Turkish Rugs: Woven Legends

Turkish Azeri Woven Legends
Early Turkish Azeri from Woven Legends. The Weavers were given plenty of latitude to improvise, so something of the weavers’ personalities is visible. If it were not for that, this carpet may well have come off feeling very stiff and rigid.

Oriental Rugs Today: Chapter 4 Part 2

DOBAG was the start of the Oriental rug renaissance, but George Jevremovic (Yev REM o vich…but everyone in the industry refers to him as George) took it to the next level under the company named Woven Legends. In 1977 he left graduate school in the States, where he studied literature, history, and creative writing, and followed his girlfriend to Turkey. He took up permanent residence there beginning in 1979, at first teaching in an American school in Istanbul, then buying and selling old Turkish rugs and kilims. In 1980 he and his Turkish girlfriend, Neslihan Christobel Jevremovic, were married. (Neslihan, an engineer, joined the family business in 1987 and has since been a 50 percent owner and an important part of the business. She and George work together amicably though they are no longer married.)

Turkish Bergama Woven Legends
A Turkish Bergama constructed from old wool. Antique kilims are unraveled for their wool.

George was in love with antique carpets, and bored by new rugs. The crucial difference, he came to believe, was that old rugs were made from natural dyes and new rugs from synthetic. But he was impressed when, in 1981, he first saw DOBAG-inspired rugs from the villages around Ayvacik. He proceeded to buy hundreds of small pieces, selling them to dealers in New York. In 1982 he opened his own wholesale business in Philadelphia. By the following year he was asking weavers around Ayvacik to make rugs in runner sizes for him, some of them in his own designs. But he began to realize that the tribal nature of Ayvacik culture constrained him from making the kinds of rugs that really interested him. He wanted to make large pieces, and that required an infrastructure he didn’t think Ayvacik could support. He wanted the same kind of charm and naivete in large rugs that one usually finds only in small ones, and he wanted to weave rugs in early designs, especially designs from northern Iran.

During a several year period, from 1984 to 1987, George Jevremovic slowly established a production, first in Karaman in south central Turkey, then Erzerum in eastern Turkey, finally Malatya, also in the east. These were difficult years. All the money from the sale of old rugs went into starting up the new business. But the major obstacle was a lack of models for what he was trying to do. Everything had to be put in place. For advice on natural dyeing, he brought several enthusiasts from the U.S. Although handspun wool was still available in Turkey, quantities fell far short of what he needed. Eventually Woven Legends employed 15,000 people and sometimes more: spinners, weavers, dyers, and others.

A lot of money was passing hands. Often George Jevremovic had no idea whether he would ever again see some of the people he was forced to advance money to. He was concerned about his inexperience in buying wool. He heard that wool, which is sold by the pound, could absorb up to one-third its weight in water without feeling wet. How much water was he buying with every pound of wool? He did find the occasional rock at the bottom of a bag of wool. Mr. Jevremovic estimates that production was about 100 meters a month in 1984, 300 in 1985, and 1000 meters a month in 1986.

Turkish Bidjar Woven Legends
Turkish Bidjar (Euphrates line) from Woven Legends. It is based on a mid-19th century Persian Bidjar. In fact, it could be mistaken for an old Bidjar except for its “handle,” which is light and blankety, whereas old Bidjars are thick and rigid.

(In talking with George Jevremovic, I began to realize how much more difficult it is to produce large rugs (carpets) than small. ‘The act of weaving a large rug,’ he told me, ‘requires a level of organization most rural areas can’t handle.’ One concept that startled me: when a large carpet is woven, the finished part is rolled around a drum, not to be seen again until the piece is finished and cut off the loom. A carpet may be on a loom for months and months. That is plenty of time to forget details of design and colors on the part that was long rolled up. You can see why things sometimes go wrong with, let’s say, a 12 by 18-foot carpet. To me the miracle is how often they don’t.)

It would be hard to exaggerate just how important Woven Legends has been in the rug industry since around 1985 — which, not coincidentally, is when I believe the rug renaissance began. The DOBAG Project revived the use of natural dyes, but Azeri carpets (pronounced variously, but usually AH zer ee) which were the principal product of Woven Legends for a decade or more, took it to the next level. Though they were more expensive than all but a few other new rugs, Azeris demonstrated that relatively expensive natural-dyed carpets could still be commercially successful. Secondly, Woven Legends demonstrated that it was possible to make carpets — i.e. room-sized rugs — with a genuine village look. Up to that time, nearly every large rug, old or new, was curvilinear and formal looking. People who liked old tribal and village rugs were hard-pressed to find carpet-sized pieces they could live with before Azeris. Furthermore, Woven Legends showed that antique designs could be convincingly rendered in new carpets. Azeri designs were wonderful — mostly derived from northern Iran. In addition, they were the first new rugs with absolutely palpable character. This was due, in part, to another first in a major commercial production of new carpets: weavers were allowed the freedom to improvise — not unlimited freedom, but enough that weavers managed to imbue them with their individual spirit.

Turkish Folklife Woven Legends Rug
A Turkish Folklife rug from Woven Legends. Weavers improvise whatever village scene they choose.

