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Natural dyes trigger renaissance for Oriental rugs in home decor

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  • Natural dyes trigger renaissance for Oriental rugs in home decor

    MONDAY March 22, 2004
    Natural dyes trigger renaissance for Oriental rugs in home decor

    By Glen Elsasser
    Knight Ridder News Service

    WASHINGTON -- 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

    And over the past 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. 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 about 1,600 rugs a year, O'Donnell
    said, half of which go 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

    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."

    With the advent of the computer, other U.S. dealers have followed
    Jevremovic's example and have become directly involved in the
    production ofcarpets 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 ArtDeco style. While such notable decorators and craftsmen as
    Louis Comfort Tiffanywere genuinely enthusiastic about the more
    traditional Chinese rugs, the Chinesesaw rugmaking essentially as a
    moneymaking operation.

    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 late19th 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

    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."

    Copyright 2004, The Salt Lake Tribune.