Friday, 28 March 2008

Washington’s Textile Museum Explores A Planet of Weavers

WASHINGTON, D.C., March 28, 2008 – Washington is a city of embassies, big and little, and at first glance the Textile Museum can easily be taken for one.

The museum is in a small neo-classical mansion from the turn of the last century and stands on a shady downtown street near the legations of Ireland and Myanmar. Just as they do, the building has a flagpole out front and the air of discreet charm that diplomats so prize.

But once inside, it is clear that if the Textile Museum is an embassy it represents the entire planet. On display any given month may be classical Persian carpet fragments, or textiles from the highlands of Bolivia, or even a collection of fabrics with nothing in common except that they were all dyed indigo blue in different parts of the world. And that is not to mention periodic exhibits ranging from Central Asian tentbands to fabrics in all shades of red.

Just how devoted to textiles is this place? Even the tiled, Georgian-era washroom on the ground floor offers a surprise. Stenciled in graceful letters around the circumference of the room are the words MORDANT, LOOM, BATIK, PILE, IKAT, and more.

The museum does have a serious side: it is an international center for scholars and collectors with an inventory of some 15,000 textiles and rugs from both the eastern and western hemispheres. It was the first textile-conservation laboratory in the United States and, since 1962 has published the now temporarily suspended research revue ‘The Textile Museum Journal.’

But the museum also very much reflects the personality of its founder and the personal joy he took in discovering, and celebrating, mankind’s fascination with weaving.

The founder is George Hewitt Myers, who was born in 1875. He came of age when the West’s fascination with oriental carpets was at its peak, with demand so great that production soared in Turkey, Iran, and the Caucasus. Like many young gentlemen at the time, he bought his first rugs when he went to university -- in his case, an 18th or 19th century Ghiordes prayer rug to help furnish his rooms at Yale. Later, he found the rug was a fraud. But instead of extinguishing his interest in carpets, the forgery only stimulated it.

Myers learned his first lesson in carpets this way: “The first sight of a (genuine) tattered old Ghiordes threw the spotlight of authenticity upon two of three of my earliest purchases,” he said. He discovered his own much more recently made prayer rug had acquired its antique look through “an effective application of pumice stone and elbow grease."


Myers was heir to a sizable share of the Bristol-Myers Pharmaceutical firm, a graduate in forestry management, and a talented businessman. But he decided to make a lifetime achievement out of collecting fabrics. After he moved to Washington, he filled his home with them and involved his guests and scholars in debates over the textiles' origins. His interests soon sent him spinning back through time in search of earlier and earlier pieces.

“When I first bought a few rugs in the 1890s, I had no thought of buying several hundred," he said. "When I first bought textiles in 1910, I had even less thought of buying several thousand. But one thing led to another and the underlying thought, if any, was to find out what went before a certain piece to make it as it was. This of course led back to earlier and earlier forms, somewhat logically.”

By 1925, the year Myers turned 50, conversations with guests were no longer enough. He opened part of his mansion as the Textile Museum. And despite his own active business life, he promoted the museum's steady growth. He spent generously, including paying $18,000 in 1928 to purchase a Lotto carpet fragment even though he already had a palace-sized Lotto in his collection. He recognized that the fragment preserved a better quality of drawing than did the full carpet.

When Myers died at age 82 in 1957, he left his Textile Museum with one fourth of his fortune and his belief that to study textiles is to learn about the world. Today, the institution is considered to be the foremost museum in the western hemisphere devoted to the preservation, study and exhibition of handmade textiles. Its popularity has grown enough that the museum plans to expand next year into an additional display space near the Washington Mall, where most of the capital’s museums are located.

But if the museum is enlarging, its spirit remains the same. That can be seen most Saturdays, when crowds gather for a weekly “Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning.”

The number of enthusiasts varies from 30 to 40 and discussion topics are as wide-ranging as South Persian bagfaces, Turkmen main carpets and camel trappings, and American quilts. In homage to Myers, the groups meet in the same walnut-paneled drawing room where he and his wife Louise once entertained their friends with discussions of the same subjects.

(Sources for this article include "One Man's Romance with Fiber Created the Textile Museum" by Martha McWilliam in 'Smithsonian Magazine,' and "Legacy of George Hewitt Myers" by Carol Bier in 'Arts of Asia.' Photos courtesy of Textile Museum.)

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A Rug & Textle Appreciation Morning at the Textile Museum


The Textile Museum: homepage

Article: Myers as a Collector

Friday, 21 March 2008

Oriental Carpet Books Sell In Strange Ways

LONDON, March 21, 2008 -- Books about rugs may seem like a no-surprise part of the Oriental Carpet trade. But when it comes to how the books are sold, the business is very much a world of its own.

