Archive for November, 2013

Business as Usual? Modern Textile Arts in Afghanistan: Part 1, The Analysis and Outlook

Posted in Uncategorized on November 12, 2013 by rjohn

On August 2, 2013, Annette Ittig,


She said that Afghan carpets and other textiles are not only beautiful, they are important revenue sources for both urban and rural artisans. 

Dr. Annette Ittig is a Dubai-based expert on international development.

She discussed how the Afghanistan’s textile and carpet production has changed over the last 30 years. 

She also explored how the traditional craft and industry have adapted.  Drawing on her extensive field experience with the United Nations and NGOs in Afghanistan, Ittig highlighted contemporary production initiatives, including USAID-supported small business and microfinance projects, a socially-responsible, women-owned textile business, and locally-financed production.  they are important revenue sources for both urban and rural artisans.

Dr. Ittigg’s presentation was based on work in progress and so we could not take photos of the Powerpoint document that she used to illustrate her presentation.  But drawing on her summary and some notes of my own, I think I can characterize her basic argument, approximately. 

It is, I think, that some small business and micro-finance projects have been well-designed and successful, but have not achieved “sustainability,” and will likely not continue long after the outside support provided by such sources as USAID or others is withdrawn.

She showed a conference of Afghan rug figures in a large room.  It would traditionally, I think, have been unthinkable that such a room would not be decorated with carpets.  But the room in her photo was done entirely in “wall-to-wall” carpet and seemed symbolic of the direction in which she felt things were moving.  To repeat she seemed to think that some USAID-supported small business and microfinance projects had had some success but had not attained sustainability and would likely fail once external support was withdrawn.

When the Annette Ittig presentation was announced, Rob Leahy, a dealer is South Carolina, who has been active in efforts to analyze the prospects for the Afghan rug and textile industry and in stimulating Afghan imports, wrote me, saying that he suspected that his views of the situation were likely distinctive from Ittig’s.


He pointed me to a post on his own blog that provides some of his own analysis.

With his permission here is that post from his Charleston Rugs Blog:

Understanding the market for Afghan rugs

Date: November 7, 2012

Author: Rob

As world demand for area rugs recovers, hand tufted rugs are taking an ever growing share of the market—over 50%. That’s up from about 25% five years ago.  These data are in dollars, and since tufted rugs have a 3-4:1 cost per unit relationship to hand knotted rugs ( the unit growth is amazing).  This is proof, though, that new consumers are entering the U.S. rug market.

Afghanistan: Room for Growth


According to official U.S. import data, hand knotted rug shipments have leveled off at about $225 million annually.   Of that $225 million, $54 million was shipped to the U.S. from Pakistan, and only $8 million coming directly from Afghanistan.  The demand rates show that Afghanistan’s exports to the U.S. has the potential to be $40 million—5 times the volume that the country generates in direct sales today.

Will weavers in countries that compete with Pakistan let Afghanistan take this or any amount of market share?  The answer to that question is the crux of the matter. The diagram below demonstrates the opportunity for growth in the carpet trade of Afghanistan.


The diagram was developed from a discussion with the consultants hired by the Defense Department’s Task Force for Business and Stability. It looks at the cost advantage versus the ability to produce innovative products compared to other countries, or product differentiation. It reveals sourcing trends in the hand knotted rug business and places Afghanistan in a very fortunate position.

The movements depicted by the arrows are relative to each other.

India, the world’s largest producer of rugs, has increased weaver’s wages 30% by government decree, and new industries located in carpet making districts have been attracting workers away from established rug companies.  These pressures lead to higher prices and a wave of product development by Indian rug suppliers.  You can see how the arrow for India moves up in differentiation and slightly left, marginally reducing the country’s former price advantages.

 China’s weaving companies, being directed by a central government, have ceased all new development and raised prices on existing hand knotted and hand woven products by as much as 100%.  This has effectively taken China out of the market for hand-made rugs, redirecting workers to machine-assisted, hand tufted rugs.

Iran had been the third largest shipper to the United States until 2011. Now, under embargo for rug shipments, legal exports have dropped to zero.  They continue shipments to the Middle East, Turkey, some European countries and Russia, but because of sanctions and shortages within Iran, inflation is high, diminishing any cost advantages that had existed.  Soon, Iran will be in the most unfavorable cost situation relative to other countries.  Banned from the most viable markets, there is little incentive to create new styles or methods and differentiation is diminishing as well.  Iran’s position stays highest, though, because of the historical diversity of the products made there.

Turkey and China are being affected by almost identical forces, but Turkey is not a centrally planned economy and changes there are a result of the market demands by nearby European countries. A combination of weavers retiring from the field and other job opportunities for the remaining workers has decimated the rug weaving business in Turkey.

Even with a significant decline in shipments, Pakistan remains the world’s second largest shipper of hand knotted carpets.  It’s not certain how much of Pakistan’s shipments are native or of Afghan origin.  Consequently, these countries are linked and the relationship will continue for many years into the future.  Regrettably for Pakistan, unlike India and China, they are not able to move into machine assisted and machine made carpets. A considerable lack of power within the country prevents this beneficial evolution.

Instead, Pakistani carpet companies have become more innovative and concentrated on higher value products.  Still, these are being sourced in Afghanistan.  This moves the arrow for Pakistan well up the differentiation scale, but also reduces its cost advantage.  Compliant Afghan weavers have given Pakistan a meaningful cost advantage over India, but this is being eroded and will eventually disappear.

This leaves only Afghanistan to discuss.  Because of Pakistan’s need to innovate, Afghanistan will have expanded options in product differentiation as Pakistan teaches the Afghan traders new skills and methods. Sophistication and efficiency over time should add cost advantages, even compared to Pakistan, and put the Afghans in a very favorable position near the optimal center point of the chart.

End of Rob’s blog entry.

I admitted, early on, that I knew Chris Walter whose Yayla project in which Afghan Ersari Turkmen, largely then in refugee camps in Pakistan, were weaving natural dyed carpets for the U.S. market.

