Friday, 25 April 2008

Central Asian Kyrgyz Felt Carpets Search For A Role In The Modern World

BISHKEK, April 25, 2008 – When one imagines the vast steppes of Central Asia, yurts and felt carpets come quickly to mind.

It is from sheets of plain white felt that yurts are built, and it is with colorfully patterned felt that they are decorated inside. The result is a warm and cheerful shelter that served Central Asia’s nomads well for thousands of years.

If you drive along Kyrgyzstan's endless chains of Celestial Mountains (Ala-too in Kyrgyz), you will indeed spot yurts dotting the slopes with flocks of sheep nearby in an idyllic picture of nomadic life.

But, it can be a little disappointing for felt enthusiasts to arrive in modern Bishkek and hardly find a yurt, or even a felt, in sight.

In Kyrgyzstan’s capital city -- population about one million -- yurts today are only set up in the garden of someone’s home when a family member dies. The lady of the house faces the inner wall of the tent each time mourners approach the house and start a dirge. Female newcomers join her in lamenting, while men remain standing outside, facing the wall of the yurt and wailing.

Even in the marketplaces it is hard to find nomadic felt carpets. The carpets for sale are machine-woven imitations of sophisticated Turkmen and Iranian pile carpets.

Janyl Chytyrbaeva, a Kyrgyz journalist, explains why. “Everyone wants a house like you see on TV,” she says. The machine-made carpets from artificial fiber are given as gifts at weddings and funerals and most people’s apartments and houses are covered with them.

Does this mean that felt has disappeared from Kyrgyz life? No. But like so many traditional handicrafts elsewhere, it is endangered and its only protectors are female artisans from poor rural area and artists.

Chytyrbaeva, who herself stitched her own felt dowry rugs as a teenager, says the only place to find it in use in Bishkek is where the poorest migrants from the countryside have settled on the outskirts of the city. There, they cover the floors with plain yet colorful felt mats or with patterned Ala-Kiyiz, which are made by rolling colored felt into a plain felt background. More highly patterned carpets, Shyrdaks (Shirdaks, Shurdoks), are made by sewing together felt of different colors and then stitching them onto a plain felt basecloth.

All these kinds of felt carpets provide warm flooring in a country where the winters are bitterly cold. For additional warmth, laborers’ families will also put sheepskins here and there on top of the felt. Sometimes, pieces of sheepskins with black, brown, or white wool are stitched together to give these mats, too, an interesting shyrdak-like pattern.

Still, if these furnishings seem humble, the ancient felt-working tradition of Kyrgyzstan itself is rich. Skilled felt-makers can produce pieces of effortless sophistication and great art just as readily as ordinary villagers make plain felt floor mats.

Highly complicated Shyrdaks are created by cutting the same design into several sheets of brightly colored felt and then switching and refitting the pieces together like jig-saw puzzles.

The flowing and harmonious patterns, filled with symbolism, complement the unstructured texture of the felt. With additional techniques, including appliqué, more detailed designs become possible.

Kyrgyz felts are gradually gaining a place in the Western market, yet they still remain little known compared to the other great textiles of Central Asia: the red pile rugs of Turkmenistan or the Suzani embroideries of Uzbekistan.

A handful of rug importers are scouring the Kyrgyz countryside for artisans but many more Western businesses seem content with just importing Kyrgyz-made felt slippers and hats or, more recently, stuffed toy animals.

That seems modest for a nomadic culture that in many ways was unique. The Kyrgyz, who live in a mountainous country, migrated up and down their slopes with the seasons while most of their steppe neighbors wandered widely across the plains.

Today, they can date their presence in the mountains to thousands of years ago and have many traditions all their own. That includes the design of the national flag. It is the only one in the world that has at its center a stylized representation of the roof of a traditional yurt.




Related Links

Kyrgyzstyle Company, Kyrgyzstan

FeltRugs Company, Britain

Shirdak Silkroad Textile Company, Netherlands

Photos of Kyrgyzstan: Jonathan Barth

YouTube: How Nomads Make Felt (Mongolia)

Friday, 18 April 2008

Drawing Oriental Carpet Designs Is An Artform Of Its Own

BAKU and TEHRAN, April 18, 2008 -- Long before most town and city carpets are woven, the design is recorded on paper.

The drawing, or 'cartoon,' is what the weavers follow to create their patterns. And when the designs are complex, preparing the cartoons becomes an art form in itself.

Traditionally, cartoons have been drawn by hand on graph paper. Many producers maintain that system. Their designers use colored pencils or paint to create a portrait of part of the carpet that shows the border and as much of the field as needed to establish the pattern.

Vugar Dadashov, the head of Baku-based Azerbaijanrugs, uses this life-size design of one-quarter of a 1.5 x 2 meter Akstafa rug. It took a designer four days to draw and his weavers have been using the cartoon for three years.

Because this Akstafa design is symmetrical, the weavers can complete the remainder of the rug's pattern themselves – though they have to mentally flip and reverse the cartoon to do so. It is an exercise in abstract thinking for everyone involved, and one that dates back to the very earliest days of the settled carpet trade.