There may be thousands of carpet retailers spread across the globe. Yet there is only a handful of dealers who specialize in rug books and stock enough of a variety to interest collectors.

One of those retailers is Ed Stott, who operates Oxianna Books from his home base near London. Indeed, his base is his home because, as for most of the specialist booksellers, the business does not generate enough profit to warrant shop space.

Stott says ‘the bread and butter’ of the trade are specialty books for connoisseurs.

“People who have just spent serious money for a carpet, rug, or bagface will want to buy the book if the piece is published, if only to show friends,” he says.

After all, a book full of rare rugs including something similar to one’s own goes a long way toward authenticating a piece to any doubters in the crowd. And perhaps it can even help ease relatives’ shock over a rug’s sticker price.

One of the most highly sought-after books among collectors is the catalogue for an exhibition of Turkmen weavings held at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C in 1980. The catalogue, ‘Turkmen’ by J. Thompson and L. Mackey, has sold an estimated 5,000 copies, something Stott believes is a record for a specialist book.

Some other books -- like rare rugs themselves -- appreciate in value over time. One is ‘Rugs of the Peasants and Nomads of Anatolia’ by W. Bruggemann and H. Bohmer. It was originally published in 1983 with just 500 copies in German and 500 copies in English at the price of 60 British pounds a copy. Today, Stott says, a first-edition copy is fetching 400 pounds.

But if collectors are ready to pay high prices for specialist books, they appear to have mixed emotions about another source of information on rugs: auction catelogues.

Stott says a few auction catelogues are highly sought after because they are the stock of a single collector or dealer and may offer more information than appears in general-audience carpet books.

But most catelogues are considered to have only modest value because the pictures are post-card sized and, Stott says, the digital process can enhance the colors. After all, the intention of the catalogues is to sell carpets in auctions and advertising is advertising.

The world of carpet books is still a new one, with the earliest dating back only to around the 1900s. Stott says there were a few early German authors at that time but that it was really not until after World War II that books started to appear regularly.

At first, authors tended to be academic in their writing. But by the 1970s they also began aiming at more general readers. One of the pioneers was ‘Woven Gardens, Nomad and Village Rugs of the Fars Province of Southern Persia,’ by D. Black and J. Loveless. It caught, and expanded, the wave of interest in nomadic and village carpets at the time.

How does someone get into the business of dealing in specialist rug books?

In Stott's case, it was quite by accident. Ten years ago, his job as computer expert at British Gas was made redundant. But opportunity presented itself in the form of a friend who was going through a divorce and needed to dispose of a whole collection of books about carpets, travel, and related subjects.

Stott combined the collection with the rise of e-commerce and his mail-order Oxianna Books was born.

But it is not an easy business to be in, particularly today.

As a dealer based in Europe, Oxianna is hard-hit by the exchange rate when it does business with American customers. The weak dollar has made merchandise priced in British pounds or euros more expensive than before.

And compared to a few years ago -- when many new carpets books were published – today’s trend is toward fewer and ever pricier tomes. That is because color reproduction of photographs is very costly -- so much so that publishing a top-quality book now often requires having a carpet club or other sponsor subsidize the project.

Perhaps that is why many specialist bookstore owners engage in their business only part-time and without giving up other professions they may have. The business has to be as much for the love of carpets as for the hope of rewards.

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Books on Rugs and Textiles

Thursday, 13 March 2008

A Rare Oushak Carpet In A Czech Castle Catches The Rug World’s Eye

PRAGUE, March 14, 2008 – The Czech Republic’s economic rebound has brought more than the restoration of historic buildings whose beauty was long hidden under sooty and cracking plaster.

It also has seen an upsurge of interest in the country’s many art treasures, including – for oriental carpet lovers – the valuable rugs held in state and private collections.

One of these treasures can be seen in the most recent edition (Winter 2007) of ‘Hali,’ the leading international magazine covering the world of carpets, textiles and Islamic art. The carpet, an Ottoman from the second half of the 16th century, is the oldest one in the Czech Republic and its magazine debut marks the first time it can widely be seen in color.

The historic carpet hangs in a castle in the south of the country that is associated with the wealthy Schwarzenberg family. It was woven in the Turkish city of Oushak, famous in Ottoman times for its fine rugs.

The Schwarzenberg piece is one of the renown “white oushaks,” which were named for their white background and were much prized in renaissance Europe. This one is decorated with mysterious symbols known as “chintamani” that appear as triangles of dots above two wavy lines. The Turkic symbols are believed to harken back to Buddhist times in Central Asia.

