29 Apr 2017
Just looking, honest!
I went for a coffee with friends the other day. A new café in a converted space, a little edgey, a little funky. Old carpets over cement floors. Looked like the new owners had bought a job lot: some were threadbare, some ugly. A few, just two or three small ones, really caught my eye. I could have happily taken those home.
How I came to be turning up the corners of these rugs and inspecting the backs closely, and how I managed to visit the National Carpet Museum in Tehran four times in twelve months is a long story, but there it is, and here I am.
Persian carpets are a bit of an acquired taste, but once you get into it, endlessly fascinating. For much of last century, carpets would be woven in Iranian villages by women while the men were out working. Because it’s a delicate and demanding task, tying minuscule knots of wool or silk on a woven base, the hands of the carpet weavers cannot take more than a couple of hours. Even an average carpet typically has a million tiny knots per square metre!
So a group of village women would coöperate each afternoon on a carpet, gossiping, drinking tea, knotting in shifts, and eventually sharing the profits from a project that might take a year of skilled work.
They are beautiful, intricate, colourful, hard-wearing, and expensive. A big silk carpet can be worth as much as a new car, reflecting the months, or years, of work by designer and weavers, not to mention the materials, which must be chosen and prepared carefully.
Bruce Granger has been selling Persian carpets for fifty years. He’s seen the villages, he knows the merchants, he’s watched as the Shah fell and the Ayatollahs ruled. For the past twenty years, he’s been leading tours to Iran as the nation opens up again, and I’ve been lucky enough to be on two of them, enjoying his company as he draws on decades of stories, some true, some tall, all fascinating.
“They don’t weave carpets in the villages anymore,” he laments. “You know what killed it? Not the Revolution, but daytime TV. Nowadays the women sit around watching soap operas, and they have no time for carpets.”
The old skills are dying out, and carpets now are produced in factories, often using inferior materials and methods. It’s a shame, and I could spit when I see some of the dross being churned out by factories in China and India.
There’s still a wealth of good carpets, though, and in Iran, we’d occasionally see Bruce’s eyes light up when we stumbled across an interesting example in a mosque or a hotel, or at one of the carpet merchants, where the merchants would pour tea for the tourists and try to trick Bruce up with some of their more exotic wares.
In Isfahan, we looked on as a merchant brought out a big silk carpet, spread it out before us, and looked at Bruce as he sized it up. It was gorgeous, a real work of art.
“Very nice,” he said. “I’ve only seen one like this before. It was in Christies in London, forty years ago, and it sold for a million pounds. The designer only ever produced two, so I’m guessing this is the other one.”
We expected nothing less from Bruce. His knowledge and love of his chosen subject is deep and true.
Incidentally, our host noted for the ladies that this was a private house, and they could remove their hijabs if they wished.
Whoosh! Off came the scarves.
One or two forgot to put them on again as we left and I found myself in a quandary. Tell them and be the agent of male-enforced clothing standards I didn’t agree with? Or warn them to prevent embarrassment out on the street?
I warned them, but I didn’t feel good about being a fink. In hindsight, I could have been more oblique and said, meaningfully, “What lovely hair you have, Ann!”