A Carpet Merchant’s Lament

In southwestern Turkey, is the ancient art of rug-weaving in danger?

By / November 2014

Rugs are synonymous with Turkey. It’s been that way for hundreds for years. But Rifki Ezgin, a long-time carpet merchant in Denizli, a city in southwestern Turkey, fears the art form is in decline. In the past, Ezgin says, he bought twenty or thirty hand-made rugs a month from local craftswomen. He sold them wholesale to merchants at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. They brought good prices. There was an abundant supply.

But in recent years Ezgin feels lucky if he can get his hands on three to five rugs a month. This drastic decrease in supply, and a waning interest in hand-made rugs among Turkish buyers in general, has cornered him into selling modern, machine-woven carpets to put bread on the table.

For Ezgin, who grew up watching his mother weave carpets in their house in Denizli, these desperate measures have caused him no shortage of grief. He sees himself as a standard bearer of a rich tradition, something that is very near the heart of Turkishness, an abiding link to nothing less than the nomadic history of the Turkic people.

The earliest expression of the art form was the kilim, a kind of flat-weave tapestry that can be made while sitting on the ground. Bright geometric designs reflect the tribal lifestyle of the women who first wove them. Originally, kilims hung on the walls of nomadic homes as a buffer against biting winds and bitter colds. In many traditional Turkish restaurants, these flat-weaves are still used as cover cushions for dining on the floor. They are also used as feed sacks and prayer rugs. Kilims can be folded into handbags. The uses go on.

Photograph by Josh Hinton

Pile carpets, the other major type of Turkish rug, belong to a later, more sedentary period of Turkish history. Pile rugs are woven on a loom, which isn’t something a nomad just picks up and carries to the next valley. After tying off hundreds of vertical threads (the warp) on the loom, the weaver begins to pull the horizontal threads (the woof, also known as the weft) through the vertical threads to create the foundation, or floor, of the rug.

The process is staggeringly labor-intensive. After pulling each thread through, the weaver ties hundreds of knots around the vertical threads. When she has tied off an entire row of knots across the width of the rug, she smashes the weft and knots them down into place with a wooden beater. The weaver repeats this process hundreds, maybe even thousands, of times. The size of the rug and complexity of the design, the skill and speed of the weaver, and the quality and type of materials all affect the time it takes to weave one rug. Some take several months, others many months.

Traditionally, kilims and pile carpets were woven for practical use, not sale. The women who made them were not thinking about market demands. There is no doubt that Seljuk and Ottoman rulers commissioned extravagant rugs. And it is true that in the 19th century an increase in international demand for the craft created something of a hand-woven rug industry, but for thousands of years, Turkish mothers taught their daughters how to weave rugs the way their mothers had taught them. It was a skill that was passed on from generation to generation. It took time, lots of time. But the needs of homemaking, and an allegiance to preserving traditions, kept the tide of carpet-making rolling from one generation to the next.

Ezgin’s concern is that the tide has receded permanently. And his employees share his concerns. Turan and Tufan, two sales associates, handle most of the retail sale business for Ezgin. Ezgin says customers increasingly prefer mass-produced rugs with modern designs to traditional kilims and pile carpets. Rifki describes an increase in customers who come in looking to exchange hand-woven rugs for machine-made ones. Recently, a group of twentysomethings came into the store looking to offload two hand-woven pieces, a rug and a small, square-shaped carpet colloquially known as a “bread napkin.”

“They didn’t want to sell it for the 30 lira ($14) he offered, so they left without a deal. Though Ezgin couldn’t turn a profit on their rugs, he was eager for them to use them. “They don’t know what they’ve got,” he says. He thinks it’s an unfortunate by-product of living in a consumer culture: “Easy come, easy go.”

Finding carpets suitable for sale is a formidable challenge these days. Ezgin recently paid a house visit to a family who had a rug from Afyon, a neighboring province known for producing high quality weaves. Although his hopes were high, he rehearsed all the things that could be wrong with the rug on the way there. If it’s not old enough, the dye and the wool might not be high quality. The wool needs to be spun with a kirman – a primitive hand-held device that looks like a miniature coat-rack. The dyes are traditionally made from plants and roots, boiled in large cauldrons in which the yarn is colored.

Photograph by Josh Hinton

The materials in the Afyon rug looked to be of a high quality; the designs were elegant and stately. But there were problems Ezgin hadn’t anticipated. Aside from an ugly tear in one corner of the rug that would cost Ezgin around $100 to repair, there was something funny about the color. “That end just sat in the sun too long,” the owner, sensing Ezgin ‘s concern, assured him. But Ezgin’s trained eyes were too sharp. It was clear to him that the weaver had run out of thread in one color about two-thirds of the way through and, rather than put in the time and effort to make more dye, had started using a much darker color instead. Ezgin knew it would seriously affect the value of the rug. Still, he offered the family 250 lira (about $120). They claimed someone else had offered 1,000. Ezgin said he couldn’t give more than 250. The wife said she wouldn’t take less than 400 lira. Ezgin said no deal.

On the same day Ezgin visited a family wanting to sell three kilims. They were folded up in a bag that was tucked away in a closet. One had an unusual pattern, wide horizontal stripes. Ezgin knew what that means. “You must be from Catal Obasi,” he said. He was right. The other two kilims were in excellent shape. Too excellent, actually. They were all around thirty-five years old, but looked new because they had never been used. “They flatten out with use,” he explained to me later. “But that one was still thick. The colors needed to fade a little. It needed to look like what it was, an old rug.” The main obstacle, however, was the seller’s expectations, “My sister had one just like this and she sold it for 10,000 lira,” the owners said. Ezgin laughed. He offered 500 lira for two kilims. Once again, no deal.

Not only does Ezgin have to hurdle unrealistic seller expectations, but the supply of Turkish rugs is being polluted with counterfeits as well. In recent years, many of the “traditional“ rugs sold to tourists are woven in very un-traditional ways. Travel agencies and tour guides have agreements with rug companies. They drop a busload of tourists who are primed to buy an authentic, hand-woven rug, at the door of a warehouse. There is typically a traditionally dressed lady or two weaving out front and someone giving a talk about the history and process of Turkish rug-weaving. Then salesmen fleece the tourists by selling machine-woven rugs from China or Nepal with some insignificant “hand-woven” feature, for twenty, thirty, sometimes even forty times the actual cost. The materials are low quality. The rugs contain synthetic fibers and chemical based dyes. As more of the industry’s supply comes from people making rugs for commercial, not personal, use, quality is on the decline. In some sense, they aren’t even Turkish rugs.

As the Turkish population continues to flow away from the villages and into the cities, interest in traditional rug-weaving is on the wane. The process is too time-consuming for the fast-paced city life. Today the number of Turkish women who’ve learned how to weave from their mothers is dwindling. Perhaps for the first time in history, the future of Turkish rug-making is in question.

Says Ezgin, “I’ve bought an old loom, and I want to pay someone to weave high-quality traditional rugs on it. I’ll put it in her home, and pay her by the knot. But I can’t find anyone to do it.”


Andy Owens is a regular contributor to EthnoTraveler. He has written about archaeology, arm wrestling, and religion for the website.