Rob said “There are really two businesses in Afghanistan.  The tribal, which Chris Walter (Yayla) did indeed pioneer, and the export commercial market which sprung up while Chris was pioneering.  

“The first Turkmen rugs from the camps evolved into the (cotton warp) Kazak quality and Chobrang rugs.  That’s where I came in.  

“The tribal styled rugs, now being made across northern Afghanistan are still the same, but do not sell in quantities sufficient to create equity for the country, so parents are no longer teaching the children to weave.

Rob also said that the more recent situation had made him more pessimistic about the future of the Afghan rug industry than the more hopeful aspects of his analysis indicated in his blog above.

“The export rugs, which could help pull the business (and, the country perhaps) out of it’s death spiral, are not being supported well enough to assure that the business will survive.  A lot of money is being spent; I know of three US Gov’t programs totaling $6.0 million that is going to do very little good for the industry,  Sadly, since I wrote most of the relevant things to my blog last Fall, I have become increasingly pessimistic.  It really bugs me.”

I also contacted Emmett Eiland, the well-known dealer in Berkeley, CA, who has a long experience buying rugs, many from Afghanistan.


Emmett has been in the Afghan contemporary market since the early 70s and has written a book (out in a second edition) on contemporary rugs woven with natural dyes.  His shop is in Berkeley, CA. 

Emmett gave me the following take on the Afghan rug situation:

“You’ve picked a good topic to ponder.

“My quick response is that:

1. “Money put up to subsidize rug weaving is probably wasted, at least in the long run.  With a lot of help from supporters, such projects start out with promise, but for various reasons, the staying power just doesn’t seem to be there. That is not to say that it is impossible for some future subsidized project to succeed.

2. “You mentioned Chris Walter: Chris and his producer, Habibullah Karimi,  do wonderful work, and theirs is not the only top-notch production. Perhaps there are fewer small producers making a wide range of rugs such as what we used to see around Chicken Street in Kabul, and perhaps we see fewer village and tribal rugs rugs with traditional Afghan designs.

3. “But, as someone who has bought rugs in Afghanistan since 1971, I much prefer what is in the Afghan market today. I would be happy never again to see the two-color Dulatabad “Afghans” of forty years ago, while I am delighted, for instance, with many of the new rugs in Khotan designs.”

I sent Emmet’s indications above to Rob Leahy for reaction.

He said in turn:


“Emmett is more optimistic.  And correctly so on the higher value goods that the four or five ex-pat Afghan companies sell. Those families are breaking new ground and setting today’s standards for rug design.  But, I think he would agree that they are small productions and it is the people in villages like Andkhoi, who made those Daulatabads, that need the help. 

“When the millions of Afghans came home from the camps in Pakistan many now made their living weaving rugs.  Men like Habibullah, with Chris Walter, did a marvelous job spreading weaving skills throughout the refugee community.  After these people re-emigrated, over 2004-06, there were as many as 1 million weavers in Afghanistan.  It is generally accepted that another 2 to 3 million participated in the business from sheep herding to trucking.  That was almost 20% of the Afghan population.

“Most rugs were made for the same finishers in Pakistan as the worldwide Kazak and Chobi boom continued.  But, since the 2008-2012 demand bust hundreds of thousands of weavers have had nothing to do and they left the business.  At the time, ISAF and NGO jobs were plentiful.  During that period USAID had a few well intended carpet development projects that raised hope, but made little impact.  The Dept of Defense’s TFBSO built a pair of cut and wash plants, but they failed to help finance production, and what rugs were woven continued to be financed by and sent back to Pakistan for finishing and sale.  I was involved from 2007 through 2012 with the Commerce Dept’s efforts and, sadly, must admit that our support created little benefit either.

“In 2013-14 the USDOD, the USDOC and the USDOL are each spending $2.0 million that may not help create jobs for the Afghan carpet business.  The DOD and DOC money will be spent on trade promotion for which no inventory financing will be available to produce the orders generated.  There has never been a serious financing program for the Afghan trade because it would require management and assessment; not attributes I ever saw in US Gov’t agency programs.  The DOL money will go entirely to prevent child labor in the carpet industry.  The notion that Afghan children weave rugs for export may be misguided.  

“So, John, while I fully agree with (and respect) Mr. Eiland, I cannot be optimistic about the general Afghan carpet trade.  I don’t mean to seem negative, but I have to say that I think I share these frustrations with those four or five Afghan companies I mentioned in my opening paragraph.  

I shared Rob’s thoughts above with Emmett, who replied:


“Hi Rob, have we met? I’m terrible at remembering names. I have met good people in my shop in Berkeley whom I admire, but whose names I cannot recall. If we haven’t met, we should.

“Thank you for reminding me about the many, many Afghan weavers who lost their livelihoods when the camps shut down.

“You have been in the thick of things while I have merely taken an interest. but if I am not mistaken, many of the camp weavers were in the trade relatively briefly during the camp days, the Hazaras, for instance. Weren’t they farmers, by and large, before their time in Pakistan? Is it naive of me to think that helping them might be a matter of putting the farmers back to work rather than the weavers?

“I think my optimism, if that’s what it is, springs from the history of rug weaving in the Middle East, at least as I understand it. World Wars, economic depressions and the like have seriously dampened the rug trade at times, and yet it seems to spring back. Personally, for 40+ years I have been expecting/dreading that rug weaving in the Middle East would soon be a thing of the past. Industrial jobs would pay more than weaving. Technology would trump knot-tying. But against all odds, rug making is in a period of renaissance. It gives me cheer.

“But we are looking at the rug world from different perspectives. From what I can tell from our brief correspondence, you are trying to help Afghans while I am merely battening off the fabulous rugs they weave. Still, it seems to me as if weaving in Afghanistan will endure. The industry may not employ as many people as it did during the camp days. But it might again spring to life next time there is a crisis.

“Thanks for the dialogue. Thank you, John, as Rob said, for starting it.”

