and middle decades of the century weavers gradually abandoned the use of their traditional, vegetal dyestuffs and substituted synthetic dyes of poor quality. Certain early synthetics quickly faded into nothingness (from purple to almost no color, for instance), others bled when exposed to water, and some colors never lost an irritating, overly bright quality…and never will. By shortly after World War II, for all practical purposes, natural dyes in Oriental rugs were a thing of the past. The only way one could own a rug with natural dyes was to inherit it or buy an old one. Of course, as the quality of new rugs declined, the cost of old rugs began to rise.

As the twentieth century progressed, rugs showed a decline in quality far beyond their loss of natural dyes. In the disruption of two world wars, traditional designs and techniques associated with certain villages and tribes disappeared. In fact, the rug production of whole countries was lost to the West because of political conditions. For many years, for instance, the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West deprived us of Caucasian and many Turkmen rugs, and hostilities between the West and China made new Chinese carpets unavailable. By the 1950s, there simply were fewer new rugs to choose from than there had been in the past, and many of those available to us showed unmistakable deterioration. Oddly, as weaving skills were lost, rug designs often seemed to become more elaborate, resulting in new examples that were crowded and confusing.

Turkmen Aryana Heriz
A new ‘Heriz’ made in Pakistan by Turkmen refugees. Its designer has returned to the simplicity and the spare feeling of very old Serapis. It has been woven from handspun, natural-dyed wool.

Materials in rugs suffered too, as the price of good wool rose after World War II and weavers substituted cheaper wool shorn from dead sheep. The one bit of good news was that synthetic dyes had improved. By the 1950s, modern chrome dyes had nearly eliminated radical fading and bleeding, and the ‘edginess’ of some early synthetic colors was no longer in evidence. But with this one exception, the quality of carpets overall fell from about 1925 into the 1980s. Many Americans simply dropped out of the Oriental rug market and discovered the charms of wall-to-wall carpeting.

When we opened the doors of our Oriental rug store in 1969, our inventory consisted of old carpets almost exclusively. It is true that our first love was antiques, but we wanted to carry a stock of new rugs too. There just weren’t many that looked good to us. Qums, Isfahans, and Nains from Iran were finely knotted, but stiff-looking and expensive. Heriz carpets were dominated by a very bright synthetic red. Afghans (as Ersari Turkmen rugs were then called) were two-color rugs of red and a blue so dark it appeared black. A little later, Mishkins, Ardabiles, and Tabatabai Tabriz rugs appeared in the market. They were affordable and attractive, and we bought a few. But, by and large, new rugs and carpets were pretty dismal things.

As I say, there were exceptions. In retrospect, I believe many of the Indian and Pakistani rugs we bought and sold then, and the Romanian rugs we traded a few years later, were better than we realized. I have watched as these rugs have come back to the shop for washing, and they have softened and picked up a nice luster with use. On trips to Turkey and Afghanistan we found good tribal rugs, piece by piece. And we could always find things to buy in Iran with its vast markets; Iran was still a bright spot. But political clouds were gathering in Iran and we knew it.

Turkmen 1970s
This is a good example of the degraded state to which Turkmen rugs (often simply called Afghans in those days) had been reduced by about 1970. It has only two colors, both are from synthetic dyes.

In the fall of 1979, my wife, Natasha, and I were bound for Iran (brother Murray and I were no longer partners) for what we feared might be our last buying trip before things really soured with Iran. Just before we left, we wrote a radio ad suggesting that this might be a good time to buy Persian rugs: prices were still good, but everything could change fast. They did. Just as the ad ran, the Persians took sixty-six Americans hostage, and we arrived at the airport in Tehran unaware of what had happened. Fortunately we were never allowed off the airplane, but we had to sit in it for many hours while Persian officials held our passports.

Eventually our Pan Am flight was allowed to leave, loaded with Americans fleeing Iran. In the meantime, the radio station back home on which the ad was playing received seventy angry complaints from people who thought we were trying to capitalize on the hostage crisis. From then until 1987, it was possible for Americans to import rugs from Iran, but (to borrow a contemporary expression) Persian rugs were not ‘politically correct’. After 1987, all trade with Iran, which had been by far the largest source of Oriental rugs to the United States, ceased. The sad state of the new rug market, at least in America, was worse than ever.

By the 1980s, dealers with high standards were desperate for merchandise. Each week, sales reps from importers based in New York canvassed my store and showed samples of their latest goods, which looked exactly like their previous stock and like the rugs every other New York firm was importing. Most were made in India. On the rare occasions that someone would come up with a new design, all the other wholesalers copied it in a matter of months. We bought the best of these rugs but wished for better, and we continued selling antique rugs and carpets as they became scarcer all the time. It looked as if soon we wouldn’t have anything to sell at all.

2 Comments

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    Kris Sweeney January 10, 2009

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