Area Rugs Economic History

Rug washers standing barelegged in the spring-fed pool near Tehran, Iran 1951 (courtesy of LIFE Magazine)
Rug washers standing barelegged in the spring-fed pool near Tehran, Iran 1951 (courtesy of LIFE Magazine)

Area rugs and carpets have been primarily the craft of Asian countries. Persia, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan as well as China and Nepal simultaneously contributed to the art of carpet and rug weaving. In the latter period i.e. in the early twentieth centuries the USA also started contributing to this particular industry and Karastan Rugs put USA on the map of rug-making world..

Persia now known as Iran is the homeland of area rug weaving and the history of carpets date back to the early 14th century. The economic history of carpet weaving is traced to the model of a traditional family business, often a craft of women and a source of part time income to families. The “Momeni Rugs” family that has been in the business of carpet manufacturing and exports for over half the century used the same model. Presently based in USA, the business was started by the Momeni family after the World War when they exported area rugs from Persia. But these days very few families are in this business in production and manufacturing of carpets, unlike the days of yore. Generally the carpet factories employ individual women as workers, and are corporate run businesses these days.

Rudolph Condon (L) and Artist, Andre W. Wyeth showing hooked rugs. 1956 (courtesy of LIFE Magazine)
Rudolph Condon (L) and Artist, Andre W. Wyeth showing hooked rugs. 1956 (courtesy of LIFE Magazine)

Export of Persian area rugs began in the sixteenth century. 1850 onwards American, English and German companies established new factories in Mashed, Tabriz, Kerman, and Sultanabad (now Arak), thereby leading to the steady growth of the industry. Under Reza Shah Pahlavi, factories were established to utilize the finest materials and methods of manufacture. Presently carpet industry is the major non oil export sector of Iran.

Iranian women have been into the business of area rug weaving. From the early centuries till date carpet industry has been a major source of income for the families of Iran. Earlier when the Persian carpets used to be exported all over the world, the economic condition of Iran was in a better state. But from the late 1970’s the political and social problems of Iran created a negative impact on the export market. Finally the USA government stopped the export, which led to a huge economic crisis in Iran. Presently Iran is seeing better days and with an order to make the world’s largest carpet till date, one can hope that the carpet industry and also the workers will revive.

Women learn the art of hand hooking a rug. 1951 (courtesy of LIFE Magazine)
Women learn the art of hand hooking a rug. 1951 (courtesy of LIFE Magazine)

Most of the hand knotted area rugs are woven at home and are done by the women of the family. In most cases this is considered as a supporting income while the male member of the family is the principal earning member. But there are also families where carpet weaving is the principal source of income. Generally the wages of the carpet weavers is very low compared to their work load. Their daily wages can never be calculated as they work on a contract basis and the time taken to weave a carpet can never be estimated as they all work from home. Many of the women in Iran’s villages support their families by weaving area rugs.

In Afghanistan, approximately 30% of the women are into the business of area rug weaving. They learn the Persian style of weaving and produce carpets of silk and wool bearing designs of the traditional Persian styles.

India had been into the business of carpet weaving from the 1500 A.D. But export of Indian carpets began in the nineteenth century during the reign of the East India Company. From then carpet industry has been one of the leading sources of income for Kashmir Valley which houses the carpet industry of India.

Pakistan also holds a significant place in the area rug and carpet industry. Carpets from Peshawar have captivated the international market since 1970. Carpet making has been one of the basics sources of income of Pakistan.
Though the carpet industry had faced a major back log due to socio-political reasons, presently it has been trying to revive and gain back its lost glory.

Setter working at rug making machines in Alexander Smith Carpet mill. (courtesy of LIFE Magazine)
Setter working at rug making machines in Alexander Smith Carpet mill. (courtesy of LIFE Magazine)

The carpet industry in USA emerged in the eighteenth century. Initially skilled weavers produced woolen hand loom carpets of a very high quality. But due to political reasons the import of raw materials were interrupted, which gradually led to the downfall of this industry. Later when the use of carpets became extensive, the political situations also improved and during the nineteenth century the USA carpet mills increased to 220.

A man named Alexander Smith started his own carpet manufacturing plant in 1845 in West Farms, New York. Halcyon Skinner, An American, had perfected the power loom for making Royal Axminster in 1876. These men joined forces, forming a very successful carpet company. Alexander Smith was elected to Congress in 1878, but died on the evening of Election Day. Sixteen hundred people were employed at his factory at the time of his death. Alexander Smith & Sons continued to exist and During World War I, the carpet looms were converted to make tent duck and navy blankets to support the country in war time. By 1929 Alexander Smith & Sons was the largest manufacturer of rugs and carpets in the world.

The area rug industry is dominated by women workers. As men work outdoors to earn money and support the families, the women weave carpets sitting back at theire houses thus providing an additional income to the family. Girls in many countries from the age of ten to twelve years start working in the carpet industry, thus supporting their families.

Rug Hooking Bee - Woman hand hooking a rug. (courtesy of LIFE Magazine)
Rug Hooking Bee - Woman hand hooking a rug. (courtesy of LIFE Magazine)

Carpets can be accounted for as the most lucrative investment in many third world countries. The carpet industry pays very low wages to the workers and these magnificent creations are sold at a quite high price which gives a huge margin. Also buying a carpet and maintaining it in a very good condition for around sixty to seventy years can provide a huge profit. Thus carpets can be treasured as very good investment.

Various countries across the world house the carpet industry. In every region, the dimension  of the industry depends on its quantity of its carpet exports, type of fabrics used, availability of skilled weavers, presence of weaving techniques since ages, types of carpets produced etc. Every nation has a different style, preference, pattern, quality and colors which makes the carpets manufactured to stand out as unique. The history of carpets has revealed that this industry has been a major economic back bone of many countries. One can only expect that production of magnificent rugs and carpets will continue for years to come.

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