Herald Magazine

The art of crafting handmade carpets

Photos by M Arif, White Star

Nestled within a small room located in a dusty old part of Faisalabad, two middle-aged men sit crouched on looms made of wood and metal. For the last seven months, each of them has meticulously tied knots of Ghazni wool, row after row, through a tightly suspended grid of cotton thread known as tana bana or warp and weft.

They are an endangered breed — Punjabi carpet weavers trained in tying the Persian knot. They are perhaps among the few who have not yet abandoned a profession that offers only a bleak future to its practitioners. In other small-scale carpet weaving setups in and around Faisalabad, the textile hub of Pakistan, most have switched to manufacturing machine-made carpets that take half the time and make double the profit. This, however, shows in the craft and quality of their products.

Casually strewn aside with the weavers’ comb, a tool used to beat down the warp in order to secure the knots, one can see a graph sheet with patterns digitally charted out. Rang bastaas, the original design charts of Persian carpets, have already been translated into a ‘carpet code’ named Taalim, a script that has been passed down through generations and is coveted by weavers all over our region. The focus of these patterns is the knots’ density; the more the knots per square inch, the more valuable the carpet.

An unfinished carpet on the loom
An unfinished carpet on the loom

Once each knot is tied, it almost becomes etched in stone. A mistake cannot be reversed.

It is common knowledge among carpet connoisseurs that ‘no two carpets are the same’; steeped in tradition, the weaving process is likened to art that cannot easily be replicated. But the wages paid to weavers do not reflect the amount of time and effort they invest in their craft.

The older of the two weavers, a spectacled gentleman who was taught the knotting technique by his father, works up to ten hours a day. “I get 500 rupees a day, the same as a man who oversees machine-made carpet manufacturing,” he says. He will not be passing on his skill to his children. “Why should I teach my son this trade? He sells fruits and makes more in a month than I make in six months. Our craft is given no value.”

The cotton ends of the carpet are being tied
The cotton ends of the carpet are being tied

Wool from flocks of sheep that have grazed on high altitude pastures is usually used in handwoven rugs, mainly because it is soft, durable and retains colour.

In Pakistan, Ghazni wool is bought by weavers from local wholesale markets. Finer quality Australian and Belgian wool is imported by carpet companies and distributed among weavers; other materials, often used in combination with wool, are silk, cotton and jute. But before the wool is used, it has to be thoroughly washed, carded and spun into yarn. The quality of the yarn is further enriched in the dying process.

Traditionally, only natural dyes were used in carpet making. Transient materials in nature like flowers and vegetables were used to create muted colours that have the diversity and sheen of a natural palette and are often prepared on open fire. But traditional methods are now being replaced by the use of chemical-based dyes to achieve hues that are bright and vivid. A good colourist employs both techniques even today.

Wool, dust and mud being removed from carpets
Wool, dust and mud being removed from carpets

Once the weavers have finished knotting the dyed yarn through tana bana, coarse carpets are collected in an open vessel run on electricity. The vessel is better known among manufacturers as dhol and is used to vacuum out flecks of mud and dust embedded in the wool. The carpets are then sheared using a specially designed ‘carpet shaver’. The surface of the carpet has to be trimmed and polished evenly to make the pattern sharp and the colours bright.

The carpets are then laundered using water and bleach. They are washed and rinsed a number of times in order to take the remaining wool, dust and grease out of them.

In the penultimate stage, the carpets are stretched and nailed in the sun for the yarn to dry and the knots to soften. A solution of chemicals and herbs is applied to their surface so that it retains its shine, colour and texture. This process can take up to several days.

Spun yarn is being dipped into vegetable and chemical dyes
Spun yarn is being dipped into vegetable and chemical dyes

The manufacturing comes to an end with the final finishing touches: the edges are given an additional yarn border; the yarn ends are either tied or cut.

The carpets are now a finished product ready to be sold to a wholesaler.

Back in Lahore, one of the main export hubs for handmade carpets, business is not as brisk as it used to be.

Remarkably, there is little or no demand for handmade carpets in the local market; 95 per cent of them are exported to the United States, and there too only to the East Coast and California, for triple the production cost. Europe and Japan are their other destinations.

Dyed Ghazni wool is used to weave carpets
Dyed Ghazni wool is used to weave carpets

Fluctuations in the purchasing power of the Western cliental after the economic crisis of 2008 has deeply affected the handmade carpet industry in Pakistan. Many manufacturers had to close down their businesses.

“As a result of changing social and economic habits of our cliental outside Pakistan, like the shift to smaller houses and a need to redecorate those smaller houses with modern but temporary artefacts, very few become interested in buying an antique or luxury item like a carpet,” says Mujahid Mir, a former carpet exporter. “While the demand had been falling for years, the economic crash in the 2000s almost crashed the industry here too. Since then, I believe only 30 per cent of the industry is now operational in Pakistan.”

The decision to repatriate Afghan refugees has delivered another blow to an already crumbling industry. The Afghan weaver is well versed and is unrivalled by any Punjabi, Sindhi or Baloch carpet weavers in knotting skills.

A machine-made carpet loom that runs on electricity and is operated by a pedal
A machine-made carpet loom that runs on electricity and is operated by a pedal

Moreover, Afghan rugs would previously go to the rest of the world through Pakistan to avail a Pakistan government subsidy that barely functions now. Afghan manufacturers are now able to sell their carpets directly in the international market, bypassing their neighbour and thus shifting the profit margins to their own country.

Yet in an industry that is highly disorganised and scattered in pockets all across the country, carpet manufacturers have utilised traditional techniques and modern innovations to try to produce carpets that are affordable and look the part of a modern home. Through the use of chemical dyes, bright and vibrant colours like turquoise, blue and yellow and even tie-dye techniques, they are producing carpets that look both sleek and contemporary. Some carpets are even trimmed unevenly to give them a plush texture. Others incorporate patterns and designs from various regions to cater to changing tastes.

These initiatives may not save the industry. But they may enable future generations to sustain a craft that combines the work of many for the pleasure of a few.


This was originally published in Herald's May 2018 issue under the headline 'A knot in time'. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.