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    Traditional Carpets and Kilims


    Trade in Tokens of Heritage
    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 4/1999 

    Producers and exporters of traditional carpets and kilims need new marketing approaches to meet today's challenges: an increase in machine-made carpets that imitate Oriental rugs and kilims; growing consumer interest in environmentally friendly products; and consumer concern about child labour.

    Repositioning carpets as "tokens of heritage", joining industry forces to educate consumers, using the Internet effectively and making the right contacts are among the ways producers and exporters can stay competitive. ITC is working with several international organizations to give greater identity to hand-made carpets in trade statistics. This change would give policy makers more accurate data for trade development planning. María-Mercedes Sala, ITC Market Development Officer for artisanal products, reports.

    Millennia of tradition are behind the hand-made carpets and kilims of today.

    Carpet knotting is thought to have started some 3,500 years ago in Central Asia, a crossroads for many civilizations. In making tents to protect themselves against rigorous weather, migrating tribes used goat hair. This material - longer and stiffer than sheep's wool - led tent makers to develop the flat-weave technique, so that the fabric was smooth and tightly woven. The result yielded virtually waterproof tents. The technique was then applied to create floor coverings to insulate the tent's earthen ground from humidity: the first kilims were born.

    Over time, the art of weaving evolved and kilims were used to serve other practical needs: as room dividers in tents, blankets, prayer rugs, saddle bags and even as rocking cradles. In an attempt to improve tent beds made from stacks of leaves and to fold and carry sleeping mats on horseback easily, nomads started imitating animal pelts by adding pile to basic flat-woven articles: the first knotted pile carpets thus appeared.

    The oldest surviving pile carpet - discovered in 1947 in the Altai mountains of Siberia and now exhibited at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg - has been carbon-dated to have been from the fifth century b.c.

    From ancient times to today's markets 

    Since then, hand-made carpets and kilims have found their place, from modest dwellings to rich homes and palaces. Variety in design and craftsmanship reflects traditions handed down from one generation to the next. In parallel with this production activity, trade in carpets has always flourished. Nowadays, carpet-making accounts for the highest percentage of all craft exports in a great number of developing countries.

    Kilims and Carpets Primer 

    What is a kilim? 

    A kilim is a flat, hand-woven rug made through household production by women in nomadic tribes and rural areas in Asia, Central Europe and northern Africa. Depending on the country of origin, it may also be called kelem, khilim, kelim, gelim, karamanie, palas or hanbel. Usually, the warp (the length of the rug) is made of wool, and the weft (the width of the rug) of wool or cotton. The basic weaving method consists in passing the crosswise threads of the weft under and over the lengthwise threads of the warp. Sometimes, a kilim may consist of two or more segments sewn together, with the stitching concealed within the design. One short side often contains a fringe, while the other short side has a woven edge. A border pattern often appears on the longer sides of the rug.

    The coloured threads are completely woven into the rug like a basket, making it reversible. Although the face may be distinguished from the reverse, the difference is so slight that either side may be used. In the past, colours were made from vegetable dyes, and recipes were kept as family secrets.

    Kilim patterns never display flowers or foliage, only rectilinear designs, influenced by the weaver's traditions, beliefs and environment. The colours and designs used in each producing region are exclusive to that region, making it easy to identify the origin.

    Until recently, kilims were generally produced for domestic consumption. Kilims have today gained popularity in major consumer markets due to their decorative quality as wall hangings, relatively affordable price, and domestic furnishing trends that integrate eclectic pieces reflecting international travel.

    Quality benchmarks for kilims 

    • Dye and colour fastness. This is the most important factor. Colours of good quality wefts - those properly dyed or washed twice before use - will not fade when washed or exposed to light for long periods. Test: Apply a damp white cloth to the kilim: it should remain white.

    • Number of threads in the weft. The greater the number, the higher the quality. Test: When pulling the kilim, the pulled part should not stretch easily.

    • Warps. Visible warp threads indicate that they are not woven densely enough and that the quality is inferior. Test: The warps, which are normally white, should not be seen.

    • Weight. The lighter a kilim, the better its quality.

    • Design. Asymmetrical design patterns and irregular colour harmonies are evidence of a weaver's creativity and improvisation.

    What is a traditional carpet? 

    A genuine traditional carpet, also known as an Oriental rug, is hand-knotted and made from flat-woven or piled fabric in countries with age-old weaving traditions such as Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, China, Egypt, India, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mongolia, Morocco, Nepal, Pakistan, Romania, Tunisia and Turkey.

    The carpets are oblong in shape, made wholly or partly of wool, silk, cotton or jute. They are hemmed or selvedged on the sides, and the warp is knotted at either end.

    Quality benchmarks for carpets 

    • Dye fastness and raw material shine. Dyes should not run, and the appearance should be lustrous.

    • Knot density (knots per square inch). The more knots per square inch, the better. Turn the carpet over; count the number of knots per linear inch along the warp (length of the rug), the number of knots per linear inch along the weft (width of the rug) and then multiply them to find the number of knots per square inch. (Knot elements in pairs, found in carpets from Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Pakistan and Turkey, should not be double-counted.)

    • Knot type: Knots for "Persian" or "Turkish" styles are tied around two warp strings. "Jufti" or "false" knots may be tied around four warp strings instead of two. In such cases, the carpet will consist of half of the material and be finished in half the time normally required. However, the carpet may also only last half as long as one made with traditional knots.

    • Edge bindings, reinforced selvedges and fringes. These keep pile knots tightly finished at the carpet ends.

    • Design elements. Quality is judged by accuracy in weaving symmetrical designs, harmonious colour combinations and appealing texture.

