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Chapter 31

A carpet factory--Children at work--The process of
carpet-making--Foreign influence in the design--Aniline
dyes--"Ancient carpets" manufactured to-day--Types of
carpets--Kerman carpets--Isfahan silk carpets--Kurdistan
rugs--Birjand and Sultanabad carpets--Carpets made by wandering
tribes--Jewellers--Sword-makers and gunsmiths--Humming birds.

A visit to a carpet factory proves interesting. The horses must be left, for it is necessary to squeeze through a low and narrow door in order to enter the shed where the carpets are made.

Every one is familiar with the intricate and gorgeous designs of Persian carpets, and one imagines that only veteran skilful artisans can tackle such artistic work. One cannot, therefore, help almost collapsing with surprise on seeing mere children from the age of six to ten working away at the looms with a quickness and ease that makes one feel very small.

In badly lighted and worse ventilated rooms, they sit perched in long rows on benches at various altitudes from the floor, according to the progression and size of the carpet, the web of which is spread tight vertically in front of them. Occasionally when the most difficult patterns are executed, or for patterns with European innovations in the design, a coloured drawing is hung up above the workers; but usually there is nothing for them to go by, except that a superintendent--an older boy--sings out the stitches in a monotonous cadence. A row of coloured balls of the various coloured threads employed in the design hang from the loom just within reach of the boys' hands.

The process of carpet-making is extremely simple, consisting merely of a series of twisted--not absolutely knotted--coloured worsted threads, each passing round one of the main threads of the foundation web. The catching-up of each consecutive vertical thread in the web, inserting the coloured worsted, giving it the twist that makes it remain in its position, and cutting it to the proper length, is done so quickly by the tiny, supple fingers of the children that it is impossible to see how it is done at all until one requests them to do it slowly for one's benefit. After each horizontal row of twisted threads, a long horizontal thread is interwoven, and then the lot is beaten down with a heavy iron comb with a handle to it, not unlike a huge hair-brush cleaner. There are different modes of twisting the threads, and this constitutes the chief characteristic of carpets made in one province or another.

The labour involved in their manufacture is enormous, and some carpets take several years to manufacture. The children employed are made to work very hard at the looms--seldom less than twelve or fourteen hours a day--and the exertion upon their memory to remember the design, which has taken them several months to learn by heart, is great. The constant strain on the eyes, which have to be kept fixed on each successive vertical thread so as not to pick up the wrong one, is very injurious to their sight. Many of the children of the factories I visited were sore-eyed, and there was hardly a poor mite who did not rub his eyes with the back of his hand when I asked him to suspend work for a moment. The tension upon their pupils must be enormous in the dim light.

Although made in a primitive method, the carpet weaving of Persia is about the only manufacture that deserves a first-class place in the industries of Iran. The carpets still have a certain artistic merit, although already contaminated to no mean extent by European commerciality. Instead of the beautiful and everlasting vegetable dyes which were formerly used for the worsted and silks, and the magnificent blue, reds, greens, greys and browns, ghastly aniline dyed threads--raw and hurtful to the eye--are very commonly used now. Also, of the carpets for export to Europe and America the same care is not taken in the manufacture as in the ancient carpets, and the bastard design is often shockingly vulgarised to appease the inartistic buyer.

But even with all these faults, Persian carpets, if not to the eye of an expert, for all general purposes are on the whole better than those of any other manufacture. They have still the great advantage of being made entirely by hand instead of by machinery. It is not unwise, before buying a Persian carpet, to rub it well with a white cloth. If it is aniline-dyed, some of the colour will come off, but if the old Persian dyes have been used no mark should remain on the cloth. However, even without resorting to this, it must be a very poor eye indeed that cannot recognise at once the terrible raw colours of aniline from the soft, delicious tones of vegetable dyes, which time can only soften but never discolour.

To manufacture "ancient carpets" is one of the most lucrative branches of modern Persian carpet-making. The new carpets are spread in the bazaar, in the middle of the street where it is most crowded, and trampled upon for days or weeks, according to the age required, foot-passengers and their donkeys, mules and camels making a point of treading on it in order to "add age" to the manufacturer's goods. When sufficiently worn down the carpet is removed, brushed, and eventually sold for double or treble its actual price owing to its antiquity!

There are some thirty different types of carpets in Persia. The Kerman carpets are, to my mind, the most beautiful I saw in Persia, in design, colour and softness. They seem more original and graceful, with conventional plant, flower and bird representations of delicate and very varied tints, and not so much geometrical design about them as is the case in the majority of Persian carpets.

