Caucasian Carpets: Realities on the Ground

Geghard monastery

My favorite monastery in Armenia… Now, what was it called?

It has been a busy week in Armenia, and after having seen too many medieval monasteries and khachkars and carpets, and met with so many artisans and manufacturers and traders, I am exhausted and ready to go home. But I must not forget my primary mission here in the Caucasus: I came for the carpets. So an overall assessment of the state of the Caucasian rug, both old and new, is in order.

The musings that I have summarised below are based on empirical research, if we can call it that—what I have seen and experienced at several carpet factories and workshops, as well as many carpet showrooms and dealers.

An Art Revived: New Carpet Production

In both Armenia and Azerbaijan there are just a few carpet manufacturers who produce quality rugs using traditional hand-knotting techniques in significant (i.e., export-friendly) quantities. This is reassuring, because we all know and agree, together with UNESCO, that the rugs of this region are an intangible cultural expression of universal appeal.

But revival is not enough. Selling on the global market is the litmus test for any carpet production, and that’s where the problem lies, in my view, because the cost of new carpets in the Caucasus is quite high. I could not determine the root cause of these high costs. In both Armenia and Azerbaijan, wages are low, with a weaver earning no more than $250 per month. In Azerbaijan, high costs were compounded by poor salesmanship (perhaps a legacy of Soviet times, or a consequence of the current oil boom, or both). It is difficult to see how new Caucasian rugs might compete on the world stage. Indeed, most manufacturers I visited seem to be surviving on custom orders placed by wealthy individuals, and especially by large local enterprises and government agencies.

Azer Ilme Rugs 2

New woolen carpets at a factory showroom in Baku.
Well woven, but with little imagination. And expensive!

Patterns: Traditional, Downright Boring, and Genuinely Innovative

I came specifically to find traditional Caucasian designs (such as karabaghs with dragon, serpent/ cloudband; chelaberd kazaks and eight-point crosses; qubas with ram’s horns or triple diamond or zeyva patterns), and indeed I found them in the new carpets I saw. In many cases, however, the variety and quality of these designs was limited, and no match for the refinement of the same designs in older carpets (more on the “new vs. old” debate below). Only at World of Carpets in Quba and Tufenkian Carpets in Yerevan did I see and touch carpets that had the boldness of design and the quality of weave that I have come to associate with older Caucasian rugs. Elsewhere designs were either lacking in variety, or mediocre in composition and execution, so as to look boring and conventional. A Caucasian carpet should be, above all, a talking piece. If its design does not provoke conversation, it fails.

Boring dragon rug

An example of boring design in a new dragon rug

Perhaps part of the problem lies in the fact that many carpet manufacturers focus on contemporary designs—large, pastel-coloured area rugs with faint motifs that are much appreciated by western interior designers because they are easy to match to modern furniture and décor. Thus much of the recent design effort has gone into this type of production.

Whether slavishly imitating antique patterns, or catering to bland mainstream tastes, there seemed to be a general lack of innovative thinking about carpet design everywhere in the Caucasus. In Yerevan, however, I managed to meet at least one designer who is testing the boundaries of the local carpet-making tradition and developing an eloquent language of her own, without having to give up any of the elements that have made Caucasian carpets so famous.

My resourceful guide arranged a dinner meeting with an independent carpet designer who practices the craft in Yerevan after having worked for several years in Iran. They studied carpet design and carpet weaving (and have their own loom at home) as a university student in Yerevan, but on graduation and seeking work in Armenia in the early 2000s, found that there were very few serious carpet manufacturers who could hire designers on a full-time basis, and then at very low wages. The work consisted primarily of copying museum designs, and simplifying them for easier production.

Dinner and carpets in Yerevan

Dinner and carpets in Yerevan

Disenchanted with these meagre opportunities, they were unsure whether to pursue carpet-making as a profession at all, until a chance encounter with an Armenian-Iranian rug collector changed that outlook. Having seen a presentation piece woven in partial fulfillment of university requirements, the collector asked them to custom-design a rug.

Since then they have been designing (and at times also weaving) one-of-a-kind rugs, either on commission from collectors and other patrons. Creations include many traditional Caucasian motifs used in unconventional combinations, and altogether novel works based on motifs borrowed from the rich art historical heritage of Greater Armenia, such as the sculpture and painting of the ancient Urartian kingdom.

We hope to commission a special line of Caucasian carpets from them shortly, because their approach dovetails so well with Arastan’s own vision of utilising traditional skills and art forms to re-invent modern décor. Click on the images below to view samples of this unique work.

Older Carpets: Still the Better Choice?

Old Caucasian carpets are in great demand, and with the high cost and questionable workmanship of new ones, I can see why. They, too, are very expensive compared with old, hand-woven wool carpets made elsewhere. But because of the peculiar local conditions they are often, remarkably, the same cost or cheaper than new ones. Of course it is not easy to find a good-quality old carpet around these parts. One has to look very carefully and beware of many traps. In Baku in particular, I saw many fake rugs (machine-made stuff, probably from China) as well as Turkish and Afghan kilims, being passed off as Azeri.

Eight-point star carpet

Two rugs with similar eight-point cross design… one is new and one is old.
Can you tell which is which?

For starters, genuine antiques (carpets older than 75 years, let’s say) are prohibitively expensive and also subject to export restrictions in both Azerbaijan and Armenia. Old carpets in the age range 30-70 years can vary enormously in quality of design, workmanship and colour. But if you look long and hard enough, especially in Yerevan, which seems to have a thriving trade in old carpets, you can find plenty of wonderful rugs, especially of the 40-50-year-old variety.

