Saturday, 31 December 2011

Bad Goods: How Counterfeiters Weave Antique Rugs From Scratch

Fakes of antique carpets are nothing new in the rug business. But today's versions are technically so good that they can fool even top rug experts and sell for big money. How do the counterfeiters do it? Textile researcher and traveler Vedat Karadag has been looking into the question for 15 years from his home base in Istanbul and shares this information.

ISTANBUL, January 11, 2012 -- Counterfeits of old Turkish carpets began to appear in the marketplace in the first half of the 20th century. At that time, they were usually aimed at tourists or amateur rug collectors and were easy enough for experts to detect.

But in recent years a new, technically sophisticated production of fakes has arisen in Turkey, Iran, and the Caucasus that is so good that the new rugs pose a real danger to the antique market.

The new techniques began to develop in the 1980s, when there was a renaissance of rug repair in Turkey and restorers became very skillful in matching colors and wool quality as they repaired old rugs.

In order to match the colors and feel of old wool during a restoration, they moved pile knots from one part of a rug to another or even borrowed the knots from an entirely different old rug if it had an adequately long pile.

However, rugs were not just restored this way. They were also sometimes upgraded and made to look older than the evidence their original dyes presented.

If there was a limited amount of synthetic color in a rug, it could be completely replaced with natural colors. Once the offending colors were gone, the rug could be marketed as older and sold for more money.

In these pictures of restored rugs, we see both chemical color replacement and antique restoration.

Here the restorers have taken out chemical dyed orange color knots.

And here the chemical orange dyed knots have been replaced with natural dyed antique madder color knots.

It wasn't long before the high prices that these restored and upgraded rugs brought in the marketplace inspired some restorers to explore methods that would allow them to weave “old” rugs from scratch.

However, there were some technical problems to overcome.

The primary one is that old rugs have a different look and they feel different than new rugs made from new wool. Over time, exposure to light and air softens a rug's colors, increases the shininess of the wool, and opens up the wool fiber so that an old rug has the appearance and feel of age and use.

To obtain old wool for new "antiques", restorers turned to old kilims from Anatolia, Iran, and the Caucasus. These were pieces that were relatively inexpensive, either because they were damaged, or had very plain designs, or were originally un-dyed.

Unraveling these kilims gives a good yield of yarns in a variety of colors. So much so, that the price of these types of kilims actually began to rise with the increased demand for them from restorers.

Here are the unraveled yarns from old fragments.

But there is a problem with getting wool from old kilims. The yarn is crimped from being squeezed for years between warp strings and has to be made to relax enough to use it again in knotting a new rug.

Here is a close-up of the crimped yarn that comes from a vegetable dyed kilim.

Nevertheless, rug restorers always find a way to solve a problem. To relax the wool, they hit upon the idea of boiling it in a cauldron of hot water. The result is that the wool softens and loses its twist.

The softened yarns after the boiling and untwisting process.

Just as there is the question of where to get old wool for weaving an antique, so is there the question of where to get an old rug foundation on which to tie the new knots. The restorers solved that problem in another clever way: they took an old rug of little value and stripped it of its original knots until only the foundation remained.

Here is an Anatolian yastik that is of little vaule because of its washed-out chemical colors and not very exciting or well-executed design.

And here is the same rug with all of the knots picked out of the foundation.

We don’t know what happened to this foundation after all of the knots were picked out. But we can be sure that the new colors were vibrant and the design was well executed, to the best of the faker’s imagination.

Finally, there is the problem of making a newly woven pile look worn and aged.

Counterfeiters have found that rubbing the pile with a smooth pumice stone is much more convincing than clipping the blacks and browns with scissors. Whereas clipping leaves the wool with small, sharply cut ends, rubbing with pumice makes the ends of the fibers look naturally worn, even under examination with a magnifying glass.

The rubbing helps duplicate the effect seen in old carpets, where the ingredients in black and brown dyes have caused the wool to deteriorate faster than the wool dyed with other colors.

But there are other ways to do it, too:

Sheep shearers being used to make the pile lower in places -- also an effective method.

The pile can be burned with a strong flame and then rubbed and cut away to make different colors have slightly different pile heights. This is another technique to simulate natural wear and age.

Dust tumblers have been used for generations in Turkey to get the dust out of rugs before they are washed. If you tumble an old rug in there for a little while, the dust comes out. If you leave a new rug in there long enough, it becomes more pliable and the edges and ends get some wear, a little bit like an old rug.

The strong summer sun of Anatolia is another great tool for aging rugs. They are left in the sun for weeks at a time in order to soften the colors. Often a rooftop is used for maximum sun exposure.

Of course, a little light traffic on a rug is good, too, and heavier traffic is probably even better. Great spots with heavy traffic are a restaurant or even a sidewalk.

Heavier traffic and busier streets have a fast effect on aging process.

Once the counterfeiters work is done, all that is left to do is to admire their artistry. And, as these pictures show, the results can be stunning.

Here is a great looking, all finished fake of a late 19th century southwest Iranian Gabbeh rug.

This is a counterfeit 17th century Anatolian rug.

Here is a counterfeited fragment which can be sold as all that remains of an 18th century Anatolian prayer rug. It is placed beside a genuine 18th century Anatolian prayer rug for comparison.

