The Textile Museum Rug Convention: A Review

By Tom Stacy (text) & Steve Cadenhead (photos)

Washington D.C.'s Textile Museum ("TM") held its annual rug convention this past weekend (October 17 - 19). Its theme was "Weighing the Evidence: Emergence & Evolution of Pile Weaving." Approximately one hundred persons attended the event, which included a day of presentations focusing on this theme, a TM exhibition of classical rugs in tribute to the late Charles Grant Ellis, another exhibition at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery entitled "The Jewel and the Rose: Art for Shah-Jahan," a series of social events, and a closing half day session of show-and-tell. This was my first TM Rug Convention, and I came with much curiosity and few preconceptions.

Will the "True" Person Please Stand Up (Or Click the Mouse)

One of my curiosities was what a number of people I've grown to "know" through cyberspace would be like in person. How would my e-mail derived image match up with the actual person?

Going into it, I suspected that e-mail would provide a better glimpse into the essence of the person for a number of reasons. First, in e-mail communication, one generally speaks only when one has something to say; there is no great need to make small talk. Second, because e-mail is written, can be edited, and thus requires added thought, e-mail might provide a better view of a person's interests and thought processes. Finally, e-mail dialogue with a person is largely free of the impediments of age, physical appearance, and visible manifestations of political orientation and social class. All of these can inhibit people from connecting for the wrong reasons.

R. John Howe discussing weaving "mistakes"

The reality, I discovered, is more complex. It is too simple to say that e-mail provides a better view of a person's essence. Let me take R. John Howe as an example. Based on my e-mails with John and my exchanges with him on the discussion forum, I expected John to be very serious, scholarly, and intense. In person, John also is extremely friendly, social, warm, and laughs quite alot. Or Wendel Swan. From his e-mails, I knew Wendel to be very experienced, knowledgeable, funny, and considerate. What I missed in the e-mails, though, is how stylish, youthful, and, well, ah, hip he is.

E-mail and the physical meeting, I found, both provide useful and different views of a person's essence. The combination is better than either one alone. E-mail might be a better way to establish an initial relationship and, given my loner instincts, I prefer e-mail. But rug meetings provide a very enjoyable and welcome chance to spend time with cyber-pals.

The Social Convention

What on earth, you might ask, does any of this have to do with the TM Rug Convention? Quite a lot, I think.

A highlight of this and every other organized rug event is socializing with the people. I had a chance to meet and talk with such notables as Robert Pinner, George O'Bannon, Peter Stone, and John Wertime, all of whom have authored books I've read and admired.

I had very enjoyable conversations with fellow Turkomaniacs Steve Cadenhead, an up-and-coming rug world figure who is President of the New York Hajiis; Ned and Joan Long, two of the most knowledgeable and experienced collectors of Turkoman pile and flatweaves respectively; and Bob Emery, with whom I share eclectic collecting tastes. I finally met Henry Sadovsky, a Baluch collector, and Jerry Silverman, the master of subversive wit.

And I made new acquaintances: Danny Shaffer, editor of HALI; Fred Mushkat, the tent band collector; Michael Wendorf, the fellow Michigan law grad who is an active dealer and Kurd collector; Chuck Patterson, a Boulder, CO-based dealer in Caucasian flatweaves; Paul Ramsey, the Denver-based dealer who is an expert on, e.g., Avar kilims. I could go on and on.

Publishing Dynamos Peter Stone and Danny Shaffer

Paul Ramsey educating the crowd during show-and-tell

My point is that the social aspects of this and any such gathering are at its very core, even though the promotional literature suggests that the academic program is the meeting's centerpiece. Jerry Silverman's cleverly presented call on the discussion board for a moratorium on rug conventions is, I think, premised on too strong an emphasis on the academic program. The social gathering will occur and make the event hugely enjoyable no matter what the academic program.

