Collecting tips from those in the know
Q I saw a beautiful carpet with abstract designs that looked very modern. However, I was told it was an ancient method of rug-making from southwestern Iran. Is that true? Is it a good buy?
WHAT THE EXPERT SAYS:
'Gabbehs have been made for centuries to provide comfort as a mattress, warmth and colour to the travelling nomads from the Fars region of Iran,' says Rizwan Butt, manager of Oriental Carpet Trading House (tel: 2523 9502), whose family has been in the business for six generations.
Butt explains that, although beautiful and decorative, gabbehs have always been made for very practical applications in an often harsh landscape. 'The nomads from the gabbeh-producing areas trek with their families and animals twice annually from their warmer winter pastures to the cooler summer grounds, coming across difficult sleeping terrain which is how the fleshy piled rug came to be.'
IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER: 'The important thing about gabbehs is that they are not designed, they are primitive, pure unpredictable works of functional art,' says Butt. Although some style differences between tribes might be detected by a keen eye, each is a personal and unique depiction of the weaver's world as she sees it.
'The rugs are knotted by the women, using simple horizontal loom. There is no prior design, as the pattern emanates from the imagination of the women and is usually a reflection of the events in her life during the making of her rug, and so here the attraction to describe them as modern art originates,' Butt says.
Some gabbehs use primitive motifs of their everyday lives: people in stick figures, animals (sheep have tails pointing up whereas goats have tails pointing down), the terrain around them, and the sky and stars above. Others seem to have the Impressionist characteristics of a Monet or even the pointillism of a Seurat, but of course these have been around for much longer.
'They are made in two distinct types: playful using colourful dyed wool or natural shades of ivories, browns and black. The wool is dyed using organic compounds that have been traditionally passed down through the tribes people.'
The natural dyes are derived from minerals, plant extracts, tree bark, roots and insect pigments. Butt confirms: 'Brown tones can be obtained from walnut peels and beetroot, reds from wild cherry roots, beetroot and madder [straw-like plant]. Yellows are made from the leaves of walnut trees and vines.'
From a young age, girls begin to learn to weave. Butt insists it has nothing to do with child labour and everything to do with heritage, an art form passed down through a wandering, nomadic culture. 'A young girl learns the art of weaving carpets from her mother. When she reaches a marriageable age, her mother helps her weave carpets and other textiles for a dowry. Men do not choose their wives for their beauty, but for the qualities of their wedding rugs.
'The gabbeh is made usually not to be sold but to be used in a tribal home, and so the softest and finest quality wool are used,' says Butt.
NEW COLLECTOR TIPS:
'Due to political unrest, gabbehs have only been available on the markets for a short period of time and have gained a huge following with all audiences in understanding the stark contrast that is their lives and the uncomplicated rugs that they produce.'
However, Butt explains the impact of their growing popularity on the workmanship. 'Gabbehs are now being manufactured for global markets, where the women remove themselves from being creative to making what consumers want. The finished product lacks originality and depth, and can be purchased for a few thousand dollars.'
For example, a 2.4-metre by 1.5-metre gabbeh sells for about $5,000 to $6,000. Older, traditional gabbehs are so difficult to source, it has taken Butt two years to find his latest arrival of just 10 carpets. For these, expect to pay $12,000 to $80,000.
Still, Butt says to buy what you like. 'Buy what draws your attention in terms of colours and design, rather than age and price.'
He also suggests thinking about how you will use the gabbeh (which he recommends for children's rooms too). 'Once this is decided, the colour and form can be isolated.'
Butt has some excellent cleaning and care tips. He recommends daily vacuuming (not a rotary brush vacuum), professional cleaning every 10 years, and never pouring salt on a red wine stain. 'It affects the dye,' says Butt. 'Instead, dry the area with a paper towel and pour on club soda. Clean off and rinse with a solution of washing liquid and water.'
For more information, Butt recommends Carpets: From Tents, Cottages And Workshops Of Asia by Jon Thompson.