Less successful, in fact quite ugly, but quaint, are those in which very large and ill-proportioned figures are represented. One feels Arab influence very strongly in a great many of the Kerman designs. They say that Kerman sheep have extremely soft and silky hair, and also that the Kerman water possesses some chemical qualities which are unsurpassable for obtaining most perfect tones of colour with the various dyes.

The principal carpet factory is in the Governor's Palace, where old designs are faithfully copied, and really excellent results obtained. The present Governor, H. E. Ala-el-Mulk, and his nephew take particular interest in the manufacture, and devote much attention to the carpets, which retain the ancient native characteristics, and are hardly contaminated by foreign influence.

The Isfahan silk carpets are also very beautiful, but not quite so reposeful in colour nor graceful in design. Those of Kurdistan are principally small prayer rugs, rather vivid in colour, and much used by Mahommedans in their morning and evening salaams towards Mecca. In Khorassan, Meshed, Sultanabad, Kaian (Kain) and Birjand, some very thick carpets are made, of excellent wear, but not so very artistic. In the Birjand ones, brown camel-hair is a prevailing colour, used too freely as a background, and often taking away from the otherwise graceful design. Sultanabad is probably the greatest centre of carpet-making for export nearly every household possessing a loom. The firm of Ziegler & Co. is the most extensive buyer and exporter of these carpets. The Herat (Afghanistan) carpets are also renowned and find their way mostly to Europe.

In Shiraz and Faristan we find the long narrow rugs, as soft as velvet, and usually with geometrical designs on them. Red, blue and white are the prevalent colours.

It would be too long to enumerate all the places where good carpets are made; but Kermanshah, Tabriz, Yezd,--in fact, nearly all big centres, make carpets, each having special characteristics of their own, although in general appearance bearing to the uninitiated more or less similar semblance.

The rugs made by the wandering tribes of South-east and South-west Persia are quaint and interesting. The Persian Beluch rugs are somewhat minute and irregular in design, deep in colour, with occasional discords of tones, but they recommend themselves by being so strongly made that it is almost impossible to wear them out. They are generally small, being woven inside their tents by the women.

In Northern Persia Turcoman carpets--the most adaptable of all for European houses--are seldom to be found now, as they are generally bought up for Russia. Dark red, warm and extremely soft is the striking note in these carpets, and the design is quite sedate.

Carpets, except the cheaper ones, are seldom sold in the bazaars nowadays. They are purchased on the looms. The best ones are only made to order. There are, of course, a few rug shops, and occasionally an old carpet finds its way to a second-hand shop in the bazaar.

Next in attraction to carpets come the jewellers' shops. The goldsmiths' and silversmiths' shops are not very numerous in the bazaars, nor, when we come to examine the work carefully, do they have anything really worth buying. The work is on good gold or silver of pure quality, but, with few exceptions, is generally clumsy in design and heavily executed. Figures are attempted, with most inartistic results, on silver cases and boxes. The frontage of a goldsmith's shop has no great variety of articles. Bracelets, rings, necklaces, tea and coffee pots, stands for coffee cups, and enamelled pipe heads; a silver kalian or two, an old cigar-box full of turquoises, and another full of other precious stones--or, rather, imitations of precious stones--a little tray with forgeries of ancient coins; that is about all. Pearls and diamonds and really valuable stones are usually concealed in neat paper parcels carried on the person by the jeweller and produced on the demand of customers.

The swordmaker and gunsmith displays many daggers and blades of local make and a great number of obsolete Belgian and Russian revolvers; also a good many Martini and Snider rifles, which have found their way here from India. Occasionally a good modern pistol or gun is to be seen. Good rifles or revolvers find a prompt sale in Persia at enormous figures. Nearly every man in the country carries a rifle. Had I chosen, I could have sold my rifles and revolvers twenty times over when in Persia, the sums offered me for them being two or three times what I had paid for them myself. But my rifles had been very faithful companions to me; one, a 256· Mannlicher, had been twice in Tibet; the other, a 30·30 take-down Winchester, had accompanied me through the Chinese campaign, and I would accept no sum for them.

One is carried back a few score of years on seeing the old rings for carrying gun-caps, and also gunpowder flasks, and even old picturesque flintlocks and matchlocks; but still, taking things all round, it is rather interesting to note that there is a considerable number of men in Iran who are well-armed with serviceable cartridge rifles, which they can use with accuracy. Cartridge rifles are at a great premium, and although their importation is not allowed, they have found their way in considerable quantities from all sides, but principally, they tell me, from India, via the Gulf.

One of the notes of the bazaar is that in almost every shop one sees a cage or two with humming-birds. In the morning and evening a male member of the family takes the cage and birds out for a walk in the air and sun, for the dulness and darkness of the bazaar, although considered sufficiently good for Persians themselves, is not regarded conducive to sound health and happiness for their pets.