And here is a very fine forgery of an antique flat-weave sumac with a Laila & Majnun design from the epic Islamic love poem of the same name.

The forgery is of this genuine antique Layla & Majnun piece, which is worn with true age.

Are there ways that true antique rug lovers can protect themselves from the forgers' ever increasing skills?

One of the best keys may be training ourselves to recognize the lanolin content in the wool fibres.

A sheep's natural wool is naturally coated in lanolin, a substance which prevents the wool fibers from locking together. The amount of lanolin in the wool diminishes as a rug ages over decades and centuries but it is not easy for forgers to reduce it artificially.

It is not that difficult to see the differences in the wool with a close up examination or by feeling the wool with your palm and the tips of your fingers.

Train your hands and palm by touching as many pieces as you possibly can. You will develop a feel for it. Study your own pieces with magnifiers. You will see how real wool fibers look with natural use.

Another good safeguard against forgeries is to trust your instincts and your taste.

Fakers often make aesthetic mistakes. They sometimes put fake repairs into the flat woven ends of rugs so that you will easily spot the fake repair but not realize that the whole rug is newly woven.

If you sense your eye is being deliberately distracted, there's a good chance it is.

Faking old rugs is not just an Anatolian phenomenon. Many other weaving areas have followed the Turkish lead. Convincing copies of old Gabbeh rugs come from Iran, as do fake Shahsevan flatweaves.

And just as the rug business is a cross-border industry, the counterfeiting business has become one, too.

Iranian dealers have employed Turkmen weavers in Afghanistan to copy anqique Turkmen pieces, while Anatolian traders have financed the faking of antique Caucasian rugs in the Caucasus and of Kaitag embroideries in Daghestan. Even, India is on the same path with their famous Muhgal and local design embroideries.

It is interesting to think that if the last century had its legendary Theodor Tuduc (1888 – 1983), the Romanian carpet forger whose work was so good it was collected by museums, this century may produce yet greater counterfeit artists. The sophistication of techniques available to forgers only keeps growing and with it so does the challenge of separating genuine antiques from look-alikes.

Vedat Karadag heads Cultural Travel, an Istanbul-based company specializing in custom-designed travel for small groups or individuals interested in exploring Anatolia or the Silk Road countries of Central Asia. Textiles are one of his many areas of interest and expertise.




Saturday, 17 December 2011

Turkmen Carpets: From Bukhara To The Black Desert

BUKHARA, Dec. 17, 2011 – When the "red rugs of Central Asia" first arrived in Western Europe in the mid-to-late 1800s, nobody knew much about where they came from.

They trickled out through the Russian Empire and bore an exotic name: Bokhara carpets. But apart from the fact Bokhara (today Bukhara in Uzbekistan) was a legendary city on the Silk Road, the name gave no hints of the rugs' origins.

Another name commonly used in Victorian England for the carpets told even less: "Gentlemen's Carpets." They were called that because they particularly appealed to men as furnishings for dens and studies.

It took until our present day before people widely realized that the red rugs' only relation with Bukhara was that the city's bazaars were the collection point for sending them to Western markets. And that, in fact, the carpets were woven by a specific people that mostly live far away from Bukhara: the Turkmen.

The Turkmen who sent their carpets to the bazaar inhabit a vast expanse of arid land between the Amu Darya river and the Caspian Sea that mostly is made up of the Kara Kum Desert, or "Black Sand" Desert. Today, much of that land is the country of Turkmenistan, but there are also populations of Turkmen living across the borders of Iran and Afghanistan.

Traditionally, the Turkmen were both a nomadic and settled people, largely depending on how much water was available. They wove everything needed for a nomadic lifestyle but also wove many of the same items when residing in towns and villages.

Here is a picture of a nomadic Turkmen family posing on a carpet outside their felt yurt. It was taken by the Russian photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky in the early 1900s when Turkmenistan was part of the Russian Empire.

When the Turkmen arrived in the region is uncertain, but they were part of a vast migration of Turkic peoples who moved into the Caspian area, northern Iran and Anatolia around 1,000 AD. Their language belongs to the same family of languages – Oghuz Turk – as those spoken in Turkey, Azerbaijan, and by the Turkic tribes of Iran.

It is often said that to like Turkmen carpets, one must like the color red. And that is true. Early Turkmen carpets are all dyed in shades of red taken from the madder plant and the shades vary from brick-colored to a dark purple brown. Usually, the other color in the carpets is black.

But if this traditional color palette seems limited, the effects achieved are both striking and subtle. And part of the reason is that the colors heighten, rather than compete with, the carpets' decorative pattern of mysterious tribal "guls."

The guls, the Persian and Turkmen word for flower, are usually octagonal forms that are quartered and placed in rows. Often a large gul will alternate with a subsidiary one, as in this photo of guls in a main carpet woven by the Tekke tribe.

Here the main gul is a variation of a type of gul known as a "gulli (or gushly) gul." The capet is available from Knights Antiques in Britain.

The world of Turkmen carpets is a world of guls and guls themselves are part of the common artistic heritage of the Silk Roads. Historically, guls (known as "rosettes" is Western art history) are found in silk fabrics made by civilizations up and down the length of the road, from the Chinese to the Soghdians, to the Sassanians to the Byzantines.

But just what the Turkmen guls represent is not certain.

