Thursday, October 28, 2004

KRT Wire | 03/09/2004 | A return to natural dyes leads to a renaissance in Oriental rugmaking

KRT Wire | 03/09/2004 | A return to natural dyes leads to a renaissance in Oriental rugmaking: "A return to natural dyes leads to a renaissance in Oriental rugmaking

BY GLEN ELSASSER

Chicago Tribune
WASHINGTON - (KRT) - 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 Washington's Textile Museum and an official of the 10th International Conference on Oriental Carpets, which last year was held 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 prior to 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."

Europeans, notably British and Germans, have been familiar players since the 19th Century in establishing 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 stepping stone 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."

Today Woven Legends employs 4,000 to 5,000 weavers and an equal number of hand-wool spinners, mainly in some 130 Turkish rural villages but also in India. Their rug output is roughly 500 to 600 pieces a month, 60 percent of which goes to the United States and the rest to Europe. In the past, the company has had operations in Macedonia, Romania and China.

Woven Legends also offers handmade rugs in Western styles, such as sophisticated Scandinavian simplicity and the tapestrylike elegance of William Morris, the central figure in Victorian England's Arts and Crafts movement.

Jevremovic believes the traditional way of classifying carpets on the basis of trade centers such as the Shiraz, Bokhara, Kazak and Turkmen is outdated. While this information is useful in determining age, quality or rarity, he contends, it fails to identify the artisan behind the carpet's creation.

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.

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."

Eiland also mentioned "the eccentric colors" that infused Chinese rugmaking, especially in the 1920s and 1930s with the popularity of the Art Deco style. While such notable decorators and craftsmen as Louis Comfort Tiffany were genuinely enthusiastic about the more traditional Chinese rugs, the Chinese saw rugmaking essentially as a moneymaking operation.

Although synthetic dyes eventually improved so much that the rugs no longer faded and colors did not run, their designs, to many, seemed dull, frozen in time. Sturdy floral Sarouks from Persia, for example, maintained their popularity from the 1920s through the post-World War II era. To make them more palatable to American tastes, these rugs were treated by stripping the bright red color and injecting or painting on a more elegant burgundy cast.

The predominance of machine-spun wool, meanwhile, tended to give rugs a static, manufactured look. The weavers of antique rugs, in contrast, had used hand-spun wool of varying thickness, enabling them to create pieces with a more painterly naturalness.

By the early 1960s, the classic designs of Persia, the Caucasus, China and Afghanistan were being reproduced by expert weavers in India and Pakistan. "Salesmen from New York would show up with rugs of the same design year after year, and it became boring," Eiland said.

At the same time, the collecting and veneration of antique rugs thrived not only in the museum world but also in domestic settings.

During the Cold War, the United States remained a storehouse of antique rugs and a favorite haunt of foreign dealers and their agents in search of bargains. The reason for this abundance of treasures: Beginning in the late 19th Century, Gilded Age prosperity nurtured a new taste for luxury among the increasingly cosmopolitan homemakers in booming metropolises such as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston.

But as the prices of antique pieces skyrocketed, wall-to-wall carpeting or machine-made rugs in Oriental designs became the floor coverings of choice. Carpets lacking an antique pedigree often wound up being offered for sale as "estate rugs" rather than simply "used rugs." Today, consumers confront the challenge of frequent "going out of business" sales, often a ploy for selling off rugs of lesser quality.

But even as we move out of the Dark Ages into this Oriental rugmaking renaissance, Jevremovic admitted that the new handmade rugs may not appeal to everyone.

"A lot of our rugs go to people who are worldly and well-traveled, often with an art background," he said. "They have a special presence. Some people may like them in a gallery or a museum but not want to live with them.""

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