Kabul: Rug Making and Finishing (Part 2)

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In Rug News andDesign, November 2010, available online at www.rugnewsanddesign.com, we wrote about rug making in Afghanistan, using pictures supplied by Ariana. This month we will illustrate the article with pictures supplied by Amadi and Pacific Collection.

[A version of this article was first published in December, 2010 in Volume 31, No. 3 of Rug News andDesign Magazine.]

For our readers who are unfamiliar with this group of firms, Amadshah and Alex Ahmadi run Ariana, Zabi, Zubair and Murtazah Ahmadi run Amadi, and Fred Hazin runs Pacific Collection. They all grew up together.

Administrative offices being built at the 60,000 square foot washing facility for Pacific Collection at Mazar A Sharif, Afghanistan. Photo: Pacific Collection.

Ahmadshah’s and Alex’s grandfather spent time traveling with and working with Iranians at an Iranian embassy. There he fell in love with rugs. Because of the connection with Iranians, the family brought Iranians to teach weaving, and all the family learned weaving, dyeing spinning cartoon drawing and making rugs, even repairing. Hazara’s being Shia’s and Iranian’s being Shia’s they would celebrate religious holidays together.

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In the sixties the various branches worked together and starting with 2 looms, started making silk rugs to sell in Germany. By the time of the Russian invasion in 1980, they had about 1,000 looms in Kabul, were making the highest quality, and selling for cash that buyers would bring (Ahmadshah remembers cement bags full of cash). As Ahmadi  describes it, one uncle would prepare the wool and another uncle would finish the rug, but even then people copying the rug would copy the designs, but not the preparation or the materials, and not the finishing. Anyone who has ever tried to cook Turkish food knows that all day is spent chopping and dicing, the actual time for cooking is small compared to the prep time chopping.

As they are from Kabul, which experiences winter, they also had no school in winter because of lack of heat. So the cousins would go to the uncle’s workshops and learn the various trades, from weaving to repair.

After the Russian invasion the family left for Germany where they repaired rugs, the whole family was in the rug repair business. They would then travel around to different villages holding tea parties and selling rugs.

When they came to the US Ahmadshah Ahmadi remembers his first job was to repair moth damage on a 3×5 rug, for which he was paid $150 for a weeks work.

Zabi Amadi and his brothers came in 1987, and Zabi saw to it that the brothers went to school and college while he started putting together a business and sold rugs to support them. As he traveled with his van, he bought antiques to repair and sell to Europe.

In 1996, an uncle fled the Taliban to Peshawar in Pakistan, where he saw some of their weavers living there with nothing. He bought some dyed wool and made a prototype and then partnered with a Los Angeles company to retail them in L.A.

Knotting the carpet on a vertical loom, note the shaggy nature of the pile, and the hook used to make a symmetrical knot. Photo: Amadi.

In 2003 Ariana started its own production in Kabul with 8 bales in the first shipment. Because the family, meaning all the uncles, had been in different parts of the business, even though this generation was not thoroughly familiar with finishing then, they had some knowledge from their years in the different family workshops, and they committed themselves to learning the process. Alex Ahmadi creates the color combinations and then controls the finishing and washing until it is right in his eyes.

As Ahmadi sees it, the children of other traditional rug makers have moved on to the professions like lawyers and doctors as part of a natural cycle. To him the good news is that “more and more people are coming into the business with passion”.

Amadi still make and finish rugs in Peshawar Pakistan. About one fifth of the weavers were washed out. Their wash plant was not damaged. In talking with others about the revival of weaving after the floods, several have made the point that because rugs are such an important source of income in Afghanistan, a way will be found to get the rugs to Pakistan for finishing.

One individual with knowledge of the financing structure of rug making said that the financiers have so much money tied up in rugs that they have to find a solution to get their money back. The underlying problem with the financing structure is that serial indebtedness leads to virtual bondage—and that problem is six millennia old.

Zubair Amadi said that the difference between making in Peshawar and Kabul is that one can make bigger rugs in Peshawar, that it is hard to make rugs over 3 meters (9-10 feet) wide in Kabul.

While up north in Mazar e Sharif the weavers work on horizontal ground looms, in Peshwar and Kabul they work on vertical two beam looms similar to Tabriz looms, and not roller bar looms as is common in India. The size of the room determines the maximum size of the rug, and big rooms are not common.

Hand clipping the carpet. Photo: Amadi.

Amadi also pointed that Peshawar can weave year round, while most of Kabul is limited to Middle Spring to Late Fall weaving, and most weavers can’t get their goods finished in winter. (As a side note, the US Army has announced funding for a project to wash and finish Afghan rugs in Mazar a Sharif and Heart, with the caveat that they will have to heat the wash facility in Mazar a Sharif in winter to be open 12 months a year.)

Amadi’s perspective is that the difference between suppliers is the level of control. From his perspective contract manufacturers who control the entire process from wool to finishing have a better chance of making a good product that meets or anticipates market needs, while the jobbing market of putting out wool, and taking back rugs for washing at a separate wash facility means less control over the final product. Finishing good materials is the real secret in the rug business.

However, the general market may find the jobbing market goods, good enough for the price and look. Not all buyers are cutting edge, quality aware. Copying the best is a millennial tradition as well.

In 2002, Fred Hazin moved his production to Kabul from Peshawar. In Kabul he uses vertical looms, up in the North, most of the goods are made on horizontal looms. Hazin washes in Kabul, and in January expects to open a wash plant in Mazar e Sharif on a 60,000 square foot property with an interior heated dry room for dusting, washing and finishing his rugs locally. He points out that Mazar e Sharif is much lower than Kabul, and winter less rugged so heating the dry room there is less costly. This he expects will allow him to expand production in Mazar e Sharif.

Aside from the fact that the principals of these three firms grew up together, their common bond is a commitment to Afghanistan, and a commitment to quality from wool (Afghan) to finishing under their control.

Traditional knotted rugs in Persian designs and other than Persian designs have a future in the high end rug business, just no longer from Iran, and not inexpensive. Increasingly the consumer will have to choose whether or not to support the weavers in the few remaining countries making high end knotted rugs. The supply of rugs is declining as more and more people in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and Iran move into other occupations. (Persian rugs are currently embargoed—and that means damaged antique rugs cannot be exported for repair and then re-imported. Thus the supply of high end antique Persian pieces has been dramatically reduced.)  There are however stocks of newer Persian pieces in the US, but no more coming in for the foreseeable future.

The third and final part of this series may be read here. The Rug News Archive, online at www.rugnewsanddesign.com is an educational resource for readers who wish to know more about how rugs are made.

[A version of this article was first published in December, 2010 in Volume 31, No. 3 of Rug News andDesign Magazine.]

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