Updated: Dec 12, 2022
Like Iran and Turkey, Afghanistan has a long, rich cultural history of rug weaving. Its older weaving history is rooted in Turkmen and Baluchi tribal weavings; today, weaving in Afghanistan is complex, reaching outside traditional tribal elements and the country itself. Most of the country's weaving is from Kabul, north Kunduz, Mazar-I-Sharif, west to Jalalabad, and east to Herat.
My first trip to Kabul in 2020 revealed a complex, loosely organized weaving trade with a heavy overtone of Pakistan's involvement. A landlocked country, Afghanistan's carpet trade is dependent on Pakistan for bulk commodities and carpet exports out of the country.
In some cases, rugs are traded to Pakistani merchants for commodities such as food, dyes, and chemicals. The system is a complex informal network of traders and brokers moving goods between the two countries' porous borders.
Commodities for rug-making, chemicals, and dyes are often adulterated or watered down, improving traders' bottom line and driving inconsistencies for rug dyers and producers. On my trips to Kabul, none of the various dye sellers knew the source of the dyes they sold; none were in original packaging. Several admitted to cutting powdered dyes with dirt, sand, and salt to make them economical for purchase.
No technical literature about specific pH and temperature ranges was available to use these dyes. Afghans were left to figure out the proper use of these dyes for carpet production on their own.
Afghan Rug Weaving
The global market for oriental rugs has become precise and sophisticated, and color matching is a key component of rug production.
A big issue in Afghan rug production is getting the right color, driven by material inconsistencies and a lack of education on commercial dying practices. The dyer here when asked how he matches the color rubbed dyes on paper. Dyes for chromophore bonds, and react differently to fibers than inks or pigments. This dyer is showing he lacks the education and understanding of proper dyeing techniques.
Thirty-five years ago, when I started in the rug business, consumers would accept a rug that didn't have all the right colors or slightly larger or smaller sizes. There existed an unwritten understanding that handwoven carpets and rugs were unique and special. A rug retailer has a room full of handwoven rugs, and you will choose from those rugs. The internet, color forecasting, and technological improvements in India and Nepal have changed this.
The rug world moves much faster today than 20 years ago; color, design, and the speed new colors and designs hit the market have compressed from decades to years and now seasonally. The internet gives rug designers in Europe and America instant access to rug producers in weaving countries. Making rugs with the hope of selling them is an increasingly risky proposition.
Rise of Rug Samples and Custom Hand Made Rugs
Modern color-forecasted and the ability of these countries to meet rapid color and design changes have changed dealers, interior designers, and consumers' expectations of color, design, and size. Today the design market drives the rug market in a complex interplay of color, trend, and forward forecasting.
Rug retailers are meeting this by going lean, buying less inventory, stocking sample swatches and sample weaves and selling more custom rugs in colors, designs, and sizes. Designers and retail rug consumers expect to be met with the size, color, and designs they want or have it made to order. The sales model is evolving from selling rugs in inventory to selling consumers rug to be made to order.
It's in this market environment that Afghan rug producers find themselves. For many of my rug site visits In Kabul, I met rug producers still making the same Chobi and Super Kazaks 20 plus years ago. Such as these super Kazaks in the picture on the right. These producers quickly point out that these rugs still sell, and that is true. These rugs sell at a much lower price point than custom rugs from India and Nepal.
Can Afghanistan compete in such a global market? It was done in India and Nepal. While Afghanistan is pineing from 40 years of war and strife, the labor rates and Afghan work ethic make the country a ripe environment for rug production and technological advancement.
In a country with over fifty percent illiteracy, many Afghans in the rug trade lack the basic education to learn critical skills to develop the skill sets needed to drive Afghan rugs to the next level. That said, there are a few rug producers that have been able to compete in the global marketplace, and all hope is not lost. With a new Taliban-led government hope and concerns remain with the future of Afghan rug weaving.
Renaissance Rug Cleaning inc.