Rob replied further:

“Hello Emmett, No, I don’t think we have met.  But, on my blog I have listed your blog as one of my favorite blogs.  <>  Of course, I’ve read your books!

“When the Afghans came back to their country the styles that were pioneered in the camps were still selling very well, so everyone kept weaving.  At the time, it became much more of a factor in the Afghan economy than it had ever before been.  In the camps, the Turkmen were the prime force to teach others to weave pile rugs.  As you know, all the tribes made flat weaves, but the The Turkmen made the widest range of  pile rugs.  And, pile rugs were what was selling at the time.

“The Hazara from the central valley were pastoral, but those in Quetta had been making pile rugs right alongside the Belouchi for centuries.  They are still a large source of weaving for the Pakistani.  Apparently, the Hazara of Kabul had become very business savvy even before the Russians came and, while in exile, adapted very quickly to the business prospects of weaving.  It’s no coincidence that the innovative rugs that we see defining ‘rug style’ today are made by Hazara families.   Most Hazara who went back to Bamyan returned to farming, but many still weave.  The NGO named Arzu is based there;  The Hazara who returned to near Mazar-e Sharif have suffered with the rug trade’s up and downs.  So, like everything in Afghanistan, it’s complicated.

“Recent times in Afghanistan are such an aberration.  The economy has become dysfunctional by depending on the purported beneficence of outsiders.  The normal progression of the rug trade that, as you point out, always seems to somehow survive, doesn’t track in Afghanistan.  It, like most things in that region, is really an Af-Pak phenomenon.  Our government thinks that all that the Afghans need to resurrect their rug trade is ‘orders’.  They totally ignore the fact that the largest part of the Afghan and Pakistani rug trades need each other to survive.  

“This especially is true for the northern provinces and Kabul where almost all of the export business to the US and western Europe is exported through Pakistan.  The Herat area, western Afghanistan, still produces a lot of rugs, but these largely go to Russia, Eastern Europe and to the bazaars on ISAF bases and the Embassies.  Sadly, there is almost no local consumption of newly made rugs. The shops are awash in very cheap Wiltons made in Iran and Turkey. This is the most common complaint from Afghan weavers at the street level.  (Believe it or not, all the rugs in the halls Ministry of Commerce and Industry are Wilton knock-offs!)  But, from the export oriented traders that, after repatriation, controlled thousands of looms out in the villages the only complaint I ever heard was, “I can’t get financing on my orders”.  So, they remain connected to their last few relatives in Pakistan and to the Lahore finishers.

“I agree that, since I entered the rug business in 1971, I too have oft heard the chorus ‘the end is near’ being sung.  But, after really studying the situation for my work with the Department of Commerce, I think it could be.  I summarized my analysis in a post I wrote on my own blog.  It ends with the future of the hand made rug trade hanging in the balance between Pakistan and Afghanistan.  I’d be interested in your thoughts?   The summary is at

Emmett responded further:

Hi Rob-

“I wind up being a little confused about your predictions for Afghan rug production.

“…my impression is that a year or so ago you seemed pretty optimistic about the future of rug weaving in Afghanistan, but seem now to be quite discouraged.

“I guess I remain upbeat about the future.

“As a dealer I can get wonderful Afghan merchandise at good prices, and I don’t have to depend on one or two dealers to supply me.

“There are producers in Pakistan/Afghanistan who understand what looks great (to me and my customers) and what doesn’t, and they know how to get their productions woven and finished and sent.  They are even able to weave designs we give them.

“I know of nothing that is going to put an end to this in the short-run.

“There seems to be no shortage of weavers or material. Nor are we looking at an embargo nor any other political situation that will shut everything down.

“From the perspective of a retailer, things look good and the future seems bright enough.

“If I am wrong, I won’t be able to say I wasn’t warned! I value your careful research and your correspondence.

Thank you,  Emmett

Rob responded, explaining why he’d become so pessimistic,

“Up to October 2012, I was working with the USDOC.   Alex Zahir, (I think you know him), and I were managing a project called “Sheep to Shop”.  It was an ambitious initiative and up through our successful event in Dubai in late September, I was hopeful.   ‘Sheep to Shop’ is one of a number of projects I mentioned in an earlier message that was certainly well intended, however, severely hamstrung by gov’t effectiveness issues of vision and implementation.

“Over that last year of work I learned how precarious the Afghan situation is, especially the Af-Pak relationship, and indeed I became discouraged.  I wrote that gloomy report I’d  attached earlier called “Afghanistan and the future….” last October.   It was a result of the more realistic view of the situation I learned after months of study and work in Afghanistan.   As my point of view evolved, please realize that I had to project an upbeat mood while I was working with USDOC to promote our program.   I understand and apologize if this seems equivocal.

“The paradox in the good flow of rugs now versus a severely altered potential in the near term is dependent on two factors. 1.) The exchange of power in Afghanistan and 2.) the political situation in Pakistan.  Chaos in either country will dramatically affect the other. The jeopardy in either situation devolving changes on a monthly basis.  Last Fall it looked like Pakistan was going to crater, but they got through their election and the current administration appears business friendly.  One can only guess how long this uncertain calm in Pakistan will last

“I don’t need to describe how tender the socio-political environment is in Afghanistan.  It seems that the best thing that the US can now is to leave Afghanistan quickly before the benefit of all the good foreign governments and NGO’s tried to foster in Afghanistan withers with the passage of the seasons.

“If you accept the volatility I described, the situation our own businesses enjoy is more likely to change than remain the same.  I think we can assure ourselves that it will not get better for us or, much more importantly, easier for the peoples of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Best wishes,  Rob

This is John Howe, again.  I tried to contact, but have not heard from, Chis Walter,


[This is an old photo of Chris (right) from Emmett’s book, 2000]

but you can get a sense of what he’s doing on his web site:

Chris is offering (primarily wholesale) more than 10 “lines” of production.

