A carpet revival rolls out all over

Old technology stirs new interest in ancient craft of rug-making

March 28, 2004|By Glen Elsasser | Glen Elsasser,Chicago Tribune

To the delight and enthusiasm of dealers, collectors and many homeowners, Oriental rugs are beginning to reclaim their status as the monarchs of home decoration, accompanied by a revival of natural dyes and hand-spun wool.

Some see this as a way to dispel once and for all the so-called Dark Ages of rugmaking. In the early part of the 20th century, chemical dyes began to dominate and, in the opinion of many, to lower the quality of hand-woven rugs. The results were not always easy on the eyes of this ancient craft's aficionados.

And over the last 20 years, "prices for the very best pieces have gone up while the market has softened for middle- and lower-end examples," said Wendel Swan of Alexandria, Va., a collector who has lectured at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C.. He is also an official of the International Conference on Oriental Carpets, which met last year in Washington. The conference, founded in London in 1976, is dedicated to advancing the knowledge of carpets and handmade textiles with sessions featuring scholarly lectures and an exhibition. "Thirty years ago," Swan added, "you couldn't buy a new rug with the color or quality of wool of an antique."

But all that has changed. In the 1970s, Harald Bohmer, a German chemist who taught in Turkey for a number of years, rediscovered the plants used for the ingredients of the old natural dyes, the staple of rugmaking before 1860. With the sponsorship of the School of Fine Arts in Istanbul, Bohmer organized the Natural Dye Research and Development Project, a profit-sharing cooperative known by the Turkish acronym DOBAG.

The first beneficiaries of DOBAG were villagers in western Turkey who began using plant roots and insects again as sources of dyes in what would usher in the modern renaissance in rug weaving.

"The designs were based on the patterns of their nomadic ancestors from hundreds of years ago," said Bill McDonnell, who operates a San Francisco rug emporium called Return to Tradition.

The exclusive U.S. dealer for DOBAG, O'Donnell emphasized that each rug has a spontaneity, carrying the initials of the weaver as well as the symbol of the village where it originated. DOBAG carpets come in all sizes and cost roughly $60 a square foot.

The DOBAG project produces some 1,600 rugs a year, O'Donnell said, half of which come to the United States. "Perhaps one of the weaker points of the project is that they can't crank up their production," he said. "It's a very pure form of cottage industry, and rug buyers like that limited availability."

'A folk-life carpet'

Since the 19th century, Europeans, notably British and Germans, have established workshops overseas that produced handmade rugs for export that were simpatico with Western homes. One of the most prominent of these firms was Ziegler & Co., which had headquarters in Manchester, England, and made highly regarded rugs in Turkey and Iran using natural dyes and hand-spun wool more than a century ago.

But among those leading the current revival is an American, George Jevremovic, who along with his former wife established the Philadelphia-based company Woven Legends in 1981.

"DOBAG was a catalyst, a steppingstone for us," said Jevremovic, who enlisted native Turkish weavers skilled at reproducing traditional patterns.

Woven Legends has sought to encourage weavers to produce one-of-a-kind pieces rather than reproduce centuries-old carpet gems.

"The idea was to go to the weavers who were very skilled at traditional patterns and urge them to make personal statements about themselves -- their weddings, landscapes -- and create a folk-life carpet," Jevremovic said. "Probably two-thirds of what is done is an open-ended experiment."

With the advent of the computer, other U.S. dealers have followed Jevremovic's example and have become directly involved in the production of carpets in far-flung places such as China, Pakistan, India and Nepal, where Tibetan refugees make unique hand-knotted pieces in designs distinct from Middle East examples.

Mixing the natural and the synthetic

While natural dyes have become commonplace in contemporary Oriental rugs, many of today's handmade rugs and textiles often mix synthetic with natural dyes. Armen Babaian, a third-generation dealer in Milwaukee, said certain reds or blues come from natural dyes while blacks are generally made from synthetics.

It was the cheap aniline dyes that transformed once "fantastic-looking" Turkish rugs, for example, into a sorry sight, according to Emmett Eiland, author of Oriental Rugs Today: A Guide to the Best New Carpets From the East (Berkeley Hills Books, 216 pages, $34.95). "The purple would fade and run to nothing, while the orange would stay orange."

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