The Salon du Tapis d'Orient is a moderated discussion group in the manner of the 19th century salon devoted to oriental rugs and textiles and all aspects of their appreciation. Please include your full name and e-mail address in your posting.
by Michael Bischof
Our work dealing with natural dying of modern carpets and kilims started within a famous wine producing area of Germany, Rheinhessen, where the dye plants for research were cultivated in a garden that formerly was a vinyard. So seeing natural dyes, oriental weavings and wine as being close to each other should not be surprising.
In Germany the art of making wine is a centuries old heritage, done as a handicraft until about 1950. Then the demand increased with the "Wirtschaftswunder". A lot of new customers got accustomed to wine, which was an upper class habit in all of Germany and a rural habit of the local population only in the wine producing regions. These new customers did not know that it is impossible to make sweet and cheap wine. Nevertheless the market was in rapid expansion until around 1970, when more and more wine scandals evolved. About 1980 these scandals and the cheap competition in a mass scale from Italy and southern France created the impression that in the not-too-distant future it would be impossible to produce wines in Germany and Austria.
In the eighties, the "Yuppie" lifestyle movement increased both the demand for distinction and
a sense for quality. The market was rescued only - and this is the basic thesis of this essay - because with a
proper synchronization, mechanisms of quality control, authorized certification and education of customers evolved
at that time.
If you thoroughly think out todays problems of carpet-kilim making and selling, you will come to the conclusion that we have (structurally) exactly the same problem we had 20 years earlier with wines. It seemed that the cheap wines from Italy or southern France, where one can easily use tractors and fertilizers and machines for harvesting the grapes, would kill any chance to make wines in Germany or Austria where the expenses of labor are comparably higher. The mainstream customers taste then was for sweet wines.
What happened? The clever wine makers first put artificial cheap sugar in the wine. Later they replaced it
by "Süßreserve", which is very sweet unfermented grape juice. If this is added this to a low
quality wine, it tastes sweet but it does not keep. So high amounts of sulfurous acid have to be added as a preservative,
conserving agent. This is quite toxic and one gets headaches after drinking such wines. Without it, wine never
gives headaches, even when someone has been totally drunk. Later, they even used toxic ethylene glycol to "improve"
As soon as the natural dye fashion seemed to be successful, first in Turkey, some smart oriental dealers first copied it with low quality, unsaturated dyes done by cheap, uneducated laborers (the mainstream up to the present) and later "improved" their pieces through killing the wool by means of chemical washing. Hydrosulphite, a more toxic "relative" of sulfurous acid, is one of the main actors in this field.
Twenty years ago, we had so called special selection wines, which cost much more for good reasons (about 12 -15 DM per bottle) and we had "special selection wines" for 4 - 5 DM per bottle, aggressively marketed as good buys. A lot of scandals surfaced which brought the markets down until they were at the brink of collapse.
Then two different approaches gained momentum:
1. Because of the enormous economical importance of wine making, the government put tough quality control
laws into effect. These were based on data that can be measured by means of science and by administrative control
of the wine producers. Someone who cheats with wine will go to prison for no less then 3 years.
2. The numbers of people who love - and pay for - high quality wines is much bigger than the numbers of carpet customers. A lot of purists studied the essentials of decent straight wines and lectured about this topic continuously in public, films, books, guided excursions, competitions, up to the present. Therefore, there is considerable critical feedback control by educated customers in the wine market.
The results through 1999 are outlined below.
The quality of the raw product, the pressed grape juice, is measured by its sugar content. The higher this is, the higher is the amount of accompanying organic acids, of aromatic substances and of tannic materials (with red wines only). For a top wine, the producers must artificially reduce the amount of harvest. Instead of 2 tons per hectare they will have a harvest of 400 kg ( somewhat less than 1 ton) but the quality will be higher. The sugar content prior to fermentation must be measured and communicated to the authorities. For a great wine one applies complete fermentation. At alcohol contents beyond 10%, the yeast is inhibited more and more and cannot make use of the remaining sugar. The resulting wine keeps well because it is balanced between (1) alcohol (2) sugar (3) acids and (4) a minute natural occurring sulfurous acid content. The taste is still somehow sweet, but in most cases not overwhelmingly. Such wines have an impressing amount of aromatic substances, a "round", balanced taste and something that we call "volume", a wonderful, multifaceted haut gout that lasts long in the palate.
The prices for such wines start with about 9 DM and have no limit to higher levels.
With red wines it is a little bit more complicated. To obtain an "inner balance" they must be kept in the cellar for many years before they are ready to be drunk. Like a brilliant Bordeaux red wine from a famous chateau and from a high quality year, let us say 1997. It costs a lot - but in spite of that one cannot drink it today! It must be put into the cellar for 10-15 years (no joke!) for a natural decay of tannic substances. So it is not "ready to drink". A ready to drink red wine from 1997 is unavoidably a second or third class product. Cultivated wine customers know this. A first class wine, e.g. a Chateau Latour Grand Cru from 1982, will cost some hundred dollars if one kisses the hand of the guy who sells it. It is exclusive in the real sense of the word: unnecessary to market it, its demand being higher than its supply.