Rugs, Rugs, and More Rugs

George O'Bannon adding his sage comments

What would a rug convention be without rugs? For me, another very enjoyable highpoint of the TM event was the "show and tell" session, its annual grand finale. Apart from the smattering of pieces brought to KCORTA meetings, I don't see "good stuff" in any great quantity here in the midwestern hinterlands. Pieces here range from the good, the bad, to the ugly, with the uninteresting being the most heavily represented.

The range of the TM show and tell, in contrast, was from good to great and both of these categories were chock full. Sage commentary on the passing crowd was provided by John Wertime, Paul Ramsey, Robert Pinner, George O'Bannon, and John Sommer. Wow!

Even without notes and photos, I can recall a couple of wild and barbaric "fur-like" rugs brought by John Wertime and Michael Wendorf.

Also stand-outs for me were a D.C. collector's Azeri horse cover and a bright and colorful Caucasian soumac tent trapping someone had luckily found in a New York rug store. And these were in addition to other very interesting pieces in the show-and-tell and some outstanding pieces I saw in a couple of private homes I had the good fortune to visit.

After some lingering over whether a particular piece originated in Northeast Persia or Southwest or Northwest Persia, the show and tell concluded with Charles Grant Ellis' daughter bringing out a "mystery rug" to show to the experts. Robert Pinner queried, "A dead cat?" Jerry Silverman was heard to intone, "A Southwest Persian cat."

John Wertime commenting on the horse cover

Robert Pinner examining the fur-like mop (aka mystery rug) with Wendel Swan looking on

In Tribute

The TM event offered an exhibit of classical carpets in honor of the late Charles Grant Ellis. I am not especially knowledgeable about classical carpets and can only note my own impression of the the exceptional artistry and beauty of many of the pieces, particularly several Spanish Alcaraz carpets and a para-Mamluk fragment.

Walter Denny, an art historian at the University of Massachusetts, could not attend the convention but prepared a warm and humorous voice and slide tribute to Charlie Ellis. Among the slides was a letter from Mr. Ellis addressed to: "Prof. Dr. Walter B.S. Denny."


What about the academic program? On the discussion board, Wendel Swan, who served on the event's steering committee, has outlined the complex considerations that go into the planning of any such program. On the one hand, newcomers to the field yearn for information on the basics: what's what in the current market; what to collect and what not to; what's good and what's not and how to tell the difference, etc. On the other, the basics are old hat for experienced collectors. Other things equal, everyone would prefer polished and entertaining speakers. But other things are not equal. Otherwise the likes of Jay Leno should regularly man the podium at these events. Demonstrated expertise and reputation justifiably count for a lot.

How were these various conflicting considerations resolved this time? The day-long academic program centered on the origins and early history of pile and kilim weaving in Central Asia and the Middle East. This topic clearly fits onto the expert end of the beginner-to-expert spectrum. In addition to the fact that the TM event is attended mostly by experienced collectors, a good reason for choosing this topic was that John Wertime has something fresh, provocative, and big to say about it.

The speakers included Robert Pinner and John Wertime, both well-known rug world scholars. They also included Irene Good, a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jürg Rageth, a Swiss dealer and an engaging presence.

I was struck by the contrast between the intellectual styles of Pinner and Wertime. For those who have a familiarity with philosophy, it is rather like the difference between British empiricism and German idealism. Pinner is a perfectly charming British speaker and the friendly repartee between him and Wendel Swan was thoroughly enjoyable. He is very much in the tradition of British empiricism, moving from particular thing to particular thing, from slide to slide. In the process, he drew some erudite, intriguing, and sometimes brilliant connections. For instance, he likened a design on third-millenium B.C. pottery to the so-called Yomut pine tree frequently found in the elems of nineteenth century Yomut main carpets. But Pinner had no grand theory to present. This apparently puzzled Wertime, who asked Pinner if he saw any unifying themes at work. Pinner's response was essentially that theory must be built from the ground up and the examples of early weaving are so scattered in time and place that they as yet do not lend themselves to any overarching unity -- if, indeed, there is any to be found.

