Monday, March 26, 2012

Twisted Threads – The Dark Side of Persian Carpet Weaving


Carpet weaver at the Carpet Museum in Tehran
By Heidi Noroozy
 
One of the perks I get from setting my stories and books in Iran is the opportunity for fascinating research. In 2004, while investigating Iran’s carpet industry for my unpublished novel, Frayed Silk, I scoured the carpet bazaars in Kashan and Esfahan, two of Iran’s major carpet producing cities, with my husband acting as interpreter. My goal was to find a carpet weaver who would talk to me about her life and work.

I’m almost ashamed to admit it now, but I had a rather romanticized notion of carpet weaving. I pictured women sitting happily at looms in their village homes, working things of beauty according to their own designs, taking pride in their craft.

In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Iran’s carpet industry today is largely a contract business. The work is still performed in private homes, and the workforce remains primarily women and children. (The Islamic Republic has child labor laws, which, like so many Iranian rules, are routinely broken.) But the Disney image I’d harbored of the happy artisan plying her craft and selling her work to appreciative buyers is long gone, if it ever existed at all.

The commission system works like this: Carpet wholesalers, like the companies I saw at the bazaar, own the means of production. They set up looms in the weavers’ homes, employ artists to create the designs, supply the materials (wool, silk, and cotton threads), and buy the finished carpets at wholesale prices.

Although centralized workshops do exist, many carpet dealers prefer the commission business because it is harder to regulate and allows them to avoid such inconveniences as paying minimum wage, taxes, and rent. The system also gives them greater flexibility in production, since they can add and remove looms according to market fluctuations. The dealers get the best of both worlds: skilled workers and absolute control over the business. The weavers, however, have no say in design, working hours, wages, or even whether they work at all.

Repairing a carpet at the back of the bazaar
in Esfahan
The carpet bazaaris I spoke to were less than eager to put me in touch with a flesh-and-blood weaver. Understandably, they were mainly interested in selling me their carpets. But when I plied my questions, they grew vague and unfriendly, all too happy to be rid of me. “Go ask Agha X three doors down,” they’d say. “He can help you.”

Persistence paid off eventually, when one man directed us to a carpet weaving school on a narrow alley just off Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Esfahan. There, in a windowless room at the top of a steep flight of stairs, we found two weavers sitting cross-legged at a vertical loom, knotting a huge blue and white floral carpet of an Esfahani design. One of the weavers worked the background colors while the other added the flowers, leaves, and vines, pulling colorful threads from skeins of wool hanging from the loom’s top beam. After completing a row, the two women would switch places to complete the pattern.

One of the weavers, a woman in her early thirties whom I’ll call Zahra, was happy to answer my questions about her work and life as a carpet weaver.

Born into a carpet weaving family in a village near Esfahan, Zahra learned to weave carpets as a small child, working with her parents. The skill of so many years of practice was easy to see in her deft fingers, which flew across the carpet she was knotting with such speed and assurance they practically blurred before my eyes.

Zahra’s parents didn’t want her to become a weaver. Instead, they urged her to find a better job without such long hours and backbreaking work. Understandable when you consider what it takes to create these lovely, complex works of textile art. Eighteen-hour workdays hunched over a loom give carpet weavers a higher-than-average rate of musculoskeletal disorders. The repetitive movements of knotting the rugs cripple fingers, create skin lesions, and induce swollen joints. Even lung disease is higher among carpet weavers, who breathe in fine wool dust all day long.

Detail of a silk carpet
But Zahra loved carpets and took pride in her family’s tradition of skilled weavers, so she persisted. Today she teaches at the school where we found her, her students mainly middle-class women who learn the craft as a hobby. Zahra also still weaves rugs on commission for local dealers, like the Esfahani carpet she was working on with a partner that day. She told me that it would take the two of them eight months to finish the six-meter rug.

Our house is filled with hand-made Persian carpets, old ones inherited from relatives and new ones we’ve bought ourselves at Iranian bazaars. Since that trip to Esfahan eight years ago, I can’t look at them without thinking of the skilled hands that knotted the rugs. Knowing the hardship that went into creating such beauty makes me appreciate Persian carpets all the more. To live without them would be unthinkable. For as my Iranian friends and relatives like to say – a home without a carpet is a home without a soul.

2 comments:

  1. It must have been difficult for Zahra's parents to discourage her from continuing the family trade/tradition,I wonder though, did Zahra regret her decision to become a carpet weaver?

    As a side topic, as a professional, I cringed when I read of the various work place health and safety issues!

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  2. Sangeeta, I don't know if Zahra regretted her decision. She didn't seem to, but then she might have been resigned to it. It was what she knew how to do, and she was very skilled.

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