Most of these lines seem woven in northern and central Afghanistan, although there has always been a Tibetan production in Nepal  (and that seems to have grown a lot; the Tibetans were willing early to weave any design wanted) and some of Chris’ higher priced lines are now woven in India.

There is less “tribal” production and a move to traditional patterns from other rug-weaving areas, plus a clear willingness to weave contemporary designs.

But as Rob noted above, Chris’s operation and some others similar to it, seem viable, but are working with only the top end of  the Afghan market, and their success says nothing about the lower levels that recently comprised most of it.

Another thing it would be interesting to know about is how the “schools” element of Chris’ rug-weaving projects are working.  Chris’ Turkmen projects in refugee camps in Pakistan provided basic education to weaver family children.  Part of the basic “coop” deal was that weavers earned wages and the “profits” were used to finance schools that provided basic education to the children.  Chris had schools as large as 500 students with one third girls. One of the “advantages” of the refugee camps was that one could locate the schools accessibly.

Check this link for a description of what Chris’ projects do in this area in Afghanistan:  Also here:

Now all of this is just a set of “snapshots” of the assessments of different people engaged in aspects of the Afghan rug and textile weaving world and how they see its future. 

Dr. Ittig and Rob Leahy seem pessimistic, Emmett Eiland cites aspects that make him optimistic and what can be seen on Chris Walter’s web site, suggest that some enterprises like his may be viable.

Part 2 of this post deals with the Afghan rugs brought into the session that was the occasion for Annette Ittig’s talk.  You can access using this link:

Afghan Rugs: Business As Usual? Part 2: The Rugs and Textiles Brought In

Posted in Uncategorized on November 12, 2013 by rjohn

This is Part 2 of a post on Afghan rugs and the Afghan rug industry.  If you have not seen Part 1 you can reach it using this link.

It’s not clear what to project for the future of rugs and textiles made in Afghanistan, but we looked, in the second part of this session, at some that have been created there in the fairly recent past.


Participants in the audience had brought a lot of contemporary Afghan material and we looked at this next.  They will often be described in different ways, but be aware that they were all made fairly recently in Afghanistan or by Afghan weavers in refugee camps in Pakistan.

Note:  I confess to being interested in the question of what can still be made.  I think that if there are not “time and money” concerns, almost anything (I acknowledge that the rugs we see here are not at the real upper end of what is being made, but are still sometimes interesting).   

The rugs I have on my floors are almost all contemporary (mostly) Afghan pieces.  I brought a few to this session, so if I talk about them a bit, you will understand why.  I will. especially, tell stories about special order rugs I have had made in Afghanistan and Afghan Turkman refugee camps in Pakistan. 


Special order rugs can be an adventure.  They may also illustrate some of the potential problems that can occur, generally, buying rugs and textiles from Afghanistan.

As was the case with the discussion of Part 1, I  asked Rob Leahy to help with the descriptions of the pieces brought in.  He suggested that a Turkmen dealer friend, Alex Zahir,


who has a shop in Tennessee, might be better. since he grew up in a rug weaving family and in the time most of these rugs were made.

Here is how Alex introduced himself: 

“I’m one the few Turkmens living in USA and in the rug business.  My name is Alex Zahir (Many in Afghanistan call me just Zahir) I’m the only Turkmen family living in Knoxville, TN. I was born to a rug weaving Turkmen family in Kunduz, (NE) Afghanistan. Most of the rugs displayed here are good reminder of my childhood seeing my mother and sisters weaving rugs, so I’m familiar with almost all of them. These are all, Turkmen or non-Turkmen are tribal treasures. I call them Nomadic Romance, as most of them used to be made for special occasions such as dowries, Jainmaz, Ensi, bridal camel decorations, bags and other home (yurt) or animal décor or accessories.

“So the rug weaving culture has been there among Afghan nomads or semi nomad ethnic groups for a long time. What has changed during the past 30+- years is the introduction of commercial productions of Afghan carpet assisted by Pakistani dealers and few like Chris Walter of Yayla Tribal Rug. By the way, I have known Chris for a long time and been friends with Habibullah and the extended family. Rob Leahy is a good friend. Our joint works as Subject Matter Experts for USDOC brought us closer and it was a great pleasure to work and learn from Rob Leahy. I have dealt with Emmitt Eiland and still supply Emmett Eiland’s Rug Company. My contact his been mostly with Lew Wheeler and Rich. I have read Emmett’s book and have a great respect for him, though have not seen or talked to him for a long time.

“Some people attempted to produce rugs, like Mr. Khalmohammad, Zabiullah, Mr. Baghisi and few others, but closely remained in Afghan traditional lines of rugs that were made in tribal ways.

“Afghans, mainly Turkmens living in refugee camps surrounding Peshawar NWFP, now known Pakhtoon Khawa continued making what they knew traditional Afghan-Turkmen rugs in refugee camps until they were discovered and recruited by Pakistan rug dealers to produce rugs in untraditional colors and designs. It developed by making coaster size samples to Kalashinkov or war designs in smaller sizes in Sawabi camp then to Kargahi production of older Turkmen, tribal Persian, Yalama and some Caucasian designs.

“Then came the so called Cherchens, more Caucasian designs, produced primarily all in wool, later on cotton warps. Chris Walter of Yayla Tribal Rugs recruited Jora Agha and his sons to make Ersari designs and Habibullah, Allah Beren and families to make other different designs. Karachi based Pakistani dealers also recruited some Afghans, then living in that area to produce some rugs. Once popular ones were Ansari production, made of New Zeland and local fine wools on cotton warps. Lahore based Pakistani dealers then approached on a larger scale and recruited more Afghans via prime Afghan contacts. Notable ones are BECO Carpets, Abbas, Punjab Carpets. Due to bad situation in Karachi, Lahore became the visiting center for rug buyers from around the world. Also Lahore is nearer to most Afghan rug weaving refugee groups that were than residing in Sawabi Camp, Cambelpour, Attock , Peshawar and surrounding areas. Many customers from European countries used to come. I remember selling lots of carpets to few dealers from Norway, Switzerland, Sweden and others. Mr. Rasool of Iran Imports from Norway and Mr. Eik of Eik’s Imports were among the frequent buyers in bulk.

