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Making the Rugs Marco Polo Admired

For 1,000 years or more, Turkmen craftspeople have made elaborate carpets - knot by hand-tied knot. The loudest sound in a rug factory here is the snip-snip of scissors.

THE sign at the entrance to the Ashkhabad Carpet Factory says "Turkmen carpets are the best in the world."The slogan may contain a grain of truth, but it's mostly the product of pride, concedes factory director Baimir Byashimov. Nevertheless, Turkmen carpets deserve more recognition than they've received, Mr. Byashimov insists. "It wouldn't be patriotic to say they weren't the best," he says. "They are far from the worst carpets." In the former Soviet Union, carpet-making was virtually synonymous with Turkmenia, a desolate republic of about 3.5 million people in Central Asia. The republic is now struggling to raise the profile of its carpets worldwide, as it's seen as a way to earn precious hard currency. "I know there is a big demand," said Byashimov. "However, it's difficult to move into the Western market because we have very little money for advertising." Part of the problem for Turkmen rugs is that they suffer from an identity crisis in the West, where they are often called "Bukhara carpets." In the days before the Bolshevik revolution, merchants often bought carpets in Ashkhabad and resold them in Bukhara, a trade center on the old silk route, now part of modern-day Uzbekistan. The weaving of Turkmen carpets dates back more than 1,000 years. They drew raves from Italian explorer Marco Polo, for example, when he passed through Turkmenia on his way to China. Today the carpets at the Ashkhabad Carpet Factory are made the same way they were in the old days: by hand. At the factory, which employs 150 people, about 20 looms occupy the main work area. The silence on the floor is almost deafening. There's no roar of machines, just the sound of snipping scissors and the thump of daraks, special hand tools used to compact the knots in the carpet. In addition to the color and texture of a carpet, quality is determined by the number of knots, says Byashimov. A good carpet has about 350,000 knots per square yard, he says. "Even if you have the best materials, much depends on the workers' talent," Byashimov adds. "Those who work here don't need to work from sketches, they do it from memory using their talent." At many looms, mothers could be seen working with one or more of their teenage daughters. The work is painstaking, often taking a trio of weavers about two months to complete a medium-sized carpet. "This is a national tradition," said Tylla Ovezova, the shift supervisor. "It's only natural that mother follow daughter." Though the designs are intricate, anyone can learn how to weave them, says 15-year-old Gumnara Seidova. But before they can start working, new weavers need three months to study the carpetmaking process. "If you have a head on your shoulders, it's not too tough," said Ms. Seidova. "I have a good head, so I learned how to do it."

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