According to the Turkmen themselves, they symbolize birds or parts of birds. But the way some guls are used more than others by different Turkmen tribes has long created a debate among Western rug experts over whether they also serve as identifying totems for the tribes that weave them. Research is still needed to answer the question.

Often, Turkmen carpets include both large guls and subsidiary guls arranged in an endless repeat pattern. The arrangement creates an optical illusion in which the eye connects the large guls into one pattern of compartments and the small guls into another, so the two patterns appear to be overlying.

The "double-compartment" pattern is visible in this carpet woven by the Yomut tribe. The large guls are variation of a type of gul known as a "tauk nuska gul." The capet is available from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.

The double-compartment pattern may be another fascinating link between Turkmen carpets and the ancient Silk Road trading routes. The design, using various kinds of elements, has been found across the ancient world, from Chinese textiles to ceiling drawings in Egyptian tombs.

Today, Turkmen carpets are well known to rug collectors and the early generic names like "Bokhara" are less and less used. But finding a new way to name them has proved difficult because, unlike most rugs, they cannot be reliably named after specific geographical regions where they were woven.

Turkmen tribes were historically so mobile -- claiming and abandoning territories as their neighbor's lost or gained strength -- that it makes more sense to name the carpets after the tribes which wove them rather than the tribe's location at the time.

Here is a map of Central Asia showing the Turkmen's homeland, which includes parts of northeastern Iran and northwestern Afghanistan.

The effects of the Turkmen's mobility can be seen in some of the tribes' rugs. The guls of the Yomut (or Yomud) tribe which had long contact with Persia (and which mostly lives in northeastern Iran today) are believed to show adaptations of complex Persian floral forms.

An example can be seen in the photo at the top of this page of a Yomut carpet with kepsi guls. The carpet is available from James Cohen in Milan.

Over the centuries, as more and more Tukmen moved from nomadism to settled life, the carpets of the tribes which settled underwent more changes than those which stayed nomadic.

One of the earliest tribes to settle appears to have been the Chodor. The designs of main their carpets more varied than those of the other tribes and use more colors.

Here is an example of a Chodor carpet with ertmen guls. It is available from Joshua Lumley near London.

In the case of many nomadic groups elsewhere in the world, settling has meant a loss of weaving traditions.

But in the Turkmen case, settled women maintained their weaving traditions as a way to supplement their family income. Over time the volume of rugs they produced far outpaced those woven by their nomadic sisters.

Thus the rugs of the Saryk, which remained nomadic longer than any other Turkmen tribe, until the end of the 19th century, are considerably rarer than those of other groups.

Another tribe whose rugs are rare is the Salor – but for a different reason. The Salor, long considered among the oldest of the Turkmen tribes, disappeared at some time in the 19th century, leaving behind their weavings as their only legacy.

At what point the weavings of settled Turkmen tribe turned into a major regional business sensitive to the changing tastes of buyers is unclear.

But by the time the traditional red rugs came to the attention of Western enthusiasts, there was already production of another class of Turkmen carpets – not traditional at all – which were aimed at the sophisticated tastes of urban centers such as Bukhara, Samarkand, and far beyond.

These rugs were the so-called "Beshir" carpets, named not after a tribe but one of the towns where they were woven along the Amu Darya river, which flows between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Here is a Beshir carpet available from Knights Antiques in Britain. Some other Beshir carpets show the influence of popular ikat designs taken from Central Asia's vibrant textile industry of the same time.

Exactly who wove the Beshir carpets is unclear, because historically these towns were home to a mixed population of Turkmens from different tribes and even indigenous Iranian people who pre-dated the Turkic conquest of Central Asia.

But if Beshir carpets show how Turkmen weavers could adapt to market tastes, the more remarkable thing about Turkmen carpets overall remains how much they have remained true to tradition over the centuries.

An example among many are the carpets woven the Ersari tribe, which has been mostly sedentary since 17th c. Their large carpets are too big for a yurt, so they were clearly made for urban buyers, but their designs stayed traditional.

As experts Robert Pinner and Murray L. Eiland, Jr. note in their 1999 book 'Between the Black Desert and the Red: Turkmen Carpets from the Widersperg Collection':

"The same gols have been used from the pre-commercial into the commercial period and the designs have changed little … The number of colors has tended to decline from the six or nine colors used in earlier rugs to sometimes only three or four in later rugs, (but) the guls will be drawn in a strikingly similar manner."

Here is modern Ersari carpet with another of the many variations of the gulli gul. It is available from Nomad Rugs in San Francisco.

Traditionally, Turkmen weavers not only produced main carpets for the floors of yurts but also carpet-like hangings to cover the yurt doorway (ensi), bags of different types and sizes for storage and transport (chuvals and torbas), decorative trappings used in wedding rituals (azmylik), tent bands and tent pole covers. Many of these smaller weavings show more variations in design than do the carpets.

Perhaps due to this variety, Turkmen weavings of all kinds are today highly popular with collectors. According to Pinner and Eiland, there are more Turkmen weavings in private rug collections in the US and Germany – the two countries with the largest number of private rug collections in the world -- than rugs from anywhere else.

That's a long way for Turkmen rugs to have traveled from the days when they were simply all lumped together on Western markets as Red Rugs, Bokharas, or Gentlemen's Carpets.

