PETER LINDEN on the wonders of woven carpets, and the pitfalls would-be collectors should avoid
CARPET WEAVING is an ancient craft. It has its origins in Central Asia. The oldest piece known, the Pazyryk carpet, kept in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, dates back to 500 BC. However, its structure and quality proves beyond doubt that the craft was well established at that time, suggesting that carpet weaving dates back over many thousands of years. The technique used in the Pazyryk carpet remains basically the same to this day, although there have been many changes for the worse over the past century.
To the layman, the world of Oriental car¬pets may seem both mystifying and confus¬ing. Why, on the one hand, is there a regular occurrence of “Closing Down Sales”, “Liquidation Auctions” and constant 50-70% discount offers while, on the other hand, spectacular prices are paid for certain rugs at international auctions? This article will try to explain the basic difference between genuine Oriental carpets and mere commercial merchandise.
All handknotted Oriental carpets contain three elements: the warp, the weft and the pile. The warp runs the length of the carpet and appears at each end as the fringe. The weft runs across from the warp, over and under in a continuous loop making a start |at the bottom end in what is called the kilim. Its purpose is to prevent the rug from fraying and breaking up. The pile is made up of horizontally hand-tied knots. yarn, cut at the front to form a piled|surface. The wefts are packed in between” each row of knots to secure them. Gradually die rug grows upwards on the
loom until it is finished with a kilim end,after which the rug is cut down from the I loom. The amount of work involved is considerable. A skilled weaver may work at an average speed of 5,000 knots per day, yet she may require around 250-350 working days to complete a typical 7′ x 4′ Kashan or Tabriz rug. Smaller rugs are often the work of one weaver; larger carpets can be a team effort involving 2-4 women. Most Oriental carpets have knot densities of 100 knots per square inch upwards, some reaching 4-500. As a result, even a fairly small village rug takes many months to complete.
There are two fundamentally different methods of designing, or “drawing”, an Oriental rug. Let us start with the “freestyle” group, i.e. rugs woven purely from memory, without the aid of a pre-drawn cartoon. Here, the weaver and the artist are one and the same, each knot being woven from a plan in her head but not written down. The result is a truly unique creation, unlike anything she will ever weave again, since no human mind can remember the exact placement and sequence of several hundred thousand knots.
“Freestyle” rugs were woven by migrating tribes and “primitive” village weavers who made their rugs for barter purposes, gifts or dowry. The rugs contained soul, originality and charming spontaneity, reflecting the weavers’ culture, environ¬ment and artistic skills. Rugs within this group were woven by the main Persian tribes such as the Avshari, the Quasq’ai, the Khamseh etc; other rug weaving tribes included the Turkoman, the Baluchi and the Kurds.
Virtually all of the above have now settled into sedentary lifestyles, losing most of their tribal culture in the process. Many tribal weavers still weave rugs for a living but in most cases they work in workshops or factories, to sterile and predictable designs which bear little resemblance to the beautiful originals. Most experts agree that few, if any, truly tribal rugs have been woven since the 1920s.
The other group, representing 99% of rug weaving today is comprised of rugs woven from cartoons. Originally, this group was made up of the rugs woven in the main Persian weaving towns such as Kashan, Isfahan, Kerman, Tabriz and Meshed. More recently the group has come to include the vast majority of all Oriental Rug weaving, bar a few notable exceptions such as the famous DOBAG project in Turkey.
In cartoon weaving, the designer and the weaver are separate people. The designer draws the rug, knot by knot, in coloured dots on graph paper, enabling him to achieve perfect symmetry and balance in every detail. This slow and skillful work traditionally accounted for a large portion of the cost of the finished product since only one, or one identical pair of rugs, could be woven to the same design accord¬ing to established ethics and tradition.
Following the increase in post-War commercial demand, this code of ethics had to be compromised to save cost. From then on, designs began to be copied, making it possible to make as many rugs from one design as you have weavers to make them. Overnight, the Oriental rug was no longer a unique work of art. Instead it became a mass-produced, albeit hand¬made, furnishing commodity. Today the cruel reality is that most rugs are designed by computer, from special software, meaning that you can create an infinite number of rugs from a particular cartoon.
An original Oriental rug may be com¬pared to an original painting, and a mass-produced factory rug to a print. It is unsurprising, therefore, that an original pre-commercial rug is worth a lot more than a modern, mass-produced copy.
Another key factor is the type of dyes used. In the past, only natural dyes were used for wool dyeing. For generations spe¬cialist dye makers had perfected the art of dyeing blues with indigo, reds with madder and cochineal, yellows with camomile and weld, browns with gall apples, etc., etc.
The trick was to dye the wool so well that the colours would not fade in light, nor run in water, no matter how long the rug was exposed to light, or how many times it was washed. The dye masters had memorised the ancient, and secret, recipes and could dye wool to perfection. However, they had a monopoly on the market and they charged a healthy price for their services.
Around 1870 the first synthetic dyes began to appear in Oriental rugs. They were welcomed by the merchants and weavers because they were cheap, freely available and easy to use. The negative aspects of synthetic dyes only became known to the Oriental merchants many years later. Western importers complained of the new colours fading and running, causing the Persian government to issue severe penalties for handling the worst of the new dyes, especially those based on aniline.
However, it was already too late; the old dye masters had quickly been put out of business and had taken their secrets with them. Over a short time, the ancient skills of natural dyeing had become lost, leaving merchants with no alternative but synthetic dyes. By 1940 the use of the new dyes had reached all regions, even as far south as the town of Kerman.
The synthetic dyes were there to stay and today, with the notable exception of natural dye projects Like DOBAG in Turkey, almost all dyes are synthetic.
Admittedly some synthetic dyes are better than others, but none compares with, or performs like, original natural dyes.
