In recent years, the range of styles Afghan weavers are exploring has exploded.
And, with the quality of weaving high and the use of natural colors and hand-spun wool frequent, that means a whole new world of rugs to enjoy.
Just consider these examples:
- An Ikat rug (photo above) inspired by Central Asian ikat tie-dye designs.
- Or a Suzani rug inspired by Central Asian embroidery traditions (photo below).
These, plus spirited reproductions of Persian town and village rugs like Bijars and Herizes, are all part of the ongoing renaissance of Afghan rug weaving.
They are available from Nomad Rugs in San Francisco.
The return of Afghanistan as a notable rug producer is taking place as parts of the country are stable despite the violence elsewhere and weavers who were formerly refugees have returned home.
We talked with Chris Wahlgren, who trades in the best of the new Afghan rugs, to learn more about what is behind them.
Wahlgren, the owner of Nomad Rugs in San-Francisco, sees the new rugs as the latest chapter in a long and fascinating story.
It's the story of how Afghan weavers have been able to repeatedly re-invent themselves over the past three decades as their own lives have been repeatedly turned upside down.
The three decades of turmoil began with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and continue today with the war on the Taliban.
Nomad Rugs in San Francisco.
Before 1979, Wahlgren notes, Afghan weavers were almost entirely focused upon the traditional Red Rugs of Central Asia, that is, the traditional designs of the Turkmen and neighboring weaving population's of the region.
"In those days, it was any size as long as it was red," he says.
But with the Soviet invasion, and the flight of millions of people to refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran, everything began to change.
Particularly in Pakistan, with its direct links to the Western market, huge numbers of refugees turned to weaving rugs as a way to stay afloat.
And to connect to the market, they began to innovate.
Some of the refugees' first innovations were not very successful as they tried to directly compete with Pakistan's own domestic production of large and finely-woven Pak-Persian carpets.
Whereas the Pak-Persians were in bright colors, the Afghans wove theirs in the darker brown colors they themselves preferred.
The results were somewhat gloomy looking pieces the Pakistani traders dismissively called "Kargali," meaning camp, carpets and which are forgotten today.
But the Afghan weavers kept experimenting.
They produced Khal Mohammadi rugs with non-traditional Turkmen-inspired designs, Kazaks with Caucasian-inspired designs and, more recently, Ziegler-Chobis with Indo-Persian inspired designs.
All were successes on the international market.
Nomad Rugs in San Francisco.
One reason for the success, particularly of the Chobi carpets, was the refugees' willingness to return to the labor-intensive traditional practices of using natural colors.
That put them at the forefront of what is still a relatively new trend in the rug business and something which many customers like but not all carpet makers are ready to try.
Wahlgren says that much of the credit for introducing Afghan weavers to the natural color revival goes to Western rug dealers who promoted it in the refugee camps in the early 80s.
Those dealers included Chris Walter and others who were personally familiar with the pioneering DOBAG natural-dye project in Turkey and believed it could give the refugee market weavers a market edge.
Today, some Afghan weavers remain in the Pakistani camps while many others have returned to Afghanistan. And in both places, experimentation has become central to Afghan weaving culture.
But one thing that has not changed for Afghan weavers is the difficulty of letting the rest of the world know who weaves the beautiful pieces they produce.
That is because almost all of their production continues to go to Western markets via the port of Karachi, where it is labeled for export as a product of Pakistan.
The "Made in Pakistan' label is put on the work of Afghan weavers still in Pakistani refugee camps because they are physically in Pakistan. And the work of weavers in Afghanistan gets the label because a lack of facilities there means their rugs usually are still washed and trimmed in Pakistan.
The photo is provided by Wahlgren received it from a contact in Afghanistan.
Wahlgren says that dealers today increasingly highlight the Afghan rugs' origin because it is a positive selling point.
The dealers point to the value-added that comes from the careful work Afghan weavers do based on their own centuries-long tradition of weaving and the esteem carpets hold in their culture.
But there is something more.
Unlike in many more stable rug-producing countries like India and China where large rug workshops are the rule, much Afghan weaving is still done at home.
"In Afghan rugs, you often can feel the weaver's personality," Wahlgren says. "Their rugs feel more handmade and not mass-produced."
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