And it is a tribute to the weavers' skills that today their work has not just put the Turkmen people on the world's art map, but even the names of their own individual tribes.





Articles about Turkmen Rugs, Designs, History, and Tribes

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Persia's Signature Carpets Of The Late 19th, Early 20th Centuries

TEHRAN, Nov. 26, 2011 – If there is a gold standard for Persian carpets produced at the turn of the last century, it is the magnificent rugs woven and signed by master artists working in small studios.

These signature rugs remain legendary today, as do the names of the "ustads", or master weavers, who designed them.

Just five of the best known master weavers are:

Mohammad Hassan Mohtashem, working in Kashan in the late 1800s.

Aboul Ghasem Kermani, in Kerman at the turn of the last century.

Hajji Jalili, in Tabriz at the turn of the last century.

Fatollah Habibian, in Nain in the early to mid 1900s.

Agha Reza Seyrafian (or Seirafian), in Isfahan in the early to mid 1900s.

These masters, and the workshops they led, were so innovative in reworking traditional designs, devising new ones, and playing with color palettes that they were the recognized trend setters of their time.

Their work can be stunningly beautiful.

At the top of this page is a signed carpet by Aboul Ghasem Kermani. It is a hymn to ancient Persian history that depicts in astonishing detail the ruins of Persepolis, the 5th century BC palace of Darius I and Xerxes. The carpet is available from the Nazmiyal Collection of New York.

Here is another signed carpet by Aboul Ghasem Kermani. This one shows the designer's ability to work equally well with floral patterns. It, too, is available from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.

The carpets of these master weavers have been copied so many times since their deaths that the weavers' names have become generic today for whole types of carpets based on their designs.

But the masters' original works have never been equaled and may well never be. That is because they are the product of a historical moment when Persia's carpet industry was reviving rapidly after centuries of neglect and the spirit of a renaissance was in the air.

The carpet industry had suffered badly during the period of political upheavals that wracked Persia in the 1700s and early 1800s and by the time stability returned many things had changed dramatically.

The royal court system, long the patron for the best arts, was severely weakened and economic power was increasingly passing into the hands of wealthy merchant families. They, and customers in Europe where Orientalism was by now in full swing, became a rich new market for Persian carpet producers who competed fiercely to win it.

The result was the birth of the modern workshop system of carpet production, the system which remains the basis for most oriental rug production today. Unlike the large court-supported workshops of the past, these new ateliers had to be smaller to be commercially successful. And whereas the court workshops had valued tradition above all, now there was increasing room for innovation, as well.

Here is a carpet by the master weaver Seyrafian available from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.

The best workshops of the late 19th century and early 20th century in Persia functioned much like artists' studios.

The masters were sought after by the wealthiest customers, who commissioned rugs and paid in advance. The advance payment, in turn, provided the capital for the master weavers to obtain the best materials and hire highly skilled artisans.

Just how much status the customers accorded the master weavers was shown by the practice of signing the master's name into the rugs as they were woven – something virtually unknown under the court patronage system. The date the carpet was woven was also sometimes included.

Over the decades from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, the master weavers brought new fame to many of Iran's traditional weaving centers. At times, they were directly associated with the successful revival of an individual city's weaving industry after it had slumped drastically during the previous centuries.

The master weaver Mohtashem is one example. He began work in Kashan around the 1880s at a time when the city's carpet weavers had long ago switched to making shawls. But even as he succeeded in the textile business, he could see it would soon collapse under the pressure of the new machine-produced textiles flooding in from Europe.

Here is a carpet by the master weaver Mohtashem available from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.

According to legend, Mohtashem re-invented himself, and the city's carpet industry, when he married a woman from another famous carpet center, Sultanabad, who was a skilled rug weaver.

He provided her with Merino wool imported from Manchester – the wool he usually used for textiles – and discovered its high quality allowed a higher knot count for creating detailed motifs with a high pile.

The revival of Kashan's carpet industry, which had been dormant since the fall of the Safavid dynasty in 1723, quickly followed.

In 1890, records show, there were only three operating looms in Kashan. By 1900, there were 1,500 and by 1949 there were 4,000. Fueling most of the growth was Mohtashem's innovation – the use of Merino wool – which continued until the imported wool market crashed with the Great Depression.

Ultimately, Mohtashem's innovation was so successful that his own name became the generic name for all the Kashan carpets woven with Merino wool, which sometimes were also known as "Manchester Kashans." Only the fact that some of Mohtashem's own signed carpets remain helps to preserve the memory of the man himself, about whom little more is known.

A similar revival took place in Nain and is attributed to another of the master weavers, Habibian.

Here is an example of a Nain carpet available from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.

Legend has it that Habibian was the son of the owner of a textile workshop producing abas, a woolen outer garment that usually is striped.

When the market for abas collapsed because clothing fashions were becoming more European in the early 1900s, Habibian switched full time to carpets along with his brother Mohammad.

The Habibians helped turned Nain, which previously had no history as a carpet center, into a city with a reputation for exceptionally fine pieces. Both the Habibian brothers lived and worked in Nain for decades before Mohammad died in 1986 and Fatollah in 1994.

Most of the Habibians' rugs bear their names but that is not the case for all master weavers. In many cases, just a few signed rugs remain and in others cases they are so rare that experts wonder whether some legendary names actually refer to a style rather than to an individual master and his workshop.