The appearance of the carpet in ‘Hali’ is the latest sign of a revival of interest both outside and inside the Czech Republic in the country’s rug collections.

The same carpet, which rarely leaves Hluboka Castle, also recently appeared in a major domestic exhibition of pieces held by Czech museums and private collectors. The exhibit in Brno this winter followed similar showings in Prague and Plzen that have drawn sizeable crowds over the past few years.

The visitors to the exhibits are curious to rediscover oriental carpets after they have been an almost forgotten item in Czech households for many decades. How they became so forgotten is a curious tale from the communist era, when many traditional status symbols were turned upside down.

Miroslav Jungr tells the story in his 2005 book “Oriental Carpets,” itself the first Czech-language collectors’ handbook to be published since before World War II. Born in 1942, he writes from personal experience.

Jungr notes that until World War II, oriental carpets were a standard part of any successful family’s d├ęcor in a society that maintained the values of turn-of-the-century Europe.

“My grandmother, who had four daughters, bought oriental carpets as part of the dowries that they would take into their marriages,” he recalls. The carpets came from a selection of high-quality carpet shops in Prague which at the time did good business.

But with the communist coup in 1948, oriental carpets were branded capitalist luxuries. The retail shops disappeared and were replaced by something unique to the communist era: state-owned antiquity shops.

The “Antikva” shops were always full of rugs, porcelain, and other collectibles. The stock came from formerly successful families which had to sell their valuables to pay a “millionaire’s tax” that was passed just before the communists seized power and nationalized most private property. With no businesses or other such holdings to liquidate to pay the tax, there was nothing for these families to do but liquidate their personal possessions at the antique shops.

In effect the antique stores were pawn shops and their purpose was to earn hard currency for the party. Their staffs were usually the wives of party officials and they sold only to foreign diplomats and touring groups.

The effect on Eastern Europe’s heirlooms was like that of a vacuum cleaner moving them West at absurdly low prices. Jungr says the shop staffs often had only the crudest ideas of the collectibles’ value and priced them to sell quickly.

As oriental carpets were devalued in communist Czechoslovakia, they were replaced as status symbols by what was truly hard to get: modern Western-grade home furnishings.

Most in demand was plain wall-to-wall carpeting. Such carpeting was produced domestically by the long-famous commercial carpet factories in northern Bohemia. But the product was almost entirely destined for export.

Jungr says that people, including himself, would go to any lengths to find a friend-of-a-friend who had some contact with the factories or with the rare state shop stocking their goods. A bribe was absolutely necessary to bring home the prize.

In his apartment in Prague, Jungr still has one room covered in white wall-to-wall from that era. It represents a trophy hard to give up even now. The choice for those who didn’t go to such lengths was shabby wall-to-wall carpeting produced for the socialist and third world markets in gaudy patterns.

Today, oriental carpets cost in Prague about what they cost anywhere else in Europe. A number of mid-range shops do consistent business but an early attempt at a higher-end collectors’ shop failed after several years due to lack of buyers.

That raises a question for Jungr and other rug enthusiasts in the country. Is the loss of habit for oriental carpets in home furnishings permanent, especially given today’s global trend toward minimalist decors?

Or, will the rediscovery of the lost family heirlooms – now so frequently on exhibit -- rekindle interest?

It is a question only time, and fashion, will answer.

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Saturday, 8 March 2008

Turkish Carpets and Showmanship Go Hand-in-Hand in Anatolia

ISTANBUL, March 8, 2008 -- In Istanbul, the saying goes, you will see the world.

But if you are speaking about the carpet business -- and how showrooms use every idea imaginable to sell to tour groups – the phrase could cover Kusadasi, Cappadocia, and many other places in Turkey as well.

Some tourists say the way Turkish carpets and kilims are sold is too aggressive. Some say it is highly entertaining. But just about everyone agrees it is unforgettable.

Perhaps that is why there are so many videos on the Internet about buying rugs in Turkey.

The videos range from very low-quality recordings to highly professional documentaries. What they have in common is a fascination with how Turkey's carpet sellers manage to make buying a rug almost a requirement for anyone visiting the country.

A Japanese blogger nicknamed Shinjushinju has put a video on YouTube called "Turkish Flying Carpets.” It offers a glimpse of how some showrooms are combining carpets with cabaret to create a rapport with tour groups:



The video shows the carpet sellers working up the crowd's appetite by spinning carpets over their heads. The effect is a bit like pizza-makers spinning dough into the air in Italian restaurants – only more novel.