These lessons were not lost on other manufacturers. Many copied Azeris directly. Almost every rugmaker was influenced. Eventually mail-order catalogues offered machine-made knockoffs! Partly for that reason, but mainly because of shifts in market demand, Woven Legends has now stopped weaving Azeris except for special requests. Some can still be found in rug stores, however. Someone looking for rich, saturated color, a tribal or village design and a good, heavy-bodied, honest carpet with vegetal dyes, could do no better than buy an Azeri. A related Woven Legends production is known as Rubia. Essentially, Rubias are an evolution of Azeris. They are clipped thinner and are woven with about 100 symmetrical knots per inch, and they have inherited the best of the wonderful Azeri designs.

Turkish Yatak Woven Legends
An Early Turkish Yatak rug from Woven Legends, less finely knotted than Azeris and clipped longer in pile.

Another original product of Woven Legends is the line of rugs called Folklife. Weavers are encouraged to weave whatever they like, and most often they choose scenes from village life: children playing ball, livestock, houses, and so on. Nearly everyone is charmed by these rugs, though a customer of mine decided not to buy one she was considering when she discovered that the houses in the rug had television antennas. Like so many other rugs from Woven Legends, Folklife rugs have been copied by others, but the copies are never as good.

Another good Woven Legends product is known as Yatak. Yataks are heavy-bodied and coarsely knotted, inspired by simple Turkish village rugs and evidently by south Persian rugs called gabbehs [gah BAY]. They are playful and charming, stuffed, as it were, with color and wool — the same natural dyes and good Turkish wool that are in Azeris. They are unpretentious, fun, spirited, and relative bargains.

Turkish Serapi Woven Legends
A Turkish Serapi rug (Euphrates line) from Woven Legends. It is based on old Persian Serapis from northern Iran.

When I asked George Jevremovic which of all the new rugs he considered collectible, he apologized for being prejudiced, but said he liked ‘some of the Turkish rugs’. What about them does he like? He cited their ‘tension’. I asked him to explain. He said he admires the weavers in China and India: they are agreeable and cooperative and skillful. He has a different experience when he asks Turkish weavers to weave rugs from drawings. They too are skillful and would like to please. But there is just something in them — ‘DNA’, he calls it — that makes them a little resistant to following someone else’s drawings. “The tension,” he says, “is between their desire to break away and their desire to become part of the process. They fight the rapids.” That tension translates into something tantalizing in their rugs, something personal — something George Jevremovic responds to.

Rug manufacturers are liable to have their designs knocked off by other rugmakers, just as Woven Legends Azeris were copied. Most producers who have developed very good rugs become guarded, sometimes refusing even to advertise their best products for fear of being imitated. On the other hand, a few innovative manufacturers don’t seem to worry excessively about the problem. They are a step ahead of everyone, always creating something fresh.

Turkish Mamluk Woven Legends
A Turkish Mamluk carpet of the Woven Legends Sardis line, based on North African (Mamluk) rugs more than 300 years old.

Woven Legends is one of those companies. Their newest creation is a vegetally dyed, handspun carpet trade-named Euphrates, and I believe that Euphrates rugs (along with some of the new Persians made with natural dyes) are my personal favorites in the entire market. Euphrates rugs are constructed differently from most others. They are woven with only one row of wefts between each row of knots. They have approximately 77 symmetrical knots per square inch, a sufficient number for the mainly geometric designs they carry. Warp and weft are gray-colored cotton. Their fringes are knotted and cut short, and so is their pile. Overall, the weave and all the details of dyeing and finishing create rugs that look 70 to 100 years old. The illusion is enhanced by the choice of designs, nearly all of which are antique. They are, of course, made with the same materials and with the same techniques as their 19th-century models, most from northern Iran. My guess is that nearly everyone who comes to new rugs from an old-rug background will find themselves in love with these carpets above all others. Be informed, though, that they are clipped short and not designed to take many decades of heavy traffic. Give them moderate use and they should serve well for 35 to 50 years.


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    Brad Cohen January 25, 2008

    Absolutely stunning article. Bravo.

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    Monika N. April 16, 2008

    I just went to ABC in new york to pick out some carpets. Without fail, every one I liked was a Woven Legends carpet. The dealer was laughing at me, I was so consistent! then he handed me the brochure, and reading the introduction was such a cherry on the cake — this seemed like a smart, and highly principled, creative company. Now that I read this article, I’m even more impressed. WELL DONE.

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    Linda H, Chicago Illinois October 30, 2011

    WHen I stayed at the Cloisters in Sea Island Georgia, I was impressed by the extraordinary beauty of the classic rugs that were clearly original in design but not antiques… and here they were in a hotel, high traffic to be sure. I wanted one for my own and my search lesd me to this fantastic company. Thank you for this article. A great confirmation of why these carpets are so immediately compelling!

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    Alice Schleusner February 22, 2013

    I was in retail Oriental rug sales for 35 years; I loved to sell the Azeri carpets, even though most of my stock was antique. I have just run across one for sale, @11×14. Is there a current market for this? Condition is excellent.

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    Susan April 27, 2013

    Am interested in locating the original, playful, quirky Azeri folk art carpets in Philadelphia area. Thank you.

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    MLH November 3, 2013

    I have a Azeri 10×13 red and blue – wool/cotton
    I there a current market which would be interested
    in this rug?

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    Jim December 18, 2015

    16 Feb 19, 2012 9:00 am Amy I left a question a few days ago rdgareing the art in the Jade green dining room. It was a few blogs ago, so I wasn’t sure if you saw it. Love that dining room, the color, the molding, but especially the art! Can you tell me the provenance?

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    diana March 26, 2016

    I am looking for an Azeri type rug. Size needs to be 10 x 14