Hadji Jalili is one such example. The name is routinely used in the rug business to describe the beautiful floral rugs woven in Tabriz at the end of the 19th century. It also is believed to refer to a particular designer whose success in developing a trademark mix of lighter colors of pinks, gold and grays that helped rouse the famous weaving city from a long period of dormancy.

Here is a Hadji Jalili carpet available from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.

Yet so many of the best Tabriz carpets have since been attributed to Hadji Jalili that they could not possibly all have been woven by a single master's atelier.

So, how should one regard the name Hadji Jalili?

Jason Nazmiyal, whose Nazmiyal Collection deals in antique rugs, says there are two possibilities.

When a master weaver has signed a carpet, then the signature offers clear documentation that the master existed and that the rug originated in his atelier.

But when this documentation provided by a signature does not exist, Nazmiyal says, it may make better sense to think of a master's name as the name of a period of weaving rather than just one person.

"The masters were trendsetters and the look they developed was what everyone was following, the customers and the other weavers," he notes. "They were like top fashion designers today and their impact was far bigger than what they alone produced."

Looking at it that way recognizes that – many decades later – it is not always possible to distinguish designers from the fashions they create and those they inspire. The mystery of who exactly Hadji Jalili was may never be solved, but the beauty of the work attributed to him will never be forgotten.




Saturday, 15 October 2011

The Baroque Era: When Europe Fell Out Of Love With Oriental Carpets

PARIS, October 22, 2011 – It is a strange thing that during Europe's long love affair with oriental carpets, the love once cooled for almost a hundred years.

That period roughly corresponds to Europe's Baroque era when, instead of importing oriental carpets as they had for centuries, European nobility began buying European-made carpets instead.

Those carpets, like the Savonnerie carpet shown here, looked nothing like the Turkish and Persian styles depicted in the Renaissance paintings of earlier generations. Rather, they were specifically woven in Europe beginning around 1644 to compliment the new baroque architecture of European palaces and mansions.

In fact, the new European carpets did not just compliment baroque architecture, they often directly imitated baroque ceiling designs. That enabled Europe's designers to do what they had never done so lavishly before: swaddle the wealthy in a single style of interior decoration from head to foot.

The single style – Baroque and its spin-off Rococo - conveyed power and opulence and corresponded with Europe's own rising sense of economic wealth and importance.

Still, if the development of French-made Savonnerie and Aubusson carpets, or similar Axminster and Wilton carpets in Britain, suggests that Europeans somehow entirely lost interest in Eastern designs at this time, the impression would be wrong.

Ironically, the Baroque Era in which Europeans lost interest in Oriental rugs coincides with what was Europe's greatest ever period of fascination with all things Turkish. That fascination was so widespread that it had a name: Turquerie.

Here is a portrait of Austro-Hungarian Empress Maria Theresa at the height of the Turquerie fad which swept Europe in the 1600s and 1700s. She is dressed in a Turkish costume and is holding a mask. It was painted circa 1744 by Martin van Meytens.

How the Turquerie fad took shape and why it did not include rugs is one of the stranger stories in carpet history. After all, Turquerie – the French-coined word for Europe's taste for Turkish styles – could be found in many other arts: from dress, to fabrics, to interiors, to porcelain.

To understand Turquerie – which was a precursor of, but quite different from, Orientalism – one has to return to Europe of the 1600s. It was a time when Europe's relations with the Ottoman Empire changed dramatically.

Prior to the the mid-1600s, the Ottoman Empire had been Europe's most feared neighbor. The Empire had grown with astonishing speed from its start two centuries earlier and directly annexed much of Eastern Europe, including Greece.

But by the mid-1600s, the Ottoman's power to expand deeper into Europe was clearly spent. The Empire's second attempt to take Vienna with a 60 day siege in 1683 ended in a disastrous route and, though Eastern Europe would remain under the Ottomans almost another two centuries years, fear of the Empire in the rest of Europe subsided.

Instead, Western Europeans suddenly became very interested in the art and lifestyle of the foe they no longer feared. To dress up for palace balls "alla Turca" became the rage. And the practice of drinking coffee – something that had previously reached only Venice from Istanbul -- suddenly spread across Europe.

In Vienna, one of the first cafes was the House under The Blue Bottle, which opened in 1686. Its origins, just three years after the Ottoman siege of the city, perfectly illustrates the new fascination with the East.

The Blue Bottle's proprietor, Georg Franz Kolschitzky, had lived in Istanbul as a young man and learned Turkish. During the siege he used his language skills to spy on the Ottoman camp. Legend says that afterwards he claimed the coffee beans the Turks left behind as his share of the war booty and used them to start his business. For decades, he ran his café dressed as an Ottoman cafe owner, as this painting from the time shows.

Like any fad, Turquerie was a mix of reality and fantasy. It came when still very few Europeans traveled to the East and it was heavily influenced by Europeans' own imaginary visions of oriental luxury, Ottoman customs, and even harems.

But even if Turquerie was in large part make-believe, there is no doubt that genuine curiosity about -- and even admiration of the Ottoman Empire – was equally part of it.

When one of the most famous, and large-scale, weddings of the time took place in Dresden in 1719, the celebration included days of specially themed events.