“Local market was also booming. Pretty much in all large cities, there were countless agencies from around the world based in many cities of Pakistan and their staffs, mostly Westerners were taking advantages of low prices and buying rugs. I have sold many rugs in Friday market in Islamabad before I opened up my shop in Super Market F-6 Center in Islamabad back in 1986-87. I held carpet gatherings and shows in American and other embassies and sold rugs to people later we became friends. One family from that time (1988) was Robin Tilsworth and her husband Andrew Rude whom I met in US Embassy in Kabul during my last visit working Sheep to Shop Initiative. It was a surprise and a great pleasure to recognize each other at meeting room and conference table.

“Sizable productions of rugs were produced by Qandeel, supplied by Abbas Company to Safavieh and Jerry Aziz for decade. Qandeel also supplied directly to I M International, Pasaargad in a smaller scale.

“I worked in between Qandeel and few buyers and also supplied rugs initially from my 110 Madison Ave, NYC location, then from Amu Oriental Rugs, Inc. location in Sudbury, MA 01776 before I moved to Knoxville, TN in 2006 after selling my shop to a New Hampshire and Israel based fellow.

“In my opinion, Pakistani dealers contributed greatly to teach Afghans to produce systematic rug production, wash, cut and overall finishing techniques. Finishing in most cases, mean to realign entire knots to straighten the rugs instead of old method of starching or gluing. There were instances that we had to replace entire undesired colors by taking out the knots and then re-knotting them.

“Different result and experiences gained by exploring different washing techniques to using different chemical and herbal materials. I have experienced the replacement of chemical stain by boiled pomegranate skins water and stain the rugs herbal. Nowadays, some producers short cut to produces multiple rugs in the same looms and cut them after finish on the spaces provided in between each rug’s designs and produce straight smaller rugs or runners. For example, a 9X12 rug would produce 3 2.6”X12’ runners. I don’t like that idea, as it compromises the integrity of the wefts that cut although they do pretty good job to securely wrap around the selvedges.”

With that introduction of Alex, and a glimpse ground-level at the Afghan rug industry, we moved to consider the pieces brought in.

Alex and I have commented on these rugs and textiles.  Two individual owners commented on their pieces.

I have labeled Alex’s comments and some of my own.  Most of the text is me talking, albeit often not very knowledgeably.

The first rug was this Baluch niche design.



Alex on A1:  This is an interesting finely knotted Baluch Jainamaz from Heart and Qala-e-Now areas.  I have a very similar one,, I have always seen this jainamaz design in finer quality than other pieces that came from that part of Afghanistan.

Here are two details of A1:


A second piece with an eastern Caucasus look.


(fuzzy photo)


Owner description:  Afghan “Kazak” with Shirvan design. Said to be vegetable dyes, handspun wool. Gray wool warp, wool weft. Knots partly depressed, heavy weave.

Alex:   A Hazara weave Kazak in Shirvan design. Good hand-spun Gazni wool. Most probably made in Pakistan (Peshawar area by Afghans). It’s an earlier vegetable dyed production of Afghans in Pakistan. Good piece.

Here are some detail images of A2:



John:  As I said above, I have, mostly, contemporary Afghan rugs on my floors and the next piece is one of them.

This is a piece from Chris Walter’s Ersari project in Pakistan refugee camps.  At this point Chris was emphasizing hand-carded and hand spun wools with natural dyes.



It is the putative main carpet in our living room (it’s only about 6′ x 8′.).  This piece is an instance of a “special order,” something I have done with fair frequency.

Alex:  This is an Esari Bashir a.k.aa Alma Gol design (John: Interesting.  Most collectors would call this a “mina khani” design, adopted from Iran).

 Alex:  This design used to be made mainly in Kunduz area, but with multicolor finishing kilims. Multicolor kilim end is almost a Kunduzi sign. This is a design my mother and sisters used to make. Chris Walter and Habibullah used to get them made in vegetable dyed by Afghan Turkmens in Pakistan.

John: About my special order of this piece.  I had seen this dark-ground border in some of Chris’ photos of available pieces,


and asked him to put it on the most saturated red ground he could manage with this mina khani field.


And he did it.  It is one of the few instances in which I’ve been able to get a special order rug first time as ordered (communications problems with special order rugs are incredibly difficult).

Here are some additional detail photos of this A3.





The next rug was another Afghan-woven Caucasian design.

Alex:  This is an earlier Afghan production in Pakistan. It used to be called Cherchin for some reason. This production came mostly in Caucasian designs. They mixed vegetable and chemical dyes those days. Pakistani and New Zealand mill-spun wool were commonly used at that time before the introduction of Ghazni hand-spun wool.



Here are some details of A4:

(Focus problem; pieces were moving fast)



This was the next piece.



This design pedigree is uncertain.  Some clear Caucasian devices, but also some seeming Persian usages.

Alex:   You are right; it’s got both Caucasian and Persian designs in it. It is a Baluch Barjasta type. Made by nomad and semi-nomad Baluch tribes in and around Heart and Qalae-Now of Badghis provinces.  I have several pieces like this one. Mushwanis are the best in Barjastas (mixture of knotted pile and kilim weave)

 Here are some details of A5.




The next piece is woven with permutations of what used to be called “Ersari” designs.



Alex:  This design also used to be made by Ersaris in Kunduz. Most commonly in Char Darah, Qalaizal districts. You are right, it is a new invention to Ersari weave around 1960s. Ersaris called it Patnoos Gol.  But this piece most probably is not made in Kunduz. It looks like a Khalmohammadi production made in Andkhoi (NW Afghanistan). The fact that there is no multicolored end kilims, makes it more likely of an Andkhoi product.

Here are some details of A6.


The border system with a main border bracketed on both sides by the same minor borders seems Persianate.  An adaptation by a modern designer.