If Pinner is the rug world's Hume, Wertime is our Hegel. Like Hegel, the German idealist, he does have a grand theory. His theory is that pile carpets evolved from rugs made out of segments of animal fur that were sewn together. Designs could have been achieved with fur of different colors. Fur rugs, Wertime hypothesizes, were likely the precursors of shaggy pile fur-like rugs. He displayed several examples of such fur and fur-like Central Asian rugs created in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. These rugs, Wertime maintains, are part of a tradition that traces back to the very origins of rug and carpet weaving. A central part of Wertime's theory is that knotted pile had its structural origin in weft-wrapping. He locates the earliest pile weaving in Transcaucasia, northwest Persia, and Eastern Anatolia. It is in these regions "where weft- wrapping had its greatest structural diversity and flourishing in recent times, and presumably its deepest roots . . . ." I am now in no position to evaluate whether Wertime is correct. But one can appreciate the imagination and power of the ideas regardless of their ultimate truth or falsity.

Fur-like Rug

Irene Good discussed the archealogical evidence of early pile weaving, which is widely supposed to have originated as an imitation of animal pelts by the nomadic tribes from which the Turkoman tribes descended. Good mentioned two pile carpets finds dating to the 4th Century B.C.: The well known Pazryrk carpet and a lesser known fragment from the Bash-Adar site in the Karokol Valley. Yet-to-be-studied pile fragments dating to the beginning of the first millenium B.C. have also been found at the site of Hasanlu in the province of Azerbaijan in Iran.

Good, though, pointed to evidence of much earlier pile weaving. She believes that the layered "kaunakes" garments depicted on mid-third millenium B.C. pottery, seals, and figurines in eastern Iran and Turkmenia were probably piled. She also believes that a fragment from the middle of the second millenium B.C. found in the Shahr-i Sokhta site in Seistan contains pile knotting. The finds of curved knives, which were probably used in carpet weaving and which date from the second millenium B.C. onwards, add to the evidence of earlier pile weaving.

The rug world is perhaps understandably insecure about whether it produces knowledge or mere opinion. This yearning for rigor and knowledge argues for a closer association with academia.

It was thus quite heartening to see Robert Pinner and John Wertime lost in enthusiastic conversation with Ms. Good. Perhaps informal conversations such as these can lead to more formal scholarly collaboration.

Wertime & Good

Although one of TurkoTek's aims is to strengthen and nurture ties between academia and the rug world, a cautionary note is in order. The rug world has its own preoccupations and needs, which overlap but do not perfectly coincide with those of any academician or academic discipline. One of the attractions of the rug world is that in addition to learning about artistic works, we actually can acquire some of them for ourselves. Our intellectual interests consequently are more rooted in the marketplace than are those of academicians. It would be unfortunate if a quest for rigor and objectivity should lead us to abandon or neglect our natural interests.

Scientific techniques for dating textiles is one area where academic knowledge does coincide with the interests of collectors. We care very much about the rarity and the age of our pieces. In addition to discussing early examples of tapestry weaving found in Egypt, Jürg Rageth presented some of the results of carbon dating of over 50 Anatolian kilims.

An enraptured T. Stacy, unwittingly demonstrating hair-loss dating

Carbon dating cannot pinpoint the date of a weaving with great precision but rather produces a range of more than one hundred years. Nonetheless, some of the results were unexpected, even by Rageth himself. Rageth showed one kilim that both he and the owner believed to be from the 16th to 18th centuries. Carbon-dating, however, put the piece most probably in the nineteenth century and subsequent analysis of the dyes tends to corroborate this result. Rageth also used his slides to great effect in demonstrating that in the nineteenth century, the colors of even naturally dyed Anatolian kilims lost their previous vibrancy and saturation.

The End

To newcomers considering whether to attend an event such as this, I say, "Go!" To the jaded, I say appreciate and enjoy these events for the social events they are foremostly. They provide an excellent opportunity to meet like-minded people and to see some very appealing pieces. One may or may not have an intrinsic interest in the academic program. But for the curious, topics can come alive when one is forced to think about them, especially when viewing slides of tremendously interesting pieces. All in all, a wonderful weekend. Thanks go out to attendees, presenters, and organizers.


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