On one of those days, the newlyweds (the Prince-elector of Saxony, Friedrich August II, and the Austrian Archduchess Maria Josepha) had a palace in ‘Turkish style’ erected complete with a corps of janissaries. The guests, who included an Ottoman ambassador, were requested to appear in Turkish costume.

Similarly, it became the rage for noble women to have their portraits painted wearing a Turkish costume and in an Oriental setting, sometimes even sitting on an oriental carpet.

Here is one portrait from the time, Mademoiselle de Clermont "en Sultane" painted in 1733 by Jean-Marc Nattier.

A much more famous sitter, the Marquise de Pompadour, commissioned three portraits of herself dressed as a Sultana in 1750. The portraits not only allowed the sitters to appear in exotic fashions but also to abandon their body-constricting corsets -- something that would not become possible again in Western fashion until the 1900s.

Men also took part. In the 1700s, it was in fashion for wealthy men to smoke Turkish tobacco in a Turkish pipe, sometimes wearing a Turkish robe. And when people went out to the opera, it was possible to find Turquerie there, too.

The most famous of the Turquerie operas – still played today – is Mozart's 'The Abduction from the Seraglio'. It was first presented in 1782, but 13 other similarly themed operas predate it. Often the productions clothed the singers in authentic Ottoman fashions, knowing that theater goers were curious about them.

Even in architecture Turquerie found a place, this time in the form of Ottoman-inspired pleasure domes.

Here is the central building of a "Türkischer Garten" built between the years of 1778-91 in southwestern Germany. It is part of the Schwetzingen Castle, the summer residence of the rulers of the then German state of Baden-Württemberg.

One could easily imagine that so much interest in the Ottoman Empire would have to increase interest in that most essential symbol of the orient of all – carpets. But the fact that Europe's taste in carpet patterns went in an entirely different direction may only prove that, ultimately, Turquerie was more a measure of Europe's growing sense of self assurance than of cosmopolitan tastes.

Throughout the 1600s, when Turquerie began, and through the 1700s as it continued, the "gout Turque" coincided with the greatest period of expansionism in European history. It was a fad in an epic period that included the transformation of the New World and the creation of sea trading networks and ultimately colonies across Asia.

That meant that the key status symbols European society would have to be European too. Whereas wealthy Europeans in the Renaissance showed off their Turkish carpets to underline their rich status, the people of the late 1600s and early 1700s centuries furnished their mansions with European-woven baroque carpets instead.

Here is an antique Axminster, woven in Britain, that reflects the English taste of the time. It is available from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.

Interestingly, Europe's overwhelming preference for baroque carpets over oriental ones would not last long. By the mid 1700s, the taste for oriental carpets would begin returning with redoubled strength as Europe's view of the East started to dramatically change again.

This new change, seen most visibly in Napoleon's military expedition to Egypt in 1798, would come as Europeans directly entered into the life of the Orient as never before. It, too, would be accompanied by a new fad: Orientalism. But that is the subject of another story (see: Orientalism and Oriental Carpets).




Friday, 16 September 2011

From Hand-Knotted To Power-Loomed, Every Rug Has Its Appeal

LONDON, Oct. 1, 2011 – One of the many fascinating things about rugs is the many different ways they are made.

In some places they are hand-kotted with traditional designs that date back thousands of years. In others, they are partly or entirely woven by machines and there is constant innovation.

The result is a variety of rugs so great that it is easy to get lost in a sea of choices and terminology.

To make sense of this vast world of weaving, Tea & Carpets recently sought out an expert who deals with it daily.

We asked Tony Sidney of Rug Store North East, Britain's top rug online retailer, to describe the main ways rugs are produced today and why.

Sidney says the terms to know are hand-knotted, hand-loomed, hand-tufted, and power-loomed. Each kind of production offers qualities the others do not.

Hand-knotted offers the quality of the most human contact between the weaver, her or his creation, and the rug buyer. When the design is a traditional one, the rug is a message from one culture to another and across both space and time.

Here is an Afghan Kunduz rug, available from Rug Store NE. It is an example of the traditional "red rugs of Central Asia" that continue to be woven today.

But because hand-knotting is laborious and time-consuming, many rug producers have for centuries also sought ways to machine-assist weavers.

One way is to use a loom that is powered by the hands and feet of the operator. This method, particularly used in India and other parts of Asia, speeds the weaving of kilim-like rugs which don't require a knotted pile.

A more recent innovation, since the 1980s, is hand-tufting, which helps weavers quickly produce a piled rug that resembles a knotted one but without actually tying knots.

Here is an example of a hand-tufted rug in a classical oriental design, available from Rug Store NE.

In hand tufting, the weaver pushes wool or a man-made yarn through a matrix material using a hand-held pneumatic gun. Later the yarn is trimmed to create the pile and an adhesive backing is affixed to the rug to hold everything in place.

Sidney says that because hand-tufted rugs can be made faster than hand-knotted rugs, they are generally less expensive.

Yet the tufting method also creates a highly durable rug which, when produced by a skilled craftsmen, can accurately depict even intricate designs.

After hand tufting, the next step in mechanization is machine-looming. The photo below is of a machine-loomed Qashqai available from Rug Store NE.

The use of machines to make rugs has a rich history, beginning in 1800 century with the first mechanical loom invented by Joseph Jacquard of Lyons, France. But large-scale machine production of carpets did not begin until 1839, when Erastus Bigelow, an American, invented a steam-driven loom.