The next rug was a more faithful version of a traditional, Tekke so-called “wedding rug.”  (We know there were wedding rugs, we just can’t tell which ones merit that term.)



Alex:  Is certainly a Tekke rug made in Turkmenistan.  It’s a newer piece. It’s rare to see natural dyes in newer Turkmen pieces made in Turkmenistan.  As far as Wedding/Dowry pieces go, there are always rugs made for special occasion in Turkmen tradition.  It could very well be a piece for someone’s wedding or perhaps (originally) woven by the bride.  But it’s a common Ahal Tekke design, not like Ensi or Asmalyk that are specially or practically made for dowry purposes.

Here is a corner detail of A7.  Minor guls vary a lot, but this one seems possibly to have a Yomut source.


The next rug has a clear Afghan Ersari major gul of the “guli-gul” variety.

Owner description:

Afghan “Shirvan” with Turkoman design, good chrome dyes, fine wool closely clipped, fine weave, knots not depressed, natural color wool warp, wool weft.



Alex:  This is an Afghan Ersari newer rug. Made by Andkhoi Ersaris. Tend to be fairly finely knotted. All wool, but not natural dyed.

John:  Notice that the major gul has a lobed outer edge. 


Most Afghan rugs tend to have major guls that tend toward a straight exterior edge.  This is a contemporary Afghan rug, but this lobed edge is a usage associated with older pieces.

The next piece is one that illustrates this latter point.  The major gul on the rug below is approximately, but recognizably, based on an Afghan Ersari Turkmen usage, called the “Suleiman” gul.  Notice that the outer edge of the gul changes direction, but does not “dip” inward as a lobed gul design.



Although this is a version of the Suleiman gul the designer has played with the traditional central instrumentation.

Alex:  A Sulaiman design made by Sulaiman sub-tribe of Ersari Turkmens. Sulaimans and Turkmen called it Demejen Gol. Although the multi mix kilim ends makes me wonder if it is even a Turkmen product. It is highly unusual for Turkmen to make that kind of Barjasta type mix weave and knotted ends. But it looks very interesting for that reason.


The next rug was flat woven and had a Baluch look.  It is really an impressive piece of contemporary production.



It is well woven and attractive.   Good color. Here is its back which also has good color.

Alex:  Is called Khorjeen (Saddle Bag/Horse or Donkey Baga) well woven Qala-e-Now piece. It must be all wool except goat hair for the closures. Very interesting older piece, yet in good condition.


Here are two details of A10.


Good drawing.


Eiland and Eiland say that there are four kinds of “vagirehs” (samplers).

  • Those with all the field and border designs from which you can weave a particular rug.
  • Those which are a smaller version of a rug displaying all the field and borders, plus the colors to be used (sometimes called a “knock-off.”
  • Those that display the field designs and borders that a given weaver or company offers to weave
  • Those which woven (often a series of squares with numbers on them) displaying the colors in which rugs can be woven.

Someone had brought in a sampler that is one of this last variety, above, but distinctive from it.



This variety does not indicate what the handle of the finished weave may be, but does allow one to feel the un-knotted wool in the colors available.


I don’t think I’ve seen this kind of sampler before.  Notice that this wool is being produced in Khorasan, but could readily be used in “next door” Afghanistan. 

Alex:  I am very familiar with this sampler format. Some Afghan producers in Pakistan also offered them in Combinations. Preset 9-12 colors one could choose from.


The next piece is older, an antique Central Asian pile rug.

Its owner describes it as follows: 

This is a Julkhirs, or “bear-skin” rug, woven by ethnic Uzbeks in Northern Afghanistan. It is probably from Dare Souf, just south of Mazari-Sharif near the border with Uzbekistan.  This is a nomadic weaving, from the late 19th century. It has modern cloth loops on the back, showing that it was hung on the wall as a decoration, but it would normally be used like a sleeping bag, folded in half.
Alex:  Juli Khirs is the older Afghan version of Shaggy rugs. Very interesting nomadic productions, often came in only 2 colors. I agree with the owner’s description.



The owner continues: It is woven in one piece, using a type of jufti knot, a symmetric knot tied around four warps instead of the usual two. Consequently the design is visible from the back, as seen in the corner of the vertical photo below (unlike other varieties of Julkhirs which are sometimes woven in strips using tent band knotting).


Here are some additional details of A12.



The next piece took us back to Afghan contemporary material.



This piece is an amalgam of designs and devices.  It has for me no distinctive design pedigree.  The large scale of the border makes the “butted” usage more evident.

Alex:  Newer Herati or border areas. Must be well made, finely knotted, but not natural dyes. It often comes with wide kilim ends.


The next piece takes us back to Uzbekistan, but likely more recently woven.  It is flat-woven; the front of a complete khorjin half.



It has good color and adequate drawing.

Alex:  A slit weave Uzbek kilim Khorjeen. They also make kilims in odd, long and narrow sizes. Finer than Maimana kilims and also use better coloring. I have a pair of kilims from the same quality.

Below is its back.


John:  I do not have an attribution on the next brought in piece.

Alex:  A very fine Qajari Kilim. Made of all fine soft wool. Feels like a blanket. There is slight difference between the back and front.



It is attractive with simple design devices and decent colors.



The next rug is an Afghan with Caucasian-like devices and a kind of abrash, intended to clearly signal the use of natural dyes.



Alex:  Afghan Kazak a.k.a. Ghazni Kazak. It maybe vegetable dyed and hand-spun Ghazni wool.

Here a detai of A16:


John: The piece below is one you step on as you come into our apartment.  It is another of Chris Walters Ersari Turkmen project and the oldest one of those that I own.


A17When I first saw it, I thought might have been a somewhat conventionalized version of an Afghan “gul-i-gul” but found a near example in Jourdan (see 234 on page 234) attributed to the late 19th century.  I like the big, blocky border that seems to me like the proportions of some early Woven Legends throw rugs.  Notice that this rug is inscribed (as many of Chris’ Turkmen pieces are) in its lower right corner.