Often, the showrooms offer other bits of entertainment as well. One is to pretend that there really is a “flying” carpet in the seller’s collection and to coax a member of the tour group to sit on it.

The willing participant is blindfolded and there are magical incantations from the showmen. Does the carpet rise in the air? No, until four strong salesmen each grab a corner and lift it up – with the carpet rider on top.

But what seems to most fascinate Japanese and European visitors is the show that still remains at the heart of any stop in a carpet shop – haggling over prices.

Journeyman Pictures, a London distributor of short documentaries, has put a video on YouTube called "The Carpet Sellers – Turkey." (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2F34Btbq1qc). It looks at the haggling process from both sides – buyer’s and seller’s.

One carpet salesman in the film says he adjusts his strategy according to the provenance of the customer. In the mass tour business, that seems to be more important in determining prices than the provenance of a carpet.

The toughest Western customers, he says, are Australians. Unlike most Americans and Europeans, they are prepared to put a seller through a long examination of his merchandise and of the art of carpets in general. These buyers want to be educated consumers, even if it requires drinking oceans of apple tea to do it.

Do people generally feel they get their money’s worth when they buy in Turkey? The answer varies with the individual.

Some people in tour groups complain that the carpet business is so strong that it interferes with their sightseeing. Tour guides sometimes cut short visits to historic sites like Ephesus in order to deliver their groups more quickly to salesmen.

Other people find that when they buy a carpet in Turkey, the carpet business follows them home – literally. That can happen when customers choose to have a large carpet shipped to their home countries rather than carry it themselves.

The carpet will be delivered but their name and address may also be passed on to itinerant rug sellers, for example, in America, who will phone them at home months later.

“Do you remember my uncle who sold you a carpet in Istanbul?” the voice may ask. If the buying experience in Turkey was positive – and often the past looks rosiest from a distance – the call may lead to a door-to-door visit.

And then, in the surprising setting of one’s own home, the unforgettable experience of buying a carpet in Turkey may begin all over again.

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Related Links

Barry O’Connell: A Guide To Turkish Rugs

Barry O’Connell: A Guide To Turkish Prayer Rugs

Jozan: Articles On Turkish Rugs

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Can Caucasian Rugs Make A Comeback In The Caucasus?

BAKU, March 1, 2008 -- It is ironic that so many countries copy Caucasian designs but to find a carpet that is actually woven in the Caucasus today is rare.

After all, it is a simple rule of economics that if there is a market there is a product. By that logic, weavers in the Caucasus should be at least as active as their imitators.

But weavers in Azerbaijan say that there are many reasons they produce and export so few carpets today compared to their rivals.

For one, the country is in the middle of an oil boom that is noticeably dislocating traditional life and livelihoods as people seek a part of it.

The city at the center of the boom is Baku, which has swollen in size to the extent that half the country’s population now lives there. Everyone wants a share of the new money but not everybody gets it, creating huge new disparities of income.

Amid the influx of people there are many village women – Azerbaijan’s traditional weaving base. They have long given up weaving at home for family purposes but are ready to work in commercial weaving because it pays an average wage and they have few other employment opportunities. Yet what they produce for Azerbaijan’s commercial weaving companies is mostly inexpensive carpeting indistinguishable from that produced anywhere else.

Vugar Dadashov is one of a handful of entrepreneurs who is trying to revive high-quality, artistic weaving in the country. He employs some 70 to 75 weavers in the outskirts of Baku and in the Shirvan, Kuba, and Kazak regions and produces 550 to 600 carpets a year.

Dadashov says the biggest challenge is to recreate the traditional knowledge base of Azeri weavers. The grandmothers and great grandmothers of the present generation had that base, but much has been lost and now must be relearned.

Fortunately, the country has long had scholars who have studied the technical structures of all the antique Caucasian rugs, so these are well known. And the designs are well recorded by museums and in art books. So, the weavers’ knowledge can be regained.

Dadashov says a key part of his revival strategy is to encourage his weavers to go back to working at home, the traditional Azeri workplace. He keeps production from his formal workshop, just outside Baku, to a maximum of 10 to 15 percent of his total output.

Other high quality operations are also focusing on small workshop and independent weaving to recreate the high-quality handwork of the past.

Anther firm, Aygun, has 35 weavers and 15 apprentices. It is located near Kuba -- a region from which more than 30 distinct carpet patterns originate -- and produces around 140 carpets a year.

But if these ‘revivalists’ are to turn back the hands of time, they have much ground to recover. That is because so much of the uniqueness of Azerbaijan’s carpet-making art was destroyed during the country’s time under the Russian and then Soviet empires.