For a cheap wine, the fermentation might be stopped by sulfurous acid at a certain stage. "Süßreserve" might be applied. Such a wine needs the application of high amounts (up to 200 mg/liter) sulfurous acid, otherwise it cannot keep well. It may taste very sweet, but is, in frank words, toxic to at least 20% of the population (because of hereditary deficiency of the enzyme, sulphite oxidase) and cannot be sold with any marketing suffix like "selection", "high quality", or whatever, which is strictly forbidden. The prices of such wines are about 3-7 DM per bottle.
So one has a high quality product with a high price. Under no circumstances it is possible to produce such
a thing cheaply by being clever. But one has, as a third class cheap event, low quality wines. For everybody interested
it is not difficult to check its quality from the etiquette. The principle "according to the quality ... "
has not been overcome. But the ultimate level in frank language has not been achieved yet in wine marketing. For
cheap, sweet wines one would use the following expression: "wine-like drink, made 100% from grapes, contains
... mg sulfurous acid/liter * (* may cause hazard to people with a hereditary deficiency of the enzyme, sulfite-hydrogenase.
Consult your physician for possible side effects!)." In Germany of 1999, at least 60% of the wine market or
even more consists of such wine-like drinks, coexisting with wines without problems from the government.
The example of ice wine
The upper end of quality in wine making under German conditions (the northern edge of the ocurrence of Vitis vinifera in Europe) is ice wine. Let us assume that a wine producer has a very good harvest of Silvaner type grapes in 1998. The appropriate time to harvest the grapes is from the end of September to about October 10. He has the hope that there will be early frost in 1998. So he takes the risk of not harvesting all his Silvaner grapes. The best ones he does not collect. If the temperature remains below 0°C for 12 hours, the center of the grape will freeze. Because only the pure water freezes in the center, the periphery of the grape consists of thickened juice, e.g. 30% only of the original volume, but these 30% contain all the sugar, the aromatic compounds, etc. The wine producer now has the right to claim to produce ice wine. It must be announced to and permitted by the local authorities. So he collects the frozen grapes and carefully presses the outer parts. He gets a juice which is so concentrated that the resulting wine, although complete fermentation is applied, is still very sweet. The amount is limited. The quality is at the upper end of what can be done. Such a chance does not come each year. In the majority of cases the weather is too warm and the above mentioned separated grapes simply corrode, causing some loss to the producer. The trial to make ice wine is, then, like playing poker. It is easy to understand that without the tough control mechanisms that safeguard the wine market, no producer could afford to produce such a high quality wine.
Carpets and kilms : todays markets
If we take this development as a model for carpets and kilims, we easily realize that most details and the general principles can be transferred. As with wine, two levels of estimation should not be mistaken:
1. Personal taste, whether one likes a certain carpet or not, is a subjective matter.
2. The technical features, how the textile was produced, are measurable with scientific analytical procedures
This essay deals with these features only.
Today's carpet and kilim market is about to collapse. At the lowest end there are "carpets" available for $20/m² (a square meter is about 10 square feet) FOB India or $35/m² FOB Sultanhani/Turkey. It is not a good idea to put them into children's rooms (too much toxic waste of different synthetic chemical origin). To what extent they can be said to be made from wool is questionable.
One has make quite a heavy statement here: there are carpets and kilims (in very small amounts, necessarily expensive) and "carpets" and "kilims". These are wool based (wool as a starting material) carpet- or kilim-like2 house textiles, handmade.
Production carpets or production kilims may sound more friendly. They start at $35/m² FOB Sultanhani, $40 FOB Konya and $80 FOB Istanbul. A Konya production kilim ( each of them is a kilimoid !) starts at $70 FOB Konya. Because the same thing (!) can be easily done much more cheaply in Iran, Afghanistan, India and China, this kind of thing will soon vanish in Turkey.
The second brutal truth is this: the lower the production cost of a piece is in terms of wool, dye and weaving quality the higher the amount of money that is channeled into different dealers pockets. Or: the higher is the profit rate for dealers. Or: the lower the quality the lower the percentage of the selling price that is invested in the quality of the piece (wool, making of the yarn, dyes - especially their saturation, weaving, clean finish). This situation is an offense to customers rights, above a certain level.
Historical background of carpetoids
Before about 1880, carpet making was a centuries old handicraft with its own technology. Customers in the oriental countries and also in the west knew by experience how to evaluate a carpet for different aspects of use. There was only one technology available. To produce a good look was possible only by careful selection of the right wool, skilled yarn-making, soft, but slow dyeing procedures and technically correct weaving. Finishing methods were simple. A new carpet (or an extreme old one, that was never used, just kept) looked a little stiff.