I can’t read it, precisely, but I know what it says.  Such inscriptions on Chris’ refugee Turkmen rugs say “Turkman refugee,” name of the refugee camp and/or family, the date woven).  The Islamic date is 1373.  So it appears that this piece was woven about 1995, 18 years ago

Alex:  Early Afghan Kargahi product. Made in Haripour Afghan Refugee camp. Script reads: Turkmen Refugee Molla Ashir, Camp Haripour 1373 (Afghan Calendar) 18 years old.



The next piece was a complicated niche design.



Alex:  A tribal ethnic Jainamaz. Synthetic dyes and wool.

Cross-panels top and bottom.  Here are some detail images of A17:





The next piece is a “knock-off” I had made of a bag face from the Joe Fell collection.



Below is an image of the Fell piece when it was auctioned.  You can see the conventionalization that went on (colors you will get on a special order are difficult to predict), still, I was generally pleased with the effort.


When I told Joe I’d had his piece copied, he asked for a photo and then whether I could have another copy made.  We did it successfully.  He said that in all his years of dealing, he’d never had a copy of a piece made.

When the original sold, a couple of years ago, it brought a hammer price of $17.500.

Alex:  Beautiful piece. Looks like all vegetable dyed.

The next piece was a miniature khorjin set, with a version of a traditional Tekke gul.



Alex:  Turkmen Tekke Gol bag

The next  piece was a khojin set of closer to usual size and very bright colors.



Alex:  Khorjeen (Saddle Bag)

Two closer details, including the back.


(image below, fuzzy because pieces were moving quickly)


The next piece was a rug with a dark palette, maybe a Baluch type.  Crisp drawing.



Alex:  Baluch Chikhchiran area’s nomadic Baluchs

A detail of A22.


The next piece is one of mine and gives some pause when they encounter it on my floor.



It is, many will know, a Yomut “jewelry” asmalyk design, this one woven by Erisari Turkmen in Pakistan refugee camps.

Real Yomud jewelry asmalyks were examined in an Oriental Rug Review series in the late 1988’s, with one of the parties seeming to claim that one was worth $60K.

Alex:  A Yomut Turkmen Asmalyk design, but made by Ersaris in Pakistan. Looks like Chris Walter’s Ersari production (John: It is).

The next piece was another putative Baluch design.



Alex:  A Panj Mihraba Baluchi look, but it’s one of those playful pieces. The weaver did not have a clear idea what to make, so she/he just mixed everything.

A detail of A24.  Note that at the top of the field in this piece there are some “war rug” devices.


Saddle covers of the type below, are not old, but are no longer being made.



The colors, especially the yellow in the piece above, tempt some to suspect synthetic, but the Ersaris did sometimes employ strong natural yellow dyes.

Alex:  A nice Ayyerlik (Saddle Cover). Design is called Ala Makhmal by Turkmens. Motifs represent Turkmen bold jewelry.



Notice that both of these saddle covers employ botehs.  The jewelry devices hang from some of them.

Alex:  Similar to A25. Ersari Ayyerlik/Saddle Bag. Turkmen Jewelery design.

The next piece was a bright, well-drawn kilim.



Notice the gray warps: frequently an indicator of Afghan production.

Alex:  Looks like a flat weave Afghan kilim. Yes, the grey wool is certainly Afghan.

Here are some details of A27.



The next piece was another of my Chris Walter’s pieces.



This is not a special order piece.  I bought it out of regular production, but I think it is unusual.  The field is a variety of ikat-influenced design and the borders are a conventionalized version of a frequent Turkmen border.  But what caught my eye were the full-pile elems with their large scale “birds in a tree” devices. 


These devices might be seen to resemble some Yomut usages, but I’ve not seen them elsewhere on a Turkmen pile rug.  These devices are placed in the same orientation on both ends and make the rug “directional” (look back to see).  I like them very much.

Alex:  Another Chris Walter’s Ersari production. It certainly is an Ikat influenced design. I have similar geometric designs in Yomut rugs.

The next rug took us back to Baluch design and coloration.



Alex:  A Baluch rug with goat hair wrapped around selvedges. Caucasian influenced design.

Detail of A29:


The next piece is a conventionalizaton of a Turkmen engsi (a tent door rug).



Alex:  Yes, a conventionalization of a Turkmen Ensi design, but the piece looks like a work of Yaqub Khani Baluch.

Details of A30.  Some recognizable traditional usages such as a meander border.




The next piece was this embroidered vest.



The back is arguably better.


Alex::  I don’t know much about these embroidered vests. The label, if it is a label, makes it a commercial looking product. It could be a Sindhi/Pakistani piece. 

John:  There is an exquisite book on Afghan embroidery.

The next rug is another of my special order Ersari Turkmen piece, but this one has a little longer story that goes with it.

When I first began to collect and study Turkmen rugs I was given permission to work with the Textile Museum curatorial materials and encountered a design that I liked.


Alex:  The model rug, above, looks like one of Chris Walter’s Ersari production in Pakistan (John: It’s not). The multicolor kilim ends are typical of Kunduz rugs, which is kind of unusual for this Gonjik Gol design that I have in some older Charshangy and Yomut carpets.

John: There was a photo of it and I had an 8″ x 10″ blowup made and sent it to Chris Walter and said “Make this rug for me, about 3′ x 5′.  Now it usually takes a year to get a special order rug made, and one day Chris called me and asked whether I could use a rug in the design I had ordered that was 13′ x 15′.  Some serious communication problem had occurred and a hugely different size rug had been made.  I said, no, I want a 3′ x 5′.  So another year went by and one day the rug arrived.  It was more like 4′ x 6′ and looked like this.



