Rug Care II | Needles and Threads

The following discussion is in connection with a paper entitled ‘Rug Care II’ presented at the 1981 Armenian Rug Symposium in Boston by Mr. James Keshishian, son of Mr. Mark Keshishian, oriental rug dealer emeritus in the Washington, D C area since 1907. In his article Mr. Keshishian classifies oriental rug repairs into three categories: conservation, repair and restoration. He begins: “Conservation to the professional rug repairer, collector, or novice would be to maintain the rug in its present condition. Repair is a step above conservation. Its principle aim is to make the rug utilitarian (usable), close to the original appearance and (is) not necessarily in the best interest of the rug”.

Mr. Keshishian continues: “Restoration is to reweave properly, from the ground up, using old materials, dyes, and techniques and any necessary research to recreate (as closely as possible) the original rug. Old wool from other rugs, different batch old wools, small batch dying of new wool, same original knotting and processing of wool wefts and warps are among the procedures to be employed here”. He continues: “Conservation is the first step to restoration. Let us take the following examples and talk about what is given you and what it can mean. If the fringe end is jagged, not straight that is, and yet the rug is important, I would overcast this end using cotton, linen or nylon, depending on the resistance of the rug. If there is a hole in the body of the rug I would put a thin canvas or muslin backing to it and perhaps loosely overcast the hole. Conservation is holding what you have in the state in which you find it. We employ this procedure when we are to do extensive repairs or restoration, but must wash the rug first. It is essential to keep all that you have. An example of this need, a rug from my collection at one time had only a few inches of selvage left at the fringe. The selvage at the fringe was removed by my repairman who thought he was doing me a favor by making it look good. It looked good. However, removing original parts that he might not have had to is a consideration. The original binding, fringe, color and sheen all contribute to the identification and researching of the rug. There is much more to this story but that’s for another time.” In conclusion, Mr. Keshishian states: “If you can, leave it in, and take out only what you must and secure the rest.”

Thoughts from an Armenian trained needle repairman

While repairing rugs I employ many different needles and threads of every size, mercerized plied cotton, processed spun silk, linen, and plied wool yarns from which single strands can be taken singly, doubly, or twisted into three or four strands, providing whatever diameter is necessary for the required knot, weft or warp. Repairers employ many different techniques, alone or in combination, to complete the repairs necessary for all different kinds of rug damage. One technique is the use of textile dyes topically, called ‘painting the rug’, another is the technique of removing large borders to shorten a rug, make the rug more rectangular or narrower and then re-attach the borders invisibly. A third technique is controlled rug shrinking or stretching by blocking and stretching techniques, like squaring a rug, removing fullness (wrinkles), shrinking circular puckers concentrically, shortening or lengthening the sides and straightening curled corners and side edges. There are also optically corrective procedures such as the use of direct sunlight to help set certain dyes, bleach wool, silk or cotton, with the correct bleach, to soften colors, fade or expel loose dyes and dirt, and dry rugs correctly to soften the rugs using distressed pine boards, much like baking the rugs in a sauna.

