SAN FRANCISCO, Aug. 15, 2011 – What does a rug dealer do when he goes on vacation in Turkey?
One thing is to reflexively cast an eye around the rug markets to see what's new.
So, when Tea and Carpets learned that San Francisco dealer Chris Wahlgren of Nomad Rugs had recently been to Istanbul and Konya, we asked him to share his impressions with us.
The biggest surprise?
After not visiting Turkey since 2004, he was amazed by how good things look. The European Union designated Istanbul as the European Capital of Culture in 2010 and the city spruced up its main historic districts for the occasion. They still shine.
As for Konya, that too has changed. Over the years it has turned from a sleepy town into a thriving city of over a million people.
Here is a picture of Konya with its famous Alâeddin Mosque, constructed in stages in the mid-12th and mid-13th centuries by the Seljuks.
All the changes are a measure of how much Turkey's economy keeps growing despite the big slump of recent years. And that, Wahlgren says, creates challenges for its rug sector.
As more manufacturing jobs open up, weavers are increasingly moving to factory jobs instead. They consider the factory jobs more prestigious and secure than handicrafts and the work often pays better.
To compete, rug producers have to increase salaries. But that drives their own production costs up, making it harder to compete with powerhouses like India and China where labor costs are low.
"I don't know how much longer we can count of Turkey to be a producer except on a small scale," Wahlgren observes. Already about half the stock in Istanbul's carpet shops is from Pakistan and Afghanistan because Turkish production is not large enough to meet demand.
Still, Turkey's carpet producers are famously resilient. And Wahlgren saw plenty of signs that they plan to stay in the game, particularly by innovating with new designs.
"Turkey has always been smart about re-imagining rugs," he says. That includes in recent decades pioneering the return of natural colors with the DOBAG project, introducing the world to patchwork kilims, and experimenting with patchwork rugs.
Here is a patchwork kilim available from Nomad Rugs in San Francisco
Today, the newest innovation is "overdyed" rugs, also known as "retro" rugs. They were first shown in the United States at the Domotex show in Atlanta last year but Wahlgren found so many in Turkish shops that it is clear producers are banking on them to become a new trend.
How an "overdyed" rug (shown here) is made is interesting.
"They take old Turkish village rugs that are not saleable due to their color or condition, then they bleach and wash them, and then overdye them in very brilliant colors, like bright blues, mauve, or purple," he says. "They are heavily distressed, with remnants of the original design showing through in the background."
These are rugs that are meant to be highly visible and so they probably go best with minimalist furnishing styles. Individual rug lovers may, or may not, like them. But from the producers' point of view, one can't help but admire their genius. They are the perfect solution to rising weaver costs.
"They can get an old village rug for a couple of hundred bucks, bleach and overdye it, and then sell it for a couple of thousand bucks if it’s room-sized," our visitor notes.
If that isn't clever marketing, what is? Wahlgren himself hasn't decided if he likes the rugs enough to stock them but he's keeping the door open. Without a doubt the rugs are intriguing – combining a modern look with a traditional design – and they could well be a fad for the next five years or so.
So, did Wahlgren, who says he spent 90 percent of his vacation time in Turkey vacationing, bring anything home with him?
Like any visitor to Turkey -- on vacation or on business -- he did indeed.
For his shop, he ordered some mohair tulus with wool so fine it feels like silk, some natural dye kilims, some patchwork kilims, and some yastik-sized small rugs. About 30 to 40 pieces in all.
This picture is of a natural dye kilim from Konya, available from Nomad Rugs in San Francisco.
And he brought something home for himself, too.
"I received a beautiful kilim from Mehmet Uçar," he says "natural dyed with a deep saffron color." He doesn't need to add that a gift like that is something to treasure.
Mehmet Uçar, who works in the Konya region, has been called the "master of the natural-dyed Konya kelim" by Hali magazine and for years has been one of Wahlgren's close associates and suppliers.
That may seem like a lot of rugs to bring home from vacation. But being able to bring so many is precisely the fun of being in the rug business.
(The picture at the top of the page is of a weaver in Konya.)