Russia entered the Caucasus in the 18th century and spent the next century integrating the region into its economy. To spur carpet production as a profitable export item, Tsarist officials introduced the Kustar (Russian for ‘Artisan’) program in the 1860s, providing home weavers with patterns and wool while taking care of sales. Twenty years later, the newly opened Russian-built railroad was taking tons of carpets to Black Sea ports for export.

All that time, quality continuously declined. Cheap synthetic dyes were introduced wholesale. And producers introduced non-traditional designs of all kinds. R.E. Wright and J.T. Wertime note in their book ‘Caucasian Carpets and Covers’ that the new design elements included European floral sprays inspired by patterns on wallpaper or soap wrappers.

Roya Taghiyeva, director of Baku’s carpet museum, says things only got worse during the Soviet period.

“The main purpose was simply for more carpets to be woven, as it was an export product,” she says. “It brought currency, but our different schools of weaving lost their classic distinguishing features. Shirvan-style carpets were woven in Kazak, and Kazak carpets in Shirvan. No attention was paid to specific features.”

She adds: “When it got orders from foreign countries, the Azeri Carpet Union would tell producers the designs, where to produce them, in what quantity, and with what wool.”

Lost were such traditional distinctions as weaving different types of carpets in different geographical areas, with distinguishably different color values and wools. Those were the nuances which once made Caucasian carpets so prized by collectors.

As for independent carpet producers, the Soviets simply put them out of business. Dadashov, whose great grandfather was a very successful rug merchant, tells a story of how his uncle once found a fortune stashed away in the family’s old house.

The uncle, then a boy of six, put a hole in one of the rooms’ walls while playing with a stick. Crammed into the wall were sacks tightly stuffed with useless Tsarist-era rubles. It was great grandfather’s capital from his shop that the Bolsheviks closed in 1920. Communist officials later seized the discovered sacks of money and burned them in a bonfire in the Old City district of Baku.

Now Dadashov is trying to revive his family business generations later by focusing on a return to natural colors and high quality wools. He and the other revivalist producers have also returned to hand-spinning their wool and using the different grades traditionally associated with carpets of a specific provenance.

But Azeri officials continue to lay a heavy hand on the carpet industry, which the government still regards as an important source of tax revenue.

For each exported rug, producers must buy a license from the Chamber of Commerce that costs $ 113. Then they must pay customs fees.

But perhaps even more importantly, the government provides no encouragement in the form of subsidies that have become common in other carpet-producing countries.

“If a carpet exporter makes more than $ 100,000 annually in Iran, the government gives special premiums to the exporter,” Dadashov says. “In Turkey, the tax that you pay to the government is paid back to you after a while. That does not happen here.”

All this, along with the higher salaries paid to weavers in Azerbaijan than in Iran or the subcontinent, puts producers at a disadvantage on the world market. When imitators in Pakistan and Afghanistan can produce their own ‘Kazaks’ with the general outlines of the famous Caucasus design – but at a fraction of the cost – the competition is tough indeed.

The future of the Azerbaijan’s carpet industry could depend as much upon how Azeris themselves view their traditional art form as upon how the market does.

As Azerbaijan gets wealthier, two trends are noticeable.

One is a marked preference in the country for modern, machine made floor covering of the kind common in the West.

The other is a predilection among the very wealthy to give expensive hand-woven carpets as high-status gifts and the continuing custom – at all levels of society – of wrapping deceased loved ones in carpets for burial.

It is to early to predict which of these opposing pulls will prove strongest. But at Baku’s carpet museum, Taghiyeva sees part of her job as educating young Azeris about their own rich art heritage.

The museum, which moved into the former Lenin Museum when Azerbaijan became independent in 1991, stores many masterpieces of the past. But she says looking is not enough.

“Our museum was engaged in preserving and researching our carpets. But in connection with the market economy, we have changed our function,” she says.

“Today, we want this museum to be an educational and entertainment center. We have programs for children, wedding programs, we show the carpets’ important role in these events. There are a number of moments in our wedding traditions that are connected with carpets. The carpets were not only laid on the ground, they reflected the owner’s world outlook.”

Now, she says, her aim is to keep carpets as part of the identity of future generations of Azeris as well.

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Related Links

Caucasian Carpets
Barry O'Connell: Caucasian Rugs and Carpets

Vugar Dadashov
Vugar Dadashov's AzerbaijanRugs.com

Roya Taghiyeva
Article: Azerbaijan's Traditional Art Not Recognized By International Museums