The steam-driven loom dramatically upped the productivity of weavers. A single weaver suddenly could produce 25 square yards of carpet in a workday of 10 to 12 hours, compared to 7 square yards of carpet before.

Ever since, the invention of new machines and synthetic fibers has greatly stimulated the manufacture of rugs and carpets. Today, the technique is used to make copies of all kinds of rugs in western and oriental as well as modern designs, with wool or synthetic fibers.

So which of the many different kinds of woven rugs sell best?

Sidney says the biggest market exists for machine-loomed rugs. At his store, he says, "the largest selling machine-woven rugs at the moment are probably shag pile rugs with the main production coming from Belgium and Turkey."

Turkey – and Bulgaria – are also rising producers of machine-loomed Oriental rugs. "Turkish and Bulgarian wiltons (named for the Wilton Loom they are woven on) are becoming more evident in the market as Belgian ranges in traditional Oriental designs seem to be slowing down," Sidney notes.

The next bestselling rugs, Sidney says, are hand-tufted rugs in both contemporary and traditional designs.

Rug Store NE, for example, stocks mainly Chinese production with a large variety of qualities available -- including high-end wool and silk ranges from Nourison, the world's leading producer of handmade area rugs. Here is an example in wool.

For both machine-loomed and hand-tufted rugs, it is price, availability of programmed sizes (especially larger sizes) and choice of colors that seem to be the main reasons for their popularity over traditional hand-knotted rugs. Rapid and large scale production means distributors and customers can count in advance on find the size and colors they want.

Does that mean that hand-knotted rugs -- the small fish in this sea of production – one day will be crowded out of the market?

Sidney sees no danger of that.

"There is still no substitute for a genuine hand-knotted Oriental rug, woven by a experienced weaver using good quality wool and dyestuffs," he says.

He adds, "We will always have a select group of customers who know the difference and are happy to pay for a good quality hand-knotted piece that will far outlast any machine-made rug."

(The picture at the top of this page is a detail of a medallion in a hand-knotted rug from Pakistan reproducing a William Morris design.)




Thursday, 15 September 2011

Russia And The Red Rugs Of Central Asia

MOSCOW, Sept. 15, 2011 -- Central Asian carpets came to attention of Europeans in the mid-1800s largely as a result of the Russian Empire's expansion into the region.

The expansion took place in a dramatic reversal of the previous order.

For centuries, Russians had lived in the shadows of the Turkic and Mongol empires that dominated Eurasia. From 1223 to 1480, neighboring Tatars held such direct sway over Russia's principalities that Russians call it the time of the "Tatar yoke."

And for centuries more, nomads so regularly raided Russia and Eastern Europe for slaves that the word "slave" itself derives from "Slav" in many European languages.

But gunpowder gradually neutralized the advantages of the horse borne warriors.

As Robert B. Golden notes in his book Central Asia in World History (2011), nomads were no longer able to take cities fortified with canons by the late 1400s. By the mid-1600s, the infantryman's flintlock musket had become a match for the nomad cavalryman's composite bow.

Then it was Russia's turn to expand across the steppes, starting in the mid-1500s under Ivan IV the Terrible. By the time the Russian Empire reached the Silk Road cities of Central Asia in the late 1800s, it is was an unstoppable industrializing power that had helped defeat Napoleon and recently annexed the Caucasus.

Tashkent, Bukhara, and Samarkand fell to the Russian Empire like dominos, captured in 1865, 1867, and 1868, respectively. Above is a picture of the battle for Samarkand.

The cities fell quickly because, by the 1800s Central Asia had declined into an impoverished region of settled and nomadic peoples steeped in tradition. The trans-continental Silk Road trading routes had been undercut by the sea trade and the wealth and vision they once generated were gone.

But some tribes put up a fierce resistance. At the battle of Geok Tepe ("Green Hill" in Turkmen) in 1882, some 25,000 Turkmen held out in a fortress for 23 days against a far better armed Russian force of 6,000. Finally, the walls were mined and the fortress was taken by storm.

Here is a photo of Turkmen soldiers in chain mail and armed with antiquated muskets.

In the wake of Moscow's conquests, the famous red carpets of Central Asia, known in the West but rarely seen in abundance, came flooding onto the Russian market.

One American observer, New York Herald correspondent Januarius MacGahan, witnessed the surrender of the city of Khiva to the Russian Army. He reported that families were forced to sell their carpets and other belongings to traders in order to pay tributes levied upon the defeated tribes:

"The Turcoman carpets, too, were very much in demand, and sold readily, in spite of the high prices demanded for them and of the fact that hundreds had been "looted" in the campaign against the Yomuds. A carpet, four yards long by two wide, brought 4 to 5 (pounds).

He added:

"A curious feature of the sale was, that although the Turcomans must have been hard pressed for money to pay the indemnity, they could not be induced to lower their prices a single kopek. They simply named their price, and you might take the article or leave it, as you pleased."

Here is a photo of a Turkmen woman standing on a carpet she has woven before her yurt. The photograph is by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, who traveled throughout the Russian Empire in the early 1900s and was a pioneer of color photography.

The Russian conquest of Central Asia came at the height of the scramble by European powers for colonies worldwide and Moscow's occupation of the region followed the model of the times.

