Tribal Rug Adventures - Richard Newman

September 18, 2004
Richard Newman

Richard Newman
Richard Newman
Photo by Terry Henley

On September 18 Richard Newman and three helpers arrived at the Guild at 12:00 noon carrying four duffle bags and one plastic-covered roll about three feet wide; all of these were filled with carpets. In addition there were some other bags which contained an exhibit of the tools of his trade. Within the next short hour a room that had started out the day, clean and pristine from the obvious care given to a classroom before the opening of the semester, was beautifully adorned on walls and tables with tribal rugs and fragments as well as yarns that had been specially hand-dyed to match the colors of these old pieces. Much of the yarn is also hand-spun so as to have the exact texture, size and tautness necessary for doing the restoration or repair that is required. Before the lecture began Richard encouraged us to walk around, to look and to touch these pieces which were Caucasian, South Persian, Turkish, Kurdish, Turkoman and Chinese rugs and bagfaces. The main subjects of his lecture were the collecting, restoring and handwashing of tribal rugs made in the Middle East and Asia.

Richard told us how he was living in a railroad apartment on the Lower East Side and working as an accountant when one day he and his wife went shopping at the Tepper Galleries. Old rugs came there in pieces and with holes to be sold. They were attracted particularly by the vibrant colors in these rugs and bought some for a song and lived with them. Richard and his wife went to many other rug auctions and added to the feeling for the colors, there began to be a feeling of connection with the people who made these rugs. Newman began attending many rug auctions, even at the height of the busy season for accountants. It was clear that he had to make a career change. He left his position at the bank and began selling rugs. It was through his interest in these rugs that he met a restorer who showed him the basics of rug restoration and, with practice, he eventually became a restorer himself.

Richard explained that the tribal rugs in his collection are really examples of folk art, different from 1) court carpets with elaborate and sophisticated types of weaving, produced in great court workshops; and 2) those manufactured in big cities in a sort of factory setting where many people work on carpets that may be intended primarily for export. Tribal rugs include village weaving and nomadic weaving; these rugs are the result of a group effort, often a family production.

Many of these family productions were made by nomads. In this case the carpet begins with the caring for the sheep because good wool is obtained from healthy animals. This is important for dyeing. These tribes lived in tents and moved on whenever new pastures were needed for the sheep. Richard showed us a slide of a caravan all packed up with the woven carrying-bags on the camels. They took everything that they owned with them wherever they went. Their belongings were packed into bags of all sizes and shapes.

Then we were shown a picture of the inside of the tent and it showed us how these very same bags were now hung inside and used the way we do furniture drawers to keep all the daily necessities. Next we saw a picture of how wool is prepared for dyeing. Skeins are dyed individually with natural dyes and will often have different shades of the same color. Next came a slide of a long narrow piece stretched along the ground for about twenty to thirty feet. This loom can be easily folded up and carried from place to place and these long narrow pieces can be sewn together to make a larger carpet or to make a textile. Then we saw three women sitting on a low bench in front of an upright Kilim loom. You could see the design attached at the top of the loom. A small section is woven at one time. Both the bench and the Kilim can be raised or lowered as the women work. In these families the children start learning to weave at a very young age. Here there was a picture of a Turkoman child with a very small loom on the floor for her to weave on.

In one of these slides there were balls of red wool hanging down at the top of the upright for the weavers to use. It could be seen that they were not all the same shade of red. This color variation is called abrash. It is due to the fact that when the wool is washed not all the lanolin is removed from it. This variation of the yarn surface causes the wool to take the dye unevenly. In the city rugs it is considered a flaw but in the tribal rugs it is attractive. Nomadic rugs were woven with wool warps. Later, when the people settled in the cities they began to use cotton foundations. We were shown an enlarged picture of the Turkish knot which is not really a knot but it is a loop.

Among the main tribal groups, carpets from the Northern Caucasus have a long pile and a looser knot count; those from the Southern part have a low pile and a higher knot count. Anatolia is the name of the great plain of Turkey. There are five South Persian tribes that produce objects with similar designs. Turkoman designs now come from Persia, Russia and Baluchistan.

Then we were shown slides of many carpets and fragments from these places. From the Caucasus the designs are often geometrical and very sophisticated. The colors are clear and strongly saturated. There are many abstract animal designs. The earlier rugs have a narrow simple border system while the later ones have more complicated borders. The Chinese rugs are not tribal but village. One beautiful rug from a monastery in China was entirely yellow with a red border echoing the colors that the monks wear. Kurdish rugs often use a diamond pattern. The carpets from South Persia have anywhere from 150 knots per inch to 300 knots per inch; the finishes on these can be quite elaborate with all kinds of tassels. These carpets need to be studied carefully if you want to develop an eye for which are of the best quality. You can go to exhibits and auctions and you can use books to help you identify well-known designs. When you are looking for a rug it may surprise you to learn that sometimes a very worn fragment that is old may be very valuable. One of their carrying bags was specifically woven for carrying salt. It is very tightly woven and the top is made much narrower than the bottom part; then the top is folded over and the salt will stay inside even over a long journey on a camel. A photo of pieces specially prepared for a Turkoman wedding which would later be part of the dowry showed even a special piece to cover and surround the doorway. These pieces were all done with great care, there was no thought about all the time it took. Even the camel was all decked out with special kneepads!

Then we were shown pictures of the different stages in the restoration of a rug beginning with the holes and ending with the missing part replaced. Richard explained that the aim of a repair or restoration depends on what is needed. The idea is not necessarily to make the work invisible but to be able to enjoy the rug. Restoration is in four steps. The first step is to put in new warp which should not be noticeable on the front or the back. This is what collectors want. Next come the wefts. The third step is to put in the spacers which are often linen threads. The last step is to put in the knots. Because of the abrash it may be necessary to blend two or three strands of color to get a good match. Start by working in the smallest hole that needs reweaving. By the time you get to doing the big hole, you will be much better at what you are doing . The knots are put in one row at a time and then the spacer is removed. There was an example shown to us of a 17th century Turkish village rug with holes. Next was a photo showing the new foundation of warp with the spacers. Lastly we saw what looked like a complete and beautiful rug.

In connection with the latter we saw a slide of the work table which has many colors, good lighting and sufficient magnification. First you study the rug. It's even a good idea to put the rug up on a wall and study it before you even begin to work on it. If it needs washing then notice where it is especially dirty and develop a plan for doing that. Use a baby detergent and just enough to get it clean. Roll the piece back and see if you can tell how far the dirt is embedded. Is the dirt just on top or does it go all the way through to the back? Then first sew up ends and loose edges seeing if the rug will be able to take all the handling involved in washing. You do not want to unset the dyes on the rug. So try just squeezing the detergent and removing it right away with a wetvac. Remember too that hot water may not be necessary and it may also unset the dyes. Some rugs can be immersion washed and others can be flat washed on the ground. Colors cannot be matched if the rug is dirty. When vacuuming use a plain pickup that goes in the direction of the pile; a rotary beater or brush may damage the rug.

Washing has the advantage of giving quick results. Restoration properly done can take weeks. For a very valuable rug there are times when the collector does not want it to be functional but only to conserve it and mount it. So, believe it or not, sometimes a rug can be devalued by too much restoration.

According to Richard, rug collectors are passionate people. They form bonds. They can tell you a story about every piece they have. These weavers were seemingly very simple people. They wove plant and animal designs that were part of their environment. I came away having learned a great deal about tribal rugs, having a new feeling and understanding of how much care might have been put into making a certain piece and a strong impression of how much more care and attention can be put into working on a rug by a person who is not only knowledgeable but caring and attentive.

-- Sara Briggs