In addition to being still a little larger than ordered, the white usage in the gul had been dropped out, BUT I had been given lots of a good green that collectors value.  I kept it

Alex:  Another Ersari production. The picture is upside down for the text/inscription, but I could still read it.  At some point, I had to rotate and my laptop upside down. It reads: Turkmen refugee Camp Haripour.Lower left text reads: Turkmen, Lower right text reads refugee, Upper left: Haripour and upper right: Camp. I could read the date underneath of it, but I think it is 1366 = 1988/25 years ago.

Here are some details of A32.


As Alex has said, this rug is inscribed, but differently than is usual.  Instead of being put in a little rectangular area in a corner border area, it has been scattered more widely across the field in two lines.


There’s one more wrinkle in the story.  When the first edition of Emmett Eiland’s book on natural dyed rug, this small rug was one of those included.


My initial conceit was that, perhaps, my special order had inserted a traditional Afghan design into the array of designs that Chris’ Turkmen weavers were weaving.  But I think it more likely that this version of this gul was in their existing vocabulary and that explains why they left out the white in my original model I provided.  They just wove the version they were already weaving.

This piece and this story show how difficult it is to ask that a specific thing be made.  The order has to travel from the dealer-customer, to Chris (in this case), to his managers in the Pakistan camps, to a designer (if a cartoon needs to be made), to the weaver.  There are a lot of chances for miscommunication and the press of convenience.  I asked Chris Walter once whether he could guarantee that a special order rug would be woven in the precise colors asked for and he demurred.

The next rug was one of the Baluch types, this time with some Turkmen design devices employed.



This rug is based on a Turkman door rug format with cross-panels, top and botton that contain Turkmen devices.  Cross panels are fairly rare in Iran, but occur in Turkmen engsis.

Alex:  It looks a Turkmen Jainamaz to me. Most probably made by Saryks in SHAKH village in Badghis. Even the selvedge look like Turkmen, but I could be wrong. Regardless, it is a finely knotted piece.

Here are some details of A33.


Image below shows the back.


The next one was another Baluch type similar to some we’ve seen above.  (Fuzzy initial photo)



Alex:  Sarhadi Baluch (Border area) Baluch.

The details are sharper.



The next piece is the last of those I have on the floor from Chris Walters’ Ersari Turkmen production.  It is a miniaturized version of a famous “Beshiri” niche design.



Alex:  Ersari production made around 1988. Chris Walter production made by Jora Agha in Haripour.  Design is mixed Ala Makhmal and the directional Mihrab with a Kochanak motif/ element on the top makes it look like a Jainamaz.

John:  I own three of these small rugs with this design, one with a white ground.

The next rug takes us in to the “love them or hate them” world of Afghan “war” rugs.



Colorful, playful if images of weapons can be that.  This weaver had two chances to spell Afghanistan correctly and failed both times.  Lots of weapons.  Don’t laugh.  I had a Central Asian sociologist sitting next to me in this TM session, who was very interested.  I told her something I think Barry O’Connell said: that if you knew the Soviet “order of battle” used in Afghanistan, you might be able to tell where a war rug was woven.  People weave what they’re looking at.

Alex:  Speaks for itself  these war designs were first made during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, but this is apparently made this year, 2013.

The next “war” rug does not impress one initially that it is one.  There are dragons or snakes and various quadrapeds,



but then one notices that there are four people, at least, pointing weapons.

Alex:  Well explained already. Not much room for me to say anything except it is the work of Baluchi or Nomad Pashtoons or at least not Turkmen.



There was a “mixed eras” war rug with both modern planes and rockets and two images of St. George slaying the dragon.




There are are two inscriptions (this is the longer one) that might tell us a bit more.

Alex:  I could not read all even by rotating my laptop/screen. The date read 1369, 22 years ago or 1991. I think it is a Baluch work.


The next piece is a more attenuated war rug.  It has this tower and two seeming planes at the top (one maybe a helicopter) but not much else. 



There are “twin tower” war rugs, but unless it is that there’s not much going on in this rug.

Alex:  Someone, most probably a Baluch, tried to make a twin towers war rug.




Lots of war rugs include maps of Afghanistan but the next rug seems more a “map” rug.



There’s a lot of inscription in this rug,


John: It seems that this rug may have been copied by an illiterate weaver, since all of the words seem backwards and some are upside down.

Alex:  I think someone tried to represent/map different cities/regions. Ill inscribed. I could not read any of them. Most of it looks like readable from the back of the rug.  It’s obvious that it was made by an illiterate man or a woman who cannot read at all.




Again, there is a non-English inscription, but it may also be backwards.


There was also a “peace” rug, pointedly between Afghanistan and Canada.



Alex:  Certainly is a rug made recently. Someone may have made it for a Canadian camp. I have seen rugs at Camp Northern Lights in Mazar-e-Sharif that were made for Scandinavian countries.

We ended with several non-rug textiles, first a camel head decoration.



Alex:  A Kouchi/Nomadic Baluch or Pashtoon Camel head Cover. Called Afsar/Avsar in Farsi.

Then some embroideries.  Here is a fuzzy image of a front.



And a sharper image of its back.


I only managed an image of one side of the embroidery below



This is the embroidered front of a felt okbash.



Here is the more sparsely decorated back.


Here is an image of a smaller okbash.  I didn’t get an image of the back.



The next piece was this small bag.



Here is its back.


The next piece was another small okbash.



Here is its other side.


The next piece was another.



The other side.


Alex: A44  though A49 :  I thought these are book cases, normally for Qura’n.

We finished with a larger embroidered piece.



It was inscribed in two places.

Alex:  Most probably Uzbek, Aymaq. I could read the part it says; This belongs to Abdul Karim.



John:  By the way, Afghan embroidery can be spectacular.  As I noted above, a few years ago,  I found a very nice book on it and put some of the images in it up on  Here is the link, if you have a taste for it:

The session ended and folks moved forward to touch the material.

I want to thank Dr. Annette Ittig, Rob Leahy, Emmett Eiland and Alex Zahir for their very real contributions to this post.

I hope you have enjoyed this somewhat bifurcated program on contemporary Afghan textiles and the outlook for the industry from which they come.


R. John Howe