How long does it take?
I watch a scene completely surreal in appearance, but firmly rooted in practical science. Bejewelled, unveiled and kohl-eyed tribeswomen chatter in surroundings as modern as tomorrow: Men with white coats and hairnets move about behind the glass, checking temperature gauges on metre-diameter stainless steel vats. The haughty women exude a brash confidence, mistresses of their universe, relaxed and cavalier in their approach: The men by comparison look like overworked tea ladies.These large rooms, each with a dozen or so vats deliver a quality of dyed wool for which the region has been famous since other locals dyed the colours in the famous Pazyryk Carpet 2400 years ago. The women deliver their undyed spun wools and collect their previous deliveries custom-coloured to their specifications. They will use this wool, in beautiful naturally dyed shades, in their homes, weaving, they believe, the lives of their families into existence. In modern economic parlance they are sheep graziers value-adding to their primary production. Their work is not travail, it is kismet, destiny, and is destined for far away Australia via my own established carpet business. I feel a deep sense of belonging as I continue to play my part in these age-old traditions. Certainly these people afford me that love and respect. I am the merchant and the Prophet was a merchant. The French colossus Henri Matisse came from a family of weavers and I feel deeply honoured to be in such company.
Southern Iran, the Province of Fars, has been a centre of Persian culture for millennia. From the splendours of Persepolis through the poetry of Hafez and Saadi, the Bahai faith and the common law of the Zand rulers, it is no surprise the provincial capital of Shiraz is at the very centre of the Modern Carpet Trade. My visits to Iran in recent years have allowed me to see another great flowering of traditional culture underway. Back in the 1970’s and 80’s I thought the traditions were ending and we were at a final crossroads. The forced settlement of the tribes, a deeply unpopular and ultimately unsuccessful policy of successive Shahs, coupled with the need to compete internationally with cheap copies made in India and China resulted in a loss of respect for the true carpet. I never bought them. There are still warehouse jobbers attempting to cut their losses and rid themselves of that tat. Just look at the “closing down” sales and “ liquidation auctions” in western countries and you will see them all!
These days we Australians and Europeans know enough about hand-knotted carpets that we are prepared to pay for recognisable quality. The general public is quite au fait, and no longer chauvinistic. The Mysterious East is no longer mysterious; real people live there and their lives are as fascinating as people anywhere. Young tribal women and men can now actively consider a future in their own traditions rather than joining the urban factory poor. Like our original Australians, whose aesthetic abilities and determination to tell their tales has resulted in artworks that command the highest international respect, the tribes of Persia are similarly telling their tales. The primary difference in this comparison is that the carpet is a family affair, no one signature can be put to a carpet. It cannot be signed by one person, only the family or clan name can be the signature. Why?
The sons who herd the sheep and help with selective breeding, and their fathers who know when to move to new pastures on the migration routes, when to shear, and how to separate the fleece into its different uses are the ancient fundamental beginning. Then there are the jobs of washing and carding the fleece, spinning the fibres and plying the yarn, done by all the family, and the girls who collect the dye plants, the grandmothers who teach the weaving traditions, the loom makers and their sons who warp the loom, all are a necessary and equal part of the final artwork: the carpet. The actual weavers, mostly sisters, who squat together, happily chatting and knotting the same carpet, are just one of many stages in the process. Finally there are the all-important finishing jobs, the carpet washers, stretchers, and repairers-of-mistakes. This is truly a family affair. The dyeing and sometimes the loom making are the only jobs done outside the family. No money changes hands, nobody is paid, and all have equal gain. Traditional leaders, akin to English Dukes and Earls, wear the same clothes and eat with their families and share the tasks.
Quite often I am asked how long it takes to make a carpet and the question is really unanswerable because this traditional weaving does not fit a western economic time and motion study, but belongs in a completely different paradigm. Certainly we can say that an accomplished weaver of this type of carpet may do up to three or four thousand knots a day with a facility equal to my own grandmother’s knitting. If there were say, 9 people available domestically, probably 3 weavers would work on the carpet at any one time. If ten thousand knots were tied in a day, at an average of 8 knots per square centimetre, an average room size carpet measuring 3x2m would be completed every 48 days during the season. This assumes of course that all the other tasks have been completed, and the next spare loom has been warped and is waiting in a different tent, a rare occurrence. Most often a party is required to start weaving a carpet. It could take up to a week to prepare for such an event. A carpet party may be held to celebrate or commemorate a birth or a marriage and is a great opportunity for married sisters to get back together.
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