Mr. Keshishian’s seminal paper ‘Rug Care II’ is the first printed description of my Armenian rug training that I’ve ever seen. Armenians (Mr. Keshishian is Armenian) have always taught their adepts how to run their rug service industry by anecdotes. Exactly the kind of verbal training I got from the late Mr. N.A. Sahakian, master weaver and premier rug dealer of San Antonio, Texas. My apprenticeship with him began in 1974 at his landmark shop, the Oriental Rug Works, which in the 1930’s was the original rug repair facility for the Joske’s Oriental Rug Department of San Antonio, Texas, that he and his brother Paul Kesharjian started in the 1930’s, after he left the Stowers Furniture store’s rug department which he started for Bonnie Bell Stower’s family, to start the Joske’s Rug Department, but in 1948, it became the Oriental Rug Works when he gave the Joske’s Oriental Rug Department over to his nephew, Mr. Richard Aijian, also Armenian. When Mr. Sahakian was closing his shop after forty years, I was the only one to show up. I begged him not to close and since he had no son to pass his family’s rug knowledge on to he agreed to teach me. He would refer to me as his ‘new blood’. For the next eight years I spent six days a week in a small brick walled room with one naked hanging light bulb, no air conditioning and one small gas heater. For the first two years, I was paid fifty dollars a week. For the second two years, I was paid seventy five dollars a week. And for the third two years, I was paid one hundred dollars a week. He used to complain loudly that “I should be paying him instead”! Since the Armenians traditionally taught rugs by way of story telling the only words I actually ever read during my time at his shop were his, in the hand written appraisals, invoices, and journals, which contained the iconic information that I was privileged to read and which was impossible to learn in any other way. Mr. Sahakian used to say that: “What I’m going to teach you, you can not learn in any University or Museum in the world”. His family, from Kaiseri, Anatolia, (Turkey) had been in the oriental rug business for over 400 years. Armenians became de facto rug trade expediters millennia ago by virtue of their location on the Old Silk Route going through Asia Minor and Armenia, and this explains why they had to become masters of all types of rugs. They also continued weaving their own Armenian atelier rugs throughout that time.

As I said, my training was verbal, only so much per day, only one single nugget of wisdom at a time, which eventually became my foundation. I had to show up six days a week for eight years in order to get all those kernels of wisdom. During my apprenticeship, I learned a great deal about rugs and in my accompanying hands-on training, I learned and relearned a great deal more about repairing and washing oriental rugs, old, new, large, small, wool, silk, city, royal or tribal. I was classically trained basically in 19th century techniques and 19th century rugs. I am now a rug-man with forty five years of experience.

My training as a needle and thread repairman remains a mystery to most. I have spent most of my adult life doing something that no one has a clue about what I do. I have privately explored this knowledge for over forty five years. During that whole time Mr. Keshishian’s paper is the only printed explanation I’ve ever seen which reveals my secret training with Sahakian. Nor was it surprising to me that it was written by an Armenian rug dealer. I am Oriental trained in rugs, but I am not Oriental. An interesting dichotomy. Oriental rug dealers are a rather closed society, especially here in the Occident, composed of men whose knowledge is kept mainly to themselves. At that time there were no women heads of any of the world’s most eminent rug houses.

Learning to buy oriental rugs over the phone

I learned the language of buying rugs over the telephone in the early 1970’s. I was trained to be able to buy rugs without seeing them by asking certain pertinent questions which I learned by listening to the language in the telephone conversations between Mr. Sahakian and his brokers and by adopting their set standards. Learning from such eminent dealers as Mr. Param Bakmazian, grandfather of Mr. William Cherkezian of New York and Mr. Sarkis Derelian of California, who sold every rug to J. Paul Getty and Doris Duke, and who ran the Getty Museum rug and textile collection during his lifetime, since they were all his rugs originally, including Getty’s Ardebil Carpet.

As a classically trained Armenian rug dealer, I am trained in all rugs, not just Armenian rugs. Persians usually only deal in Persian rugs. Turks only Turkish rugs. Afghans only Afghan rugs. Armenians are classically trained to deal everyone’s rugs. I was trained to repair all oriental rugs in a thousand different ways by using just a needle and waxed thread. During my apprenticeship I was taught to reweave or repair rugs from every weaving country, city, village and tribe, going back every ten years, for two hundred years. I learned to restore and repair rugs from the European side of Istanbul to the east coast of China, north to Kazakhstan and south to the Arab Sea. can take each of those rugs apart and put them back together with only a needle and thread and, of course, a man’s thimble.

Discussions of patch repair

A nadir reached in my training in rug patching was when I was taught to take a large rug apart and recreate a smaller version of the same rug without anyone being able to tell. Or, to be able to take fragments from several different antique rugs of similar knotting, provenance, and nap direction, and piece sew them together into a totally new rug made from the carefully selected fragments of other rugs that match exactly. Cannibalizing older rug(s) for ‘repair parts’, such as border fragments, side edge strips, fringe strips, minor guard border strips, field emblems, that can all be used to patch a hole, replace a fringe or insert a side edge. