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This article starts in a Turkish bath, a “hamam”, and the “hamam” starts with a Roman bath a millennium earlier. While this must seem an odd place to start, Kabul at 5,900 feet altitude has snow on the ground all winter. Mazar e Sharif at 1290 feet does not but stays about freezing, and Peshawar Pakistan (80% flooded) at about 1200 feet averages 40 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter.

[A version of this article was first published in November, 2010 in Volume 31, No. 2 of Rug News andDesign Magazine.]

Hand spinning. Photo courtesy of Ariana.

You can’t wash a rug in ice and snow. Washing is a critical part of the finishing process. In some respects, it is as critical as the original design process because the finishing process allows the maker to realize the design as intended.

To wash a rug in Kabul, you have to heat the floor,  or the water freezes. Romans, Turks, Afghans have been heating the floor for centuries with an in-floor heating system called after the Roman system “hypocaust.” Instead of electric cables, or hot water pipes, the hypocaust system raises the floors on pilings, and runs hot air and smoke from a fire, although under the floor and up flues in the walls. It is time tested and it works.

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In describing his washing plant Ahmadshah Ahmadi (Ariana) said that they use the heat from the dye house to warm the floor as in a “hamam”. In discussing their wash plant in Kabul, Zabir Amadi (Amadi) said that they had a wash plant in both Kabul and in Peshawar (in the part that did not get flooded). Talking about his new wash plant in Mazar e Sharif in addition to the one in Kabul, Fred Hazin (Pacific Collection) said that he had bought 6,000 meters on which to build a washing and drying facility, but did not need a heated floor because Mazar e Sherif is warmer and lower than Kabul. Hazin expects the Mazar e Sharif facility to be operational in 2011.

The next ingredient in finishing a rug is sunlight.

Drying the dried yarn. Photo courtesy of Ariana.

In the winter there are about four hours of sunshine a day in Afghanistan due to cloud cover. Sunshine and moisture slowly tone the rug by pulling color out. When you dye wool you are putting color in. When you leave the rug in sunshine you are slowly pulling color out. One of the oldest stories in rugs is putting the rug in the road to get walked on, and sunshine. It’s true and it works. It just takes time, lots of time.

The reason that most Afghan rugs are washed in Peshawar is simple, the merchants have money, and the weather is warm enough to wash year round. Basically merchants lend money to the weavers and at the same time pay them on a percentage of completion basis. Weavers have to eat. The putting out system, as it is called, is documented for about 6,000 years, only in Assyria six millennia ago they paid in daily units of barley.

Weaving (knotting). Photo courtesy of Ariana.

The weavers weave at home. The size of the room at home limits the size of the width of the rug. There are two looms used in Afghanistan, a vertical loom with a beam at the top and the bottom around which the warps are looped, and a horizontal loom, called a ground loom which lays flat on the ground and the weaver sits on it as they work. Weavers in Afghanistan tie what is called a symmetrical knot, as opposed to Iran where they tie an asymmetrical knot.

Most weavers in Afghanistan are Hazara’s from the North. They are Shias as are most Iranians. Pashthuns who number more than half the population of Afghanistan live in the South and the East, and are Sunni. Pasthuns generally do not weave rugs.

The traditional rugs made in the North were red, and called the elephants foot pattern. The reds were available in the US, sold well in New England in the 1970’s although the Golden Afghan in that period was most fashionable in NYC. There were several grades even then, and occasionally one saw a very finely woven piece.

Currently there are five basic grades of products produced in Afghanistan. Two are similar at the low end, and three tend towards the higher end.

Fast forward to 1980 when the Soviets invade Afghanistan, and then to 1989 when the Soviets leave Afghanistan. In that period large numbers of Afghans fled to Pakistan, near Peshawar, where large refugee camps were built. Basically the only way the refugees  could earn money was by weaving, and weaving what the merchants would pay for. The merchants weren’t paying for red elephant foot carpets, and so the Peshawar Chobi was born.

Shearing. Photo courtesy of Ariana.

Ahmadshah and Alex Amadi run Ariana. Zabi, Zubair and Murtazah Amadi run Amadi. Fred Hazin runs Pacific Collection. Theirs is an American success story of hard work, talent and commitment. All three are based in the USA and Kabul. They grew up together.

Ahmadshah Ahmadi explained rug making to me in terms that may be easier for most of us to understand. Think of knots in a rug as pixels in a camera, or on a screen. The more pixels, the better the definition.

And Ahmadi took me one step further. Think of materials as good food. The better the ingredients, the better the meal. Then think of the cook who creates the meal and makes the presentation as the equivalent of the rug maker who provides the ingredients and does the finishing. Then think of  restaurants: two restaurants same named dish, different taste, different price.

From Ahmadi’s perspective, the rug business is not much different. Someone creates a dish, other people copy it, but to sell at a lower price they slightly change the ingredients. Whatever your opinion of butter, certain foods cooked in butter taste different than when cooked in other oils.

Or at the French fry level, McDonald’s French fries in the trans fat days, tasted different than virtually everyone else. It is generally agreed that their success was a combination of type of potato, oil, temperature and handling. Now that I see Ahmadi’s perspective, I would suggest that rugs are not much different than French fries.

I used the French fry example partly to make the point that what is true of gourmet cooking can also be true of mass market food, that much of what we say about hand made rugs, is also true of machine made rugs.

To carry the food analogy one step further, the price level of food (cooking oil and rice) determines the basic weaving wage. As food prices rise, weaving wages rise. In Afghanistan the labor cost has doubled.

Hand washing. Photo courtesy of Ariana.

As with many family businesses there is a family story. The principals of Ariana, Amadi, and Pacific Collection grew up together, and have that as a common experience, before they went their separate but similar ways.

The balance of the story (next month) is how three families fled the Soviet invasion, came to America, worked generally as repairmen to earn a living, started designing and making rugs, and are now three firms based in Kabul, building their businesses in Afghanistan employing Afghans, training Afghans, and setting the standards for high end Afghan rugs.

[A version of this article was first published in November, 2010 in Volume 31, No. 2 of Rug News andDesign Magazine.]

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