In Yerevan, for example, I befriended a young carpet dealer, who first showed me his carpets at the Vernissage market. He then invited me to see more carpets at his shop, and when he realized that I was a serious buyer and not a simple tourist, he took me to his home, where he keeps about one hundred of his best rugs. Over glasses of Armenian cognac, and with the help of his English-speaking younger sister, we discussed the undoubted merits of older carpets. He showed me many old kazaks and chelaberds and perpedils that were noteworthy for their quality and condition. In the end, and after much negotiation, I bought a spectacular 50-year-old karabagh snake/cloudband carpet from him (to bring home to my wife, hoping to be forgiven for having been on the road on our 20th anniversary). What did I pay for it? Per square metre, the same as the lesser creations I had seen in a carpet factory that very day.

Rugs in the kitchen

Some of the striking rugs hidden in the kitchen!

Natural Dyes: Much Noise, Even More Uncertainty

The return to natural dyes in carpet weaving seems to be all the rage these days. Almost all the manufacturers I visited claimed that they were using exclusively natural dyes. Some were ready to show small pouches containing the natural materials being used to create the dyes, such as madder root and walnut skin. But invariably when I asked to be shown the dyeing process in action I was told that it was not happening right then, we only do it once a week, we have a backlog of dyed wool that has to be used up, and so forth. This seemed odd. How could I have such bad luck every time? I started to be suspicious, and it didn’t help that each manufacturer and dealer routinely accused his competitors of using synthetic dyes.

Wool colours

Colourful bundles of wool waiting to be knotted into a carpet in Yerevan

The only honest answer I got was from Arman Grigoryan, the general manager at Tufenkian Carpets in Yerevan. He readily admitted that Tufenkian uses mostly synthetic dyes, except for imported indigo for certain hues of blue, and all tan colors from ivory to dark brown, for which they are able to use the natural colour of wool from various breeds of sheep. Why not use more natural dyes? First, because it is difficult to reliably source the ingredients necessary to make natural dyes in large quantities. The romantic notion of villagers collecting madder root in the mountains, which I had heard elsewhere, is probably pure fantasy. Moreover, the cost of producing a natural dye is so high that it would drive rug production costs up by some 50%. Arman showed me a bundle of burgundy wool that had been dyed with madder root by way of experimentation. The colour was beautiful and rich, but the price tag of $40 per kilo of dye was prohibitive (compare that to $5 per kilo for a good synthetic dye). In light of all this, it seems unlikely that anyone can indeed be using natural dyes only, no matter what they claim.

For used carpets the issue of dyes is both more complex and more simple. Many carpet dealers claimed, again, that their carpets, ranging from 30 to over 100 years in age, were made with all-natural colors. But how can that be? Most carpets in that age range are the product of Soviet manufacture, when synthetics were used widely. (Indeed, there is evidence of synthetic colours being used in the Caucasus as early as the last two decades of the 19th century.) Then again, there was also some small-scale carpet weaving in village homes during Soviet times, where natural colours may have been used, for all we know.

How can you really tell, anyway? Some salesmen suggested the well-known burn test (but who wants to incinerate a piece of their rug!?); others pointed out the consistency of the colour throughout the depth of the pile; yet others recommended washing the carpet a few times to see that the colour would not fade. Realistically, there seemed to be no good answer, short of sending a small sample to a lab.

For used carpets, however, there is an easy way out of this puzzle. If a 50-year-old carpet—which for decades has been walked on and washed and beaten and dusted and transported and rolled up and attacked by moths—still displays vibrant, distinct colours in its field, then clearly whatever dyes were used have stood the test of time and are likely to remain true for years to come. So, ultimately, does it really matter whether they were natural or chemical in origin?

Wool or Not: Show Me the Sheep

My favorite carpets, whether flat-woven or knotted, are wool-on-wool (i.e., both warp and pile are woolen). In Azerbaijan, most new carpets I saw continue to be made in this fashion, though without much attention to beautifying the fringes. This is odd because, by all accounts, Azerbaijan suffers from a shortage of quality wool, and especially from lack of a well-established spinning industry capable of producing all grades of woolen yarn. Many carpet makers must import wool from Iran or elsewhere. Perhaps this explains, partly, the high cost.

Armenian sheep

No shortage of wool in Armenia…

In Armenia, on the other hand, almost all carpets sold, whether old or new, are wool-on-cotton (i.e., wool knotted on a cotton base). This may well be another Russian legacy: the Soviets introduced cotton warps in all manufacture of knotted carpets, using cotton grown elsewhere in the Union through a centralized supply system. Cotton is sturdier, easier to stretch and to weave on. It also makes the carpet heavier, thus more stable on a slippery floor, and more durable. Nowadays, even manufacturers like Tufenkian, who previously did wool-on-wool work, are moving entirely to wool on cotton. This despite the fact that Armenia seems to have plenty of wool to fulfill local demand.

Last Knots

So where does all this leave us? Arastan plans to custom-order new rugs with precise design specifications from specialist producers in the Caucasus to ensure that what we import matches our expectations. With the wealth of contacts made on this reconnaissance trip, we will also be able to source older rugs of reliable origin and quality. So don’t be too surprised if you come across a handsome Shirvan on your next visit to our online store or one of our exhibitions.


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