Friday, September 3, 2010


Like Turkey and Iran, Azerbaijan has a long history of carpet-making, both at home and in carpet workshops. When I arrived, I never thought I would be interested in hand-made carpets. First, I don't have a home to put them in. Second, I have seen oriental, Turkish and Persian carpets and thought they were attractive, but never thought of having any of my own. While I have been here, I have seen many carpets in homes and slowly learned about how carpets are made. I visited three carpet workshops and two carpet museums and have learned about different types and patterns of carpets from different regions of the country.

Pile carpets made at home are particularly interesting to me, although the ones made in workshops are made the same way on the same type of looms. Carpets have been made at home for hundreds, maybe even a thousand years and it takes a very long time to do the different tasks necessary to produce a carpet. The tasks haven’t changed much during this time.

I recently bought a carpet which was made at home sometime after 1950 and is from the Quba (Guba) region, which is in the northern part of the country, bordering Russia. This area is beautiful farmland and mountains; farming is done more with donkeys, horses and wagons than tractors and combines.

This carpet is typical of carpets made at home. The process is to first get wool from local sheep or even from the family’s own sheep. The wool is then washed several times in a local river or stream where the water is very clear.

The family chooses a design, usually a traditional design from their region of the country. Designs are handed down in regions similar to the way the designs of American quilts are handed down. The colors are dictated by the design and the dyes are made from plants that grow in that region. Before or after the wool is chosen, the family begins to gather the plants that will be used to make the dyes. Because most of these plants are available only seasonally, the process of gathering plants can take up to a year.

During the time this carpet was made and even today, many home carpet dyes were made from natural colors because plant dyes are free and chemical dyes cost money. Also, properly done, natural colors will not fade. Pomegranate skin is known for producing a good red color. Saffron, which is abundant in Azerbaijan, is used for yellow. Blue colors are usually chemical dyes because plants producing a good blue color are hard to find in Azerbaijan.

The wool is spun into yarn and when dyes are available, the yarn is dyed. Then the loom is set up in the house. Homemade carpets are not huge, because the loom must fit into the small main room of the house and still have room for the family to live. This carpet is about 5 x 8--as large as can be made in many homes. Carpets are mostly produced during the winter, when crops are not being raised and livestock does not require a lot of attention.

The carpet I purchased is wool on cotton; cotton is grown in Azerbaijan. You can tell it is wool on cotton from looking at the fringe. The cotton is stretched vertically on the loom, where the knots are made with wool. The cotton ensures a strong carpet. This type of carpet can be much more intricate than wool on wool carpets because cotton can be spun finely and the knot count is generally much higher.

Making a carpet involves sitting on the floor in front of the loom looking at a pattern while making rows of knots of the proper color. The work goes very slowly, especially for a wool on cotton carpet, because of the high knot count. A carpet this size could take 8 months to a year to make, longer if the carpet maker doesn’t work at all during the summer. Once several inches of yarn are knotted, the yarn is sheared to a uniform length with special large scissors. Once it is complete, the colors are locked into the carpet by soaking it with cow or horse urine or vinegar and salt solution. It is then rinsed repeatedly (luckily!).

Families usually made carpets for weddings and they are normally kept in the family. They can last 150 years or more of normal wear, so after several generations, sometimes a family owns too many carpets and sells a few. Most families do not make carpets at home anymore, but may buy them. Some rural families still make carpets at home for weddings. A few carpets are made in workshops. There is no way to speed up the work, as the carpets are still made the same way, except for the fact that chemical dyes are more popular. So new carpets are more expensive than older ones and few people in Azerbaijan can afford to buy them. Older carpets made at home are valuable also and will become more valuable because the supply is limited. A government certificate is necessary to be able to send carpets out of the country.

The traditional way of cleaning a carpet is to first beat it on a clothes line, then put it outside on the ground and run water from a hose on it (if running water exists—otherwise buckets are used). If still dirty, it is scrubbed with a brush and vegetable-based soap and rinsed again. The carpet is then put in the sun for several days. The sun does not fade the carpet if natural dyes are used. Carpet dealers do not recommend sending it to a carpet cleaning company where harsh chemicals may be used.

In October, I am visiting two regions of the country in which carpets are made. Maybe I will get a small, new carpet there for my future home.