But by proper use it improved within decades - and everybody knew that. The situation was similar to the production of furniture in the pre-industrial era. At about 1880-1900 methods of the modern textile industry were applied in the creation of carpets and immediately a heavy decline in quality arose. The ultimate ratio of industry is to save human labor (costs) by the application of chemistry and machinery, in most cases with the expense of decaying quality. The famous book of Neugebauer and Orendi stated this clearly. As a logical result, the prices given for carpets from the "old" technology were much higher than the prices for the new carpet substitutes. The performance of carpets is simply superior to carpetoids - and at that time carpets were not in high estimate as "antiques". People did not collect carpets, they used them in their houses. Old technology meant higher performance.
But there is an additional result: after 1900 methods were available to produce a nice "look" cheaply, without being restricted to good wool, yarns, dyes etc. In other words: the look no longer reflected the inherent quality of the textile. Today the technical features of their textiles are not even transparent for experienced professionals who buy at the source. The shopping trips end in shops, not in the backyards of the production. Therefore, cheating with the technical details of carpets is the rule, not the exception. Most items are loaded with toxic synthetic chemistry to an amount that one should not put them in children's rooms.
As soon as the natural dye fashion7 seemed to be successful, first in Turkey, some smart oriental dealers first copied it with low quality, unsaturated dyes done by cheap, uneducated laborers and later "improved" their pieces by means of chemical washing. Hydrosulphite, a more toxic "relative" of sulfurous acid, has been mentioned above. This is later perfected with a bath of hypochlorite, pH 12.5, done by uneducated people that cannot control any parameter. Often the white wool warps are yellow. Instead of saying "sorry, but we killed the wool ... ", this is called "gold wash". Even then, such a carpetoid or kilimoid does not look good enough to display in the showroom. Therefere, it is pressed at 50 atm. and 120°C. Because this condition is beyond the so-called glass temperature of the wool, the fiber is deformed to an elliptic form, but the look is better.
So the borderline between carpets and carpetoids is the crucial point.
Our key assumption is that we claim for carpets and kilims the same that is established for wines: their definition must be derived from how they were made - and it does not matter at all what the finished product looks like. What a carpet or kilims is was unqestionable till about 1880 because there was only one technology available to make them and customers had experience of some hundred years to evaluate them. In order to recover this level of transparency the customer needs to be informed about these essentials:
1. The raw wool must be without pesticides3.
2. The way the yarn was made must be made known to the final customer - the differences in quality and price vary considerably (e.g. the spinning wheel is more than 20 times that of a cross spindle, at the expense of quality).
3. The dyes must be natural dyes exclusively4.
4. The dyeing process should not endanger the integrity of the wool fiber (hot mordanting should be avoided). In case a dye stuff has been imported to the country of production this must be made known to the customer (ecological considerations, ending cheap tricks like the use of Indian Rubia cordifolia named Iranian madder to cut the higher price of Anatolian madder).
5. Whether the weaving is done using a pre-made design or whether the weaver has to chance for some own creativity cannot be part of any certificate. This is an aesthetic question and not a technical one5 .
6. The finish should not risk the fibers integrity. Slight burning can be done. But no agressive detergents
like soap, lauryl ether sulphates, ethylene oxide adducts are permitted. No synthetic fatty substances and no silicon-type
compounds are allowed to improve the lustre. Details of the applied finish must be given to the customer (on request
These essentials are all measurable by scientific analytical procedures and can therefore constitute a practical definition of "what is a carpet, what is a kilim". The most easy to remember formula for any customer is: a carpet improves its quality as time goes by when it is properly used - a carpetoid has its climax in the showroom and will go down then, no matter how it is used, no matter how and whether it is washed later.
The aim is clear: to re-arrange the carpet market according to the priniciples of how the wine market was recovered. We have not the slightest objections to carpet-like home textiles for people who want a carpet-like but cheap look for some spots of their homes. But they should not kill carpets. The tendency of this approach is similar to what the slow food movement wants to gain.
1 That wool has been their starting material is generally out of question. But the synthetic chemical attacks on
the wool integrity in the finishing process of those cheap „carpets“ and „kilims“ is so severe that the
biochemical character of the wool is changed to measurable amounts.
2 Carpetoids or kilimoids would be most likely the most correct denomination
3 At present this excludes all wool from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina because of
different breeding techniques.
4 Including the Indigoid dyes. In case synthetic Indigo is used the resulting piece must be called "partially
5 The same rule is applied for the common claim of producers that they returned to tradition, which is never sound in principle.
6 Neugebauer, Rudolf & Orendi, Julius (1909): Handbuch der orientalischen Teppichkunde.
Leipzig. Hiersemanns Handbücher, Bd. IV.
7 It was an external impulse, motivated by mainly aesthetical expectations. The aim of this natural dye movement was to restore color harmony which was badly damaged by the uninformed application of synthetic dyes. Later, people supplemented ecological reasons for natural dyes. If one looks close to what has developed from this input this sounds lunatic today.