“Who Killed the Oriental Rug Business?”

As seen in Rug Insider.

This was a question fired at me by a prominent rug producer who is an acknowledged industry superstar known for his provocative statements and rhetorical questions.  Despite the hyperbole, his query has a measure of legitimacy and I have been asking other rug retailers what they think.  Some successful professionals say the Oriental rug business isn’t dead. Typically from large operations in cosmopolitan cities or wealthy bedroom communities, these retailers are the blessed few whose trade has survived intact (or even flourished) during the economic downturn and the demographic shift in buying habits that began a few years ago. There are others who simply are in denial and unwilling to admit defeat. But most dealers agree that the Oriental rug industry, if not dead, is seriously wounded; these dealers admit to suffering double digit declines in sales since 2007, accumulating to total drops of 40-60 percent or more.


“Survival is the new success” said one rug dealer, only half jokingly. More than a few traditional rug shops have survived by branching out into broadloom, machine-mades and tufted goods.  While these categories can be part of the solution, they are, at the same time, part of the problem (more on this later).


Other dealers tell me their cleaning and repair operations have kept them afloat. However, for some long-lived establishments that have been forced to close, attempts to reinvent themselves proved to be too little too late.


At my store, A Candle in the Night in Brattleboro, Vermont, a piece of sage advise in the 1990’s proved critical. George Jeremovic of Woven Legends suggested that we add a furniture component to our store as he was establishing his home furnishing arm, Material Culture; it was his prescient advice that has saved us from extinction.


I think it is important to distinguish between what we used to think of as Oriental rugs and the traditional to designer floor-coverings that have largely replaced them in today’s market. While the latter are also hand-knotted of natural fibers, many of their patterns remind me of hotel carpeting or wallpaper. Nevertheless they account for a sizable chunk of existing retail sales, especially in urban areas.


It is difficult to say when the downturn began for the industry as a whole but we saw early signs of it around 2004 when aging customers, still captivated by the allure of these beautifully traditional and tribal Oriental rug creations hit a surprising wall their children erected. The empty nesters, wishing to indulge their decades-long pleasure of rug shopping, now to accommodate their new scaled down living situations, began finding their offspring unwilling to receive their earlier rug acquisitions no matter the quality.


Young people caught up in the frenetic pace of their lives in the cyber age don’t want to be challenged by their surroundings at home after a stressful day at work.  For them, a bound piece of sisal or no rug at all is adequate décor for a room dominated by a large screen TV, a computer and other electronics. Anything more decorative might be considered over-stimulation. But industrial-looking furniture and bare floors seem to me a cold alterative to a tastefully appointed room anchored by a colorful Oriental rug.


Perhaps there is an element of rebellion or even a rite of passage in this new aesthetic.  Baby boomers, after all, rejected the dark and dreary interiors of their grandparents, whose tastes harked back to Victorian times, and redefined comfort with handmade furnishings from the craftsmen among them as well as exotic imports.


Just as some of the seemingly outlandish or edgy design features introduced by hot rod and custom car builders of the 1950’s and ‘60’s evolved into standard fare for Detroit a few decades later, the batik and ikat patterns of Indonesia, India and Guatemala have entered the mainstream textile world of clothing and upholstery after being brought back to this country by young backpackers traversing the hippie trail.


I argue that Oriental rug weaving lost its footing aesthetically in the late1920’s as ugly aniline dyes replaced the natural hues that had been ubiquitous until the 1860’s and had only gradually disappeared over the half century that followed. A loss of spontaneity among weavers led to designs that were cluttered and formulaic. Then in the 1980’s hand-spinning and natural-dying, in combination with quirky tribal designs, reappeared on a small scale and an artistic renaissance was at hand.


The reintroduction of these time-honored techniques had the potential for rekindling enthusiasm among rug lovers but alas what should have been an exciting development went awry. Deceptive sales pitches about counting knots and borders along with slippery investment chatter undermined the credibility of honest and dishonest dealers alike. Cheating, in the form of misinformation, once again reared its ugly head. Most recently, hard-twist, machine-spun yarn, chemically induced abrash and so-called “false knots” have led to further confusion and mistrust for retailers and their customers.


It goes further. No sooner does a inventive producer reinterpret an ancient design genre like Mamluk or Suzani than countless copies appear in a wide spectrum of constructions including tufted and machine-made versions, which only serve to muddy the waters and make it difficult to distinguish between the best examples and their imitators. The qualitative differences which account for price discrepancies in similar looking rugs, may be obvious to those of us in the business but for the uninformed consumer, it is easier to just walk away from the whole thing and order something inexpensive and disposable from a catalog or on line. You can buy computers, televisions and just about everything else this way so why not rugs, goes the thinking I suppose.


We have failed to instill an appreciation for the beauty and integrity of our products and the cooperation that goes into making them, in a younger audience that has cultivated an aversion to anything timeless or built to last. This may be less of a problem in Europe where people of all ages live in centuries-old buildings and are not as obsessed with acquiring the latest version of everything.


Is it too late? Who knows? In the 1880’s, William Morris and a host of architects and designers  in England led a very successful revival of hand-crafted objects as a rejection of the industrial revolution and the mechanized style of all that it brought with it. With the Arts & Crafts movement they revitalized the visual appeal of everything from salt shakers to apartment buildings and a beauty-starved public eagerly bought into it.


Could a similar transformation of taste on the part of our Smartphone and texting generation succeed here today with regards to the deliciously tribal and nuanced traditional types of Oriental rugs that had once been so sought after - since ancient times? While the reduced economy will probably persist for the foreseeable future, there are still people out there with expendable income and so it is a matter of taste and education as to how and where they spend that cash particularly in the case of home furnishings and floor-coverings.


But as long as there are G.O.B.’s (going out of business sales)that misrepresent the values of the rugs being offered and mountains of low quality weavings available on line, it will be difficult to focus the attention of wary consumers on the treasures that are still available. The monumental effort and investment needed to turn things around and regain their trust is simply not likely to be made by this small under-capitalized industry that is often at war with itself.


“The dealers did it”, the aforementioned producer said answering his own question, “by milking the business and doing nothing to promote its virtues.”


AND THIS JUST IN: A whole new threat to the Oriental rug business has suddenly appeared. Overproduction during the last few decades has led to a redundancy in inventory and highly competitive pricing in crowded markets, but those conditions may be coming to an abrupt end. Importers tell me that there is a severe shortage of weavers in India, where the government is creating busy work that pays better than weaving, in Pakistan and in Nepal, where they have been leaving for more lucrative jobs in the Gulf Region. In addition Turkey is pumping up its economy in an attempt to become part of Europe which makes it a more expensive country in which to produce handmade rugs .


As if that weren’t enough bad news, our government, in its infinite wisdom, has imposed yet another embargo on Iranian goods (other than oil of course) which will not serve its intended purpose. It will, instead punish all the wrong people i.e. the weavers and us. With prices of materials rising by 40 percent and credit drying up in the rug weaving world, we should expect to see a shortage of goods and higher prices in the near future.