International rug collectors rarely touch a rug that has synthetic dyes — even one single “bad” dye in a small detail can be enough for rejection. It is not simply the fact that a naturally dyed rug will survive far longer than a synthetically dyed one; natural dyes are generally acknowledged as being beautiful in themselves whereas syn¬thetic dyes are not. The brain can receive any number of natural colours without reading them as a “clash”, caused by the slight impurity of a natural dye as against the harsh sterility of a manufactured one.
Perhaps the most damaging development in recent Oriental rug weaving is the “antique wash”. This is a treatment deemed necessary by the furnishing markets which demands subtle, muted colours like those seen in antique rugs.
Since the modern synthetic colours are far too bright for consumption, the rugs are washed in heavy-duty chemicals Like caustic soda and various acids. The result is a rug with washed-out colours, an artificial sheen and a much reduced life expectancy. Fading usually takes place within years and the wool starts breaking up quickly. Needless to say, many antique-washed rugs have very little second-hand value. Sadly, almost all modern rugs, except DOBAGs and a handful of others, undergo some kind of “beautification” processing, unlike the old rugs where time and wear produced a natural and attractive patination.
Let us now focus on the genuine article: the rugs that really matter to the buyer wanting something unique, beautiful, useful and value-retaining. Not all old and antique rugs have a high value just by virtue of their age. The rug must still have an attractive design, have well-matched, beautiful colours and be in acceptable condition. Obviously, if a rug has spent some 100 years on the floor it will show some wear and tear. Slight and evenly spread wear can be acceptable, as long as it hasn’t exposed warps. Minor restoration is also acceptable provided it has been done well, in sympathy with the texture, colour and design of the rug.
Large areas of wear, reduced borders, fragile foundation, severe colour run, extensive restoration and camouflage paint to disguise wear are unacceptable. Unfortunately most old rugs have one or more of the above problems, reducing the really appealing rugs to a very small number. Few people in their right mind would dream of selling an old Oriental rug in good condition. In the East, good rugs are rarely used on the floor — instead they are hung on walls or stored away from traf¬fic, handed down from one generation to the next — hence the term “heirloom”.
Unless a family is in dire financial straits, it would only consider selling pieces from their collection if they were given irre¬sistible offers.
All these factors have resulted in a severe shortage of good pieces in the marketplace.
The countries of origin (Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Russia) are “sold out” — their stocks of good old rugs have long since been exported to the West. Auction rooms are either filled with worn-out pieces way beyond the point of rescue, or else they offer large numbers of ugly, late and otherwise unsalable merchandise, supplied regularly from dealers who cannot dispose of them in their shops. For all the above reasons, a really good, old example will carry a respectable price tag.
Take, for example, a hand-knotted carpet made in Europe, at current labour costs, etc. The only comparison happens to be found in Donegal, Ireland, where hand-knotted carpets are again being woven. The cost of a Donegal is approximately £133 per square foot, ex factory, worked at a knot count of 16 knots per square inch. A carpet of 10′ x 7′ size therefore costs 70 x 133 =£9,300.
A fine semi-antique Kashan carpet also measuring 10′ x 7′ would have perhaps 225 knots per square inch, i.e. 14 times finer than the Donegal. Assuming the absurd, i.e. that a carpet like the Kashan could be woven in Donegal, the cost would be estimated as follows:
14 times £133= £l ,862 per square foot. Size is 70 square feet, therefore, 70 x £1,862 = £130,340.
The price tag on the Kashan, which is in exquisite condition, is IR £l 1,500. Admittedly, this is a spurious comparison, not meant to reflect on Donegal Carpets who are doing great things. It does, however, illustrate the exceptional value of a good Oriental carpet.
You can extend the discussion and compare this with other fields of fine art, especially with painted art. When you con¬sider the incredible skills involved — the time taken to weave it the generations it will survive for and the substantial visual effect it has in a home — you will realise what great value an Oriental rug represents.
There are many highly collectable Oriental rugs that would be within comfortable reach of most aspiring rug collections. You can still buy a perfect, top quality antique Baluch rug for £900-£l,500. Other rare tribal rugs like Avshars and Luris can be purchased in perfect condition, from £1,500. Early tribal bagfaces, hugely collected in the USA, are available for £250-£750. A perfect Persian town rug from the 1930s, such as a Kashan or Isfahan, can be yours from £3,500. For early, rare tribal and Caucasian rugs you may have to pay a little more, say around £5,000 to £10,000. However, look at them as the work of art they are and they suddenly seem very reasonably priced indeed.
Finally, remember that the Oriental rug business is extremely complex, full of traps and pitfalls. If you only buy Oriental rugs as souvenirs while on holiday, or as buy-and-throw-away furnishings, it doesn’t matter where you buy them, as long as you are comfortable with cost.
However, if you want to invest in genuine, old rugs while they are still avail¬able, you are strongly advised to strike up a relationship with a reputable dealer. He or she will already have done the extensive fieldwork of sourcing, vetting and certifying the pieces, ensuring they are in good condition and priced sensibly. He or she will let you try rugs in your home before deciding to buy, and will offer to exchange or trade in your rugs at purchase price levels.
You will not find collectable rugs while on holidays in Turkey, or in the perpetual “Closing Down Sale” shops in High Street locations. Nor will you find them in travelling auctions, “liquidation sales” and the like. There are very few established dealers that specialise in old and antique pieces, but they are the ones you should consult. They will never have “sales” but they will stand over their pieces and offer you the essential back-up services like washing, restoration and exchanges.
The annual HALI Carpet Fair at Olympia in London in June is also Worth visiting — it will give you an idea of the scale of international rug collecting. It will also show you that the quality and value of what is on offer in Ireland compares very favourably in the international marketplace, where these exquisite treasures can be sold for several times above the asking price here.