A Loom of One's Own
At Ten Thousand Villages’ annual Pakistani Rug Sale, artisans earn a fair wage for handmade heirloom pieces offered at below-market prices.
By Noela Hueso 04/01/2011
When floods ravaged much of Pakistan’s Indus River Basin last summer, Abdul Majeed’s humble home was one of the casualties — completely destroyed by waters that killed nearly 2,000, wiped out 1.89 million homes and cost 5.3 million people their jobs. For months, the Oriental-rug maker and his family managed with makeshift housing. But with the help of Bunyaad, the artisan group to which he belongs, hope was not lost. His simple brick home was rebuilt, and in December, he and his family were able to move in. Just as important, Bunyaad gave Majeed a new loom so that he could continue to make his intricately patterned rugs — a family tradition for generations — and resume the craft that supports his wife and children.
Majeed’s house, among seven that Bunyaad (“foundation” in Urdu) rebuilt after the floods, is just one recent example of how the organization has helped artisans in more than 100 Pakistani villages live self-sufficiently for more than 30 years. Not only does it support members on the home front, but by exporting rugs through its long-term partnership with fair trade movement founder Ten Thousand Villages — a retail network of 120 U.S. and Canadian stores that sell products from global artisans paid fair wages — Bunyaad is also creating job security. Since 1990, Ten Thousand Villages has been spotlighting rugs with its annual rug sales in North America, and now the event is coming to Pasadena for the first time, from May 19 to 27.
Because Ten Thousand Villages’ stores are typically small — the Pasadena venue is just 1,400 square feet — the rugs (ranging in size from 2' x 3' to 10' x 14') and runners (6 feet to 15 feet) aren’t usual in-store items. Rug events are special occasions, where buyers can expect to find about 350 items to choose from — including Persian, Bokhara and tribal rugs — at favorable prices. A 500-knot per square-inch 9' x 12' rug, for example, goes for $7,000, still less than the typical retail price, which may be marked up from 100 to 200 percent to compensate import middlemen. There are no middlemen between Bunyaad and Ten Thousand Villages, and augmenting store staff with volunteers also helps keep prices down. Even more satisfying is the knowledge that 60 percent of each rug sale goes directly back to the artisan. (The rest covers shipping costs and operational fees incurred in North America.)
Spearheading the events is Rug Program Director Yousaf Chaman, 41, who was hired by Ten Thousand Villages in 1992 to spread the word about the Bunyaad program, work with the artisans and tell their stories through seminars and other educational opportunities. He’s a natural fit for the job. Decades before he graduated with a business degree from India’s Punjabi University, Chaman learned the art of making Bokhara-style rugs — known for their geometric patterns, hand-spun wool and dark reddish dyes — from his father and uncle in his hometown of Darianwala, a 1,000-year-old village in northeastern Pakistan.
These days, he heads back to Pakistan twice a year from Ten Thousand Villages’ Ephrata, Penn., headquarters to meet with new and veteran village artisans. For Chaman, improving the artisans’ lives and living conditions through the rug sales is paramount. “Our goal is to sell more to create more jobs,” he says. “When we go into a village, we don’t just go and pick five families and leave the other 20 that might be also making rugs. We make sure that every family in that village has the opportunity [to work with Bunyaad] before we move to the next.”
And the process isn’t just men’s work. “Having a loom in the village family home gives equal opportunity to the men and women participating in the design effort,” Chaman notes. Rug-making is a family affair that often includes husband and wife, siblings and cousins working side by side on ornate floral patterns or complex geometric shapes. “The Oriental rug industry traditionally has worked with the idea that you make a rug using your own resources, bring it to the market and wait for it to sell, which might be six months to a year, depending on its size,” Chaman says. Revolutionizing the process, Bunyaad gives artisans all the materials they need — loom, wool, dyes — as well as an advance to get started. They are paid the balance of their wages when their rugs are completed, before they’re exported to North America. “People find great dignity in the process,” Chaman says.
The creation of a 9' x 12' hand-knotted Bokhara rug — which takes four artisans working on a loom five to six hours a day about 10 months to complete — begins with designers graphing and painting elaborate patterns on paper. From that initial artwork, instructions are written for the artisans to follow. Meanwhile, wool from Karakul sheep is spun — either by hand or machine — and dyed in copper pots. “Because it has so much lanolin, it only absorbs dye at a very high temperature,” Chaman says. “Some of the copper comes off during the process and forms a protective coating on the wool as well.”
Natural dyes — from such sources as dried orange peels, plant roots, tree bark and walnut and pomegranate shells — tend to be used with hand-spun wool, while commercial dyes like carmine and indigo are often paired with rugs made of machine-spun wool.
Warp thread, the backbone of the rug, is installed on wooden and steel looms called khadis; artisans tie individual knots of yarn across the warp; once a row is completed, weft thread is laced through it to keep it in place and then it’s pushed down with combs. After the knotting has been completed, the rug is cut from the loom, tied, washed, dried, trimmed and preserved. The prep and post work adds another four months to the rug-making process; in all, an average of 15 people are involved.
The rugs are durable and maintenance is easy, Chaman says. The wool’s high lanolin content makes even stubborn substances such as ink easy to remove. Vacuuming is necessary only every five to 10 days. “I’ve never seen a rug come back with a major problem,” he says. “That, to me, shows what quality these rugs are.”
Ten Thousand Villages, 567 S. Lake Ave., Pasadena, (626) 229-9892,
Rug Event hours: Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
Learn what to look for when shopping for an Oriental rug, why fairly traded rugs are heirloom quality and how knotting rugs for a living is changing the lives of Pakistani rug artisans at Ten Thousand Villages’ free Oriental rug seminar on Thursday, May 19, at 7 p.m.
RUG LITERACY 101
Warps are the parallel strings stretched from loom beam to loom beam upon which rows of knots are tied. Most weavers use cotton for warp material if it is available because it is easier to weave a flat, straight rug on cotton warps than on wool.
Wefts run across the width of the rug, over and under the warp strings and between rows of knots. Wefts help hold rows of knots in place and strengthen the rug’s structure.
Knots are tied by looping yarn around pairs of warps and cutting off the standing end. The ends of the knot become the pile or nap of the rug.
Edge bindings are made by wrapping several warps at the edge of the rug with yarn for reinforcement.
End finishes hold knots and wefts from slipping off the rug’s warp strings. Many rug types have a flat-woven selvedge at both ends.
Fringes are formed by gathering and knotting together bundles of warp strings at both ends of the rug after it has been cut from the loom. The knots in these bundles of warp strings keep pile knots and end finishes tight at the rug’s ends.