    Eclectic consumer tastes 

    Loose floor rugs are rising in popularity again, as wooden and tile floors in homes have been an increasingly-used alternative to wall-to-wall carpets in recent years.

    Homeowners now demand a more eclectic choice of available carpet styles, texture, patterns and colours to fit their individual lifestyles and tastes. In contrast with traditional reds, blues and strong colours, there is a general affinity towards subdued tones and mellow hues that work well with contemporary settings.

    Coordinating furnishing styles and carpets, with unlimited mixing and matching of pattern on pattern with various fabrics, is "in". Accent rugs break the monotony of interior decoration. Kilims are popular in rustic settings such as country and beach houses, while traditional carpets are valued as an elegant touch to both modern and classic furnishing styles.

    Repositioning "tokens of heritage" 

    In recent years, consumers have seen more and more low-cost, machine-made rugs imitating hand-made carpets and kilims. Exporters of traditional carpets and kilims thus need to "reposition" their products, by marketing them as "tokens of heritage" - traces of an ancient art form, adapted to the market tastes of today. They stand out from machine-made carpets by the long history and cultural traditions they carry, as well as by their beauty, making them a real source of prestige.

    Hand-made carpets and kilims are positioned to upper (and sometimes middle) market segments. The potential buyers are interested in such carpets as a long-lasting investment, based on their aesthetic and hard-wearing qualities. Producers should also educate consumers on the contribution they make to preserve local artisanal traditions and encourage use of sustainable raw materials.

    Compliance with norms and regulations (even voluntary ones) can give carpet producers and exporters a marketing edge. The RUGMARK label, for example, assures consumers that rugs have been made without child labour. Several organizations produce "ecolabels" which certify to consumers that products are made with environmentally-friendly raw materials and processes. The EKO symbol, for example (see below), is an ecolabel produced by Skal, a Netherlands-based international certification body for agriculture-based products (such as cotton).

    Using generic promotion 

    Joining forces in the industry to conduct generic promotion can make consumers aware of the value of artisanal carpets and kilims, as opposed to machine-made ones. This process is under way, with trade associations and major wholesalers in consumer markets increasingly working with associations of exporters and suppliers in producing countries to create brochures, web sites and exhibits educating consumers about traditional carpets and kilims.

    Effective marketing with the Internet 

    The Internet can help carpet producers and exporters from developing countries in marketing their products. They need to pragmatically assess how the Internet can bring them tangible commercial benefits, more important than taking pride in a presence on an information-rich network. Substantial sales to first-time customers are unlikely to be based upon electronic images and written descriptions alone. "Tokens of heritage" need to be inspected with a critical eye, touched and thoroughly checked personally by an expert buyer.

    The Internet can help producers to:

    • carry out on-line market research (such as investigating the web sites mentioned in this article);

    • develop and adapt designs at a distance, by transmitting sketches between buyers or designers and producers;

    • electronically record client orders, once a relationship is established;

    • provide generic information about carpets and kilims;

    • present basic data on firms and their products.

    Portal sites that group several firms from a region or country may be an efficient option to help producers optimize use of the Internet.

    Market overview 

    Major suppliers 

    In 1997, world imports of carpets and kilims totalled nearly US$ 2 billion. The single most important supplier of carpets and kilims was the Islamic Republic of Iran (24.7%), followed by India (21.3%), China (13.9%), Nepal (8.4%), Pakistan (8.3%) and Turkey (7.1%).

    Major consumer markets 

    The European Union is the leading import market. Its population of 370 million bought over 63% of the total value of world imports for these products in 1997. Within the European Union, the major consumers were Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. Together, they accounted for more than 45% of the total value imported in 1997.

    Far behind Europe, with a 19.5% share of the total value of total imports in 1997, North America was the second largest market, followed by Asia and the Pacific.

    Statistics for 1995-1997 show a sharp decline in trade in traditional carpets. Among the causes for this decline are competition from mass-produced, lower-priced carpets and a decline in European home construction. Consumption for durable household goods, however, is expected to increase soon.

    Statistics on trade in carpets must be interpreted with care, as they include both machine-made and traditional carpets (see text below).

    Classifying hand-made carpets, a "knotty" trade issue 

    Inaccuracy of trade data for hand-made, hand-knotted carpets is a real bottleneck in promoting their export. Trade statistics (with few exceptions) do not distinguish between hand-made and machine-made products. Thus carpet statistics include those produced with mechanical looms in the same category as those that are hand-made. (Kilims, however, are one of the few artisanal products that are specifically identified as hand-woven in the Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding System (HS), the most widely used international trade nomenclature.)

    Only a separate codification in international trade and customs nomenclature for hand-made carpets products will make it possible to collect data about crafts, analyse it, and compare national, regional and international figures.

    ITC is working with the World Customs Organization to separate identification of artisanal products in the HS. As part of this process, ITC has set up a Working Group on Customs Codification for crafts, comprised of selected craft organizations from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the United States of America.

    ITC also queried trade-related craft organizations on this topic in 1998. Respondents commented that data from separate classification can help convince financial institutions to invest in the crafts sector and could support planning for policy makers. For example, data could provide a basis to facilitate intra-regional trade for artisanal products or to advocate for preferential treatment for these products. According to Emmanuel Velasco, Chairman of the Philippine Tariff Commission, "establishing a separate and distinct codification of artisanal products would enhance...interpretation of trade performance of craft products in the international market [and] serve as a basis for sound economic policy direction."

    Small firms stand to benefit, notes Tewolde Woldemichael, Director General of the Department of Trade for the Ministry of Trade and Industry of Eritrea. "In our particular case, we expect such an action to promote the development of small-scale enterprises for women."