But when carpets are non-symmetrical, or contain surprise elements in some parts of the field but not others, the cartoons have to show more. Then designers may draw a half of the rug or even the full rug. And at that point, drawing a carpet can become as time-consuming as any other form of portrait art.

Hossein Attaran, of Carpet Heritage in Tehran, says it can take a month to hand-draw a full carpet with an all-over design. For that reason, he and many other producers have increasingly turned to digital design systems to speed the work.

Attaran says that a designer can produce this digital image of the full-field pattern of an antique Bidjar in about a week. The image is later printed out on paper sheets that are sent to a village weaver near the town of Bidjar to hang on her home loom as she works part-time on the rug through the course of a year.

But even with software, designing remains a painstaking job and the designer still must make what traditionally are his or her own contributions to the drawing. That is, to give a personal interpretation to the motifs and choice of colors so as to infuse the work with life.

Where do the designers get the training to do this?

In many rug-producing countries, the education was once solely by apprenticeship but today it is increasingly formal.

Dadashov's designer is a professional painter who graduated from the Azerbaijan State University of Culture and Art. She works full-time for him and their inspirations come mostly from photos of rare antique Caucasian rugs.

In Iran, universities in many cities now offer courses in rug design. Tehran has two such famous schools. One is the University of Art, which offers a Bachelor of Arts program in carpet design for both men and women. The other is Al Zahra University, which includes studies of carpet design as part of its Bachelor of Arts program for women.

Attaran says the programs include familiarity with the great carpets of the past but focus most of all on the production of the past 50 to 60 years. The students, who must be talented artists to enter, learn the styles of each of Iran's many carpet-producing regions so well that they can draw each one's characteristic 'guls,' or flowers, in their pure form.

That is partly so that the designers can preserve the identity of Persian carpets against ever increasing numbers of would-be imitators abroad.

"I have seen drawings of carpets outside of Iran and they have such a foreign accent, deliberate or not, that they have taken the original character out of the rug entirely," Attaran says. He employs two designers who have graduated from university programs precisely to keep his own production accent-free.

An Iranian designer can make the equivalent of $ 400 to $ 500 a month – a reasonable income in the local market - and has a status comparable to that of a graphic artist in the West. Increasingly, the designers are women, both because there are more women art graduates than men and because of economic reasons.

With Iran’s official inflation rate running around 20 percent, many women welcome a designer’s salary as a supplement to their family income. But many men who are the sole breadwinners for their families say they now must find professions that pay higher salaries than the carpet industry can offer.




Related Links


Carpet Heritage

How Iranians Classify Persian Carpets – with Table

How Iranians Classify Persian Carpets – with Illustrations

Book: Oriental Carpet Design: A Guide to Traditional Motifs, Patterns and Symbols, by P.R.J. Ford

Friday, 11 April 2008

A Carpet Of Stone Honors Hamburg As Heart Of Europe's Oriental Rug Trade

HAMBURG, April 11, 2008 -- When people think of oriental carpets, they usually don’t think of Germany’s biggest port.

But Hamburg is the major entry point for handwoven carpets into Europe and for trans-shipments to America. One third of the world’s carpets move through here each year, along with many more goods from the East ranging from tea to coffee to computers.

For decades, this was best known only to cognoscenti of the carpet trade. But in recent years, enthusiasts have tried to put Hamburg more openly on the rug map. They have succeeded so well that today anyone visiting Hamburg’s port area can learn a lot about the global carpet business, too.

The place to begin is the port’s storehouse area, a sprawling complex of warehouses built along a maze of canals at the turn of the last century. Called the Speicherstadt (Storehouse City), the district is popular with tour boats which carry visitors up the canals to admire the red-brick architecture of the buildings. But the warehouses themselves, despite their yesteryear gables and turrets, are very much a still-functioning depot area.

In the heart of the warehouse complex is a bridge covered with an oriental carpet. There is a sign at each end that warns any ladies who happen to be walking by in high heels to be careful. The reason is not that they might damage the surface of the carpet, but so that they don’t trip on it.

The carpet is made of stone and is the brainchild of German artist Frank Raendchen. He mobilized scores of sculptors, illustrators, students and photographers in 2004 to join him in sticking 1.5 tons of colored stone to the bridge with synthetic resin to reproduce the design of a Persian carpet.

What are the stone carpet’s dimensions? Length: 37.5 meters. Width: 2.45 meters. “Pile” height: 1 centimeter. It is modeled on a real carpet that Raendchen rented for the project for 70 euros from a dealer.

Raendchen says his goal was to turn the warehouse area “inside-out” to show visitors the exotic things stored inside. He says he focused on carpets because “the oriental rug, besides its economic importance and its decorative value, still possesses some of the magical allure of the great wide world.”

The oriental carpet made of stone is not the only way to appreciate the some 3.6 million square meters worth of handwoven rugs that flood in and out of Speicherstadt each year. There are also several museums that tell the story of the port and its exotic trade.

