Western Influences on Oriental Rugs

Oriental Rugs Today: Introduction to Part 2 (Rugs by Region)

Turmen Rug Dealers
Turkmen rug dealers and friends in Islamabad, Pakistan, 1989.

The following chapters are comprised of discussions and critiques of new Oriental rugs found in the market today, country by country. Stories of a few of the movers and shakers behind them are interspersed. These are interesting people and worth reading about for that reason. But beyond that, it’s nice to know whose rug you are buying. I’ve found that good, solid people make good, solid rugs, and slippery folks make rugs you don’t want to buy. Interestingly, though many of the ‘movers and shakers’ have launched large businesses, most seem to have been motivated less by money than by a desire to do it right. As one rugmaker (Dorje) from Nepal wrote, ‘My mother is the main carpet guru for me and the background for all my work. She told me make the best and don’t worry if you can’t sell.’

Two of the people I have written about gave up careers as attorneys and another a career as a psychologist to make rugs. Among the whole breed of manufacturers I talked with, only one is an MBA. They are or were poets, teachers, travelers, painters, and adventurers — and even the MBA is passionate about making rugs.

Many of the pioneering rugmakers have names like Walter, Odegard, Sumner, and Robinson. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the renaissance in rugs is a Western-driven phenomenon — and indeed it largely is. But nearly every Westerner who has contributed to this phenomenal period of rugmaking has a counterpart in the East, a producer, partner, or trusted friend without whom they would likely not have succeeded. These folks from the East or Middle East are under-represented here. I have written about them when I have had enough information, but often this is not available. Some of the producers back home are essentially trade secrets and their identity is kept obscure by their American clients, though a few American rugmakers have insisted that their producers be given proper credit.

As I have reviewed the production of rugs from each country, I believe I have discovered a phenomenon not previously noted: a fundamental change has occurred in the way rugs are selected to be woven. Weavers in thousands and thousands of villages across the Middle East and Asia have heretofore decided what they would weave, and the market has been free to buy them or not. To be sure, some weavers have always made rugs under contract to merchants. Most large, carpet-sized pieces, for instance, are made this way — at the bidding of city merchants. Yet the production of most rugs was initiated by the weavers themselves. My sense is that this may no longer be true. Commercial interests in Europe and America are now deciding what carpets will be made. Certainly the greater part of the rugs imported into America are now made by weavers who are merely filling orders from American firms. Most are under contract to American importers who are making the decisions about what designs are to be woven, as well as what kind of dyes will be used, and so on.

There is cause to be concerned about this. Though Oriental rug making has always been responsive to Western markets, its essential spirit has remained grounded in the East. Now that Westerners control carpet production far more than ever, one wonders if that essential Eastern spirit is still intact, and what will happen if it’s lost. Personally, though I am concerned, I find enough positive elements in the situation that I am optimistic. I believe that the involvement of Westerners since the late 1970s has been one of the greatest causes for the happy turnaround in the industry in Asia and the Middle East, and, indeed, in the art form as a whole.

Perhaps, as James Opie suggested, the West is now making amends for past sins (such as introducing very poor quality synthetic dyes to the rug-making East in the nineteenth century) by helping restore some of the rug-making techniques and designs lost to many of the weavers during the past sixty years. I recognize the controversial nature of what I am writing about here. First, there is not the right kind of data available for me to prove my assertion that rug production has been fundamentally changed in this regard; I base it on my subjective response to what I see in the market here and elsewhere. Second, I know that many who care about Oriental rugs will find nothing at all positive in the situation if I am right and the West is now fundamentally calling the shots about what rugs are being made and how. The argument certainly won’t be resolved here, but you may want to consider it as we survey the market today.

It has not been possible for me to speak here of every kind of new rug you will meet in the market. I have weighted the discussion toward those that contributed most to this period of renaissance. But please don’t think that a rug is unworthy if you don’t find it here. There are far more good rugs than it is possible to illustrate. On the other hand, I have illustrated a few not because they are the best, but because they are important rugs in the market and you will want to know about them.

The renaissance is not about natural dyes or handspun wool exclusively. It is not exclusively about a revival of antique designs or a creative new crop of contemporary designs. It is about all of these, and more: it is about the new cheap rugs in the market which are so much better than the former cheap rugs, about Arts and Crafts designs, and rugs designed from village life. It is about war rugs and soft-colored decorative rugs. It is about kilims. The renaissance in Oriental rugs is the sum total of everything good in the market. It is about the astonishing wealth of choices we have today.

1 Comment

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    Jonas December 18, 2015

    Thanks for posting this, Camilla! I have been telhrlid with the rugs so far, and I’ll tell you something about them you may not know: my roomba can go over them! Most other area rugs and mats trip him up and get stuck in his rotating thingy, but these rugs are sturdy enough that he just goes over them and does his job!