Despite the fact the territory was part of the Russian Empire, its peoples were designated "inorodtsy", or aliens. They were subjects but not citizens of Russia.

And unlike other ethnically non-Russian subjects, they could not be drafted into the Imperial Russian army, where they might acquire knowledge of modern warfare and weaponry. That was, perhaps, in memory of the past days of the Tatar yoke.

Of course, there was mass colonization, too, with ethnic Russians moving into the region, particularly to Kazakhstan, starting in the 1890s,.

Still, while Central Asia was treated very much as a colony, Moscow was interested in learning more about both its economic potential and its peoples. So, Russian academic teams fanned out along with colonial administrators.

The work of some of these teams helped lay the foundations of the West's enduring fascination with Central Asian rugs today – both as art and history.

In 1901 and 1902, Samuil Martynovich Dudin, already a well-known amateur specialist in Oriental Art, led two trips to collect materials and photographs for the first Central Asian collection of the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. He brought back an enormous number of objects (2,526), including 350 rugs and carpets.

Here is one of Dudin's photographs, showing a bazaar in Central Asia.

Dudin's rug collection, which exists intact today, included Uzbek, Kirghiz, Baluch, and Afghan rugs. But most were Turkmen pieces because he considered the Turkmen to be the best carpet weavers in the world. He explained why in his travel notes:

"This quality of Turkmen rugs, in addition to other reasons, can be explained by the fact that all items are used, aside from their practical function, as decoration for the yurts. When put on camels during migrations and wedding ceremonies, they served as publicity for the family, visual evidence of the weavers' skill, the brides and wives.

He concluded:

"It was the competition of the inhabitants of various yurts that created the superb examples of carpet craftsmanship which one admires in one's travel on the Turkmen steppes and in local carpet shops.”

This picture of a Turkmen family seated in its yurt and surrounded by textile items was taken by Prokudin-Gorsky in the early 1900s.

But if Russians appreciated Central Asian carpets and, helped funnel them to Western Europe, the increased interest had a devastating effect on traditional carpet weaving itself.

By 1898, the ancient Silk Road cities were linked by rail to Russia proper via a western line to the Caspian and, by 1906, via a northern line to Orenburg (on modern Russia's Kazakh border). Commercialization of the weaving craft accelerated with the pace of exports.

Rug researcher Richard Wright notes that "from about 1900, functionaries were worrying about weavers' movement away from traditional designs."

To support traditional handicrafts, administrators introduced the "kustar" (or "artisan") program in Central Asia just as elsewhere in the Empire. The program, which distributed traditional designs to weavers and organized promotional exhibitions, was intended to help peasants supplement their livelihood by producing and selling quality handicrafts. But often it had the effect of simply fanning commercialism further.

The decline in quality continued. By 1903, says Wright, official reports were complaining of the "recent use" of synthetic dyes instead of natural ones and of "hasty work." By the end of the first decade of 20th century there were complaints that it was difficult to see sharp outlines in “new” rugs.

Then, far greater threats to tradition arrived.

The Russian Revolution brought communism to Central Asia and the drive to industrialize. Thousands of weavers were "collectivized" into state-run manufactories where, aided by machines, they churned out endless meters of cheap carpeting for public halls across the Soviet Union.

Those weavers who still created carpets at home found their ability to maintain the quality of their work and sell it severely limited. The Soviets' initial maintenance of the kustar program gave way to state neglect, good materials were hard to get, and the free-market was banned.

Here is a rare example of museum-quality weaving in the Soviet era: a portrait carpet of Lenin. It may have been specially commissioned for a meeting hall, mausoleum, or the private villa of a powerful party boss.

Yet if overall the weaving of the once-famous red carpets of Central Asia sank abysmally, there was one saving grace in the story. Ironically, it was the ability of Turkmens who had fled Moscow's control to continue their tradition of fine weaving and even pioneer a return to natural dyes.

As Robert Pinner & Murray L. Eiland, Jr, note in their 1999 book Between the Black Desert and the Red – Turkmen Carpets from the Wiedersperg Collection, "many Turkmen groups migrated to northern Afghanistan for religious reasons" when the Russian Empire conquered Central Asia. And later, "around the time of the Russian revolution there were more tribal movements toward the south."

In northern Afghanistan, the new arrivals joined fellow Turkmen who had been living and weaving there for centuries. Their weavings found their way West via Kabul and, later -- when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and many weavers fled south to Pakistan -- via the rug bazaars of Peshawar.

Today, with the independence of the Central Asian states since 1991, there are hopes that fine carpet weaving will revive, particularly in Turkmenistan. But progress is slow, despite the Turkmen government's opening of a carpet museum in the capital in 1994 and injunctions to producers to return to natural dyes.

Still, there is no reason to doubt a renaissance will come, or to doubt Central Asia's ties to its carpet heritage. By no coincidence, the flag of independent Turkmenistan is also a showcase of the 'guls' most commonly used by the country's five major tribes in their carpet weaving. Those tribes are the Tekke, Yomut, Ersari, Chodor, and Saryk.

(Note: Dudin is quoted in 'Thirty Turkmen Rugs - Masterpieces from the Collection of S. M. Dudin, Part II (Saryk Weavings)' by Elena Tsareva, originally published in Oriental Rug Review, Vol. 11, #1)