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What has always fascinated me most about rugs is the pervasive epistemological uncertainty of the field—or, in more modest terms, the difficulty of knowing with some degree of certainty anything at all about them. Any information about rugs seems to filter upwards through layers upon layers of resources of often self-interested or speculative nature. Nevertheless, some provisional or tentative knowledge is gradually acquired through the reading and triangulation of resources in books and online, through communication (e.g. in forums such as Turkotek or Yahoo:Oriental rugs), through talks with dealers, and technical analyses of rugs.

This theory (or project, or book) should help understand rugs as complex information objects, which includes understanding them as functional object, as aesthetic artefact and as tradeable commodity. There may be lessons for the design of information systems in that. Understanding rugs in this way also implies understanding what drives collectors of rugs (who are probably by and large similar to any other type of collector). So working out the theory should also help me understand my own affliction.

Why have a theory of rugs?

A lot has been written about rugs so this begs the question what a theory of rugs could offer that hasn't been covered somewhere already. A simple answer might be that a general theory of rugs would bring together various views: that of rugs as a tradeable commodity to be classified, attributed and valued; that of rugs as a functional textile; that of rugs as an ethnographic object pointing to bygone ways of living; and finally, that of rugs as an aesthetic object subject to personal musings and projections.

Another answer might be that this theory should emphasize the main processes around rugs such as collecting and dealing, weaving, designing, and producing (i.e. set up the economic context of rug manufacturing).

The rug literature is usually very much object-centred. The typical rug books sort the field and at bottom, match visual representations with names and qualified ascriptions. Insights into market mechanisms are relatively sparse though we do find repeatedly summary accounts of the history of the American Sarouk and the impact of Ziegler on Persian rug weaving. Regarding the weaving process, there is Marla Mallett's Woven structures that focus on weaving techniques and make the connection to use qualities such as type of usage, durability, strength, insulating properties, flexibility, weight, etc. Then there are ethnographic studies which may be based on field research, the author talking to old weavers or sifting through layers of old rugs in mosques; other studies may depart from old traveller's reports, Russian census data, motifs and patterns in other art forms, or reproductions of early rugs in oil paintings. The ethnographic studies all hit the problem that tribal life in past centuries is at best ill documented and, to make things worse, covered by layers of rug lore invented or at least distorted by generations of dealers that had other imperatives than establishing ethnographic truth (whatever that may be). This problem is compounded by the fact that more recently, tribal life has changed so much towards the sedentary, motored, etc., often with little tribal or village weaving still in evidence, so that the context of production a mere 50 years earlier is increasingly difficult to reconstruct. These theories focus on the societies there, not their link to us consumers and collectors; sociological or anthropological theories regarding the role of the exotic and the way powerful projections change the re-presentation and in turn consciousness there (e.g., Price 1989) are not considered, probably not even known.

To return to the rationale for this theory: my hope is that by describing rugs from a process perspective, some interesting insights can be produced that tie together the social, psychological, economic, cultural and aesthetic aspects of the rug field. I want this text to be less hermetic than most rug books and connect the field to things beyond rugs.

A short aside: The guiding questions of existing rug books (or their theoretical aspects)

Theory is more often than not only an implicit aspect of rug books. Most build everythig around the show pieces, the rug illustrations. If we look at the guiding questions in these books, we usually find the following:

State of the art

"The New HandLook Carpet Pioneer HCP X2 weaves high quality carpets with a hand-knotted look back in reed 700d/m at double production.

No ground warps showing through the back results in the hand-knotted look and a perfect pile fixation, with only outside picks."

Van de Wiele description of automatic carpet-weaving loom (www.vandeviele.com)

Sources of evidence, focus

The theory of rugs developed here is likely to put more emphasis on rugs in the Western dealer/collector context than on rugs in the original context of production. One reason is simply personal in that access to the current context of production is difficult in terms of space, costs and most importantly, language. I do not speak Turkish, Farsi or Dari. Another reason however is that most of the existing literature (or rather, the literature I am aware of—which is an important constraint) that deals with the social context of rugs at all, has theorized about the original tribal rug-weaving context—a context which has largely disappeared through forced settlement policies, changed life styles and new fields of production, and the rising cost of labour.

The economic side of rugs is not easy to unpack and describe with any level of confidence. Rug dealers have no interest in talking openly about the economic differentials by which some still eek out a living (it is getting more difficult). They protect their supply sources because having the right contacts and pickers is a competitive advantage, especially with supplies of antique rugs from source countries largely dried up. Any information on the price at which an item for sale was purchased should be treated with a philosophical attitude: the information may or may not be correct, but this is impossible to verify. Someone who has dabbled in small-scale trading himself is even more suspicious than a mere potential collector. Under favourable conditions some dealers may at times be more open but under the unspoken assumption that the source is kept confidential.

Most books say little about the economics of rugs besides attempting to give would-be investors some parameters to gauge value. An exception is Thompson (1983). He offers, for example, a candid description of the mechanism of a second secret auction (then) called 'the ring' after the official auction is over. (I am not sure whether 'the ring' is still common practice among dealers. The advent of web catalogues published by auction houses, and the impact of growing disintermediation through online auction systems shadowing live auctions will surely undermine the advance agreements of the ring that used to safeguard an acceptably low purchase price and consequently, good margins.)

Last update: 18 October 2008 | Impressum—Imprint