Among these are the Speicherstadtmuseum, with its hands-on exhibits of bales of rubber and coffee sacks, and the Spice Museum, where visitors can see and smell some 50 spices. Both of them are located in original warehouses.

And there is also one very unexpected museum, squeezed between the Spice Museum and a carpet warehouse. It is the Afghan Museum, with displays of rugs and other artifacts. An Afghan carpet salesman founded it in 1998 to remind himself and other Afghans living in Germany of their homeland. Today, it helps to make ends meet by doubling as a venue for catered parties.

But perhaps the most fascinating thing a carpet lover can see in this sprawling warehouse town is history repeating itself – over and over again.

Despite all the modernization, the warehouse crews still use pulleys to haul pallets of carpets off barges and up to the warehouse windows many stories above the waterline. There the carpets will stay until they are sold to retailers around the Western world, and more rugs arrive to take their place.




Related Links:

Frank Raendchen's Stone Carpet


Spice Museum, Hamburg

Afghan Museum, Hamburg

Friday, 4 April 2008

Antique-Wash: The Great Game of Making New Oriental Carpets Look Old

PRAGUE, April 4, 2008 – A Turkmen friend once was visiting his uncle, who owns a rug shop in Peshawar.

As they drank up their strong black tea, the uncle threw what was left in his glass onto the new carpet at his feet.

The visitor was shocked. “What, you don’t like that carpet?” he asked.

“I do,” the uncle replied. “It’s my favorite. But foreigners want carpets that look old and used.”

What the uncle was doing – in a modest way – was ‘antiquing’ his merchandise. The practice has a long and venerable history, from ‘tea-washing’ carpets with herbal extracts, to dousing them in chemicals, to hand-painting shadings into the pile.

The most famous of old rug forgers, the Romanian weaver Theodor Tuduc (1888 - 1983), reportedly used river stones to abrade his Transylvanian look-alikes. The rubbing helped make his copies look so genuinely used that some were even collected by museums.

Here is a carpet by Tuduc that is inspired by a Mamluke design. Tuduc carpets are so well woven that today they are collectibles in their own right. The carpet is available from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.

Early European adventure-travelers to the East reported still other antiquing techniques. Eustache de Lory wrote about two in his 1910 article ‘The Persian Bazaars:’

“The wily Persian has discovered the secret of making new carpets look ancient. He smokes them over a fire made with special herbs, and this gives the carpet a used appearance and fades the colors. It is nearly impossible, when this is well done, to distinguish between a genuine antique and a forgery. A commoner way of aging a carpet (very common in the bazaars) is to spread it out on the street, in order that every passer-by and animal may trample on it.”

Of course, de Lory was an Orientalist, a genre of artists that professionally exoticized the East. No-one knows if his notes are any more reliable than paintings by Charles Robertson in the 1880s of Cairo’s alleys filled with Caucasian carpets.

Still, the question remains. Why is the artificial aging of carpets – with or without the buyer’s knowledge – such a persistent part of the rug business?

One reason might be that many Western consumers find Eastern colors too bold. Aging rugs with chemical washes can mute the hues to better fit those buyers' tastes.

But another answer might be found in the way different societies regard time and the value of handcrafted goods.

In the hyper-modern societies of the west, old people often complain they do not get the respect their years deserve. But old things, such as heirlooms, are venerated.

That veneration seems to be doubled when the heirlooms represent traditional handicrafts that were commonplace in Europe until they faced extinction in the machine age. Today, surviving pieces are seen as something genuine, artisanal, and rare and the older they look the more authentic they seem.

Many of these arts and crafts exist today mostly in museum collections. The museums themselves began to appear from the 1750s onwards, becoming more and more numerous and nostalgic as the industrial era proceeded.

By contrast, more traditional societies seem to have a very different view of their traditional objects. Here, time erodes a thing’s value instead of enhancing it. After all, similar objects are still being made by every new generation in more or less the same way. When something wears out, its value passes on to its replacement.

So, perhaps it is no surprise that strange things can happen when modern and traditional worlds meet – things that not only interest businessmen but also some anthropologists. One is Brian Spooner:

“It is in the nature of things that our search for authenticity is constantly frustrated by the people among whom we seek it. The more we reveal our need for authenticity to the Turkmen, the more they frustrate our search by adapting their wares in ways they imagine should please us.”

Spooner made that observation in his article "Weavers and Dealers: the authenticity of an oriental carpet." It appeared in the 1988 book ‘The Social Life of Things.’

In a footnote, Spooner cites as an example the museum of the University of Pennsylvania once receiving a gift of a genuine Turkmen carpet woven in the design of an American flag. Compared to that, splashing tea over a traditional Turkmen design seems almost like a blessing.




Related Links

Travelers’ Accounts: Eustache de Lory, The Persian Bazaars

Rugs in Orientalist Paintings, by Filiberto Boncompagni

Brian Spooner in ‘Weavers and Dealers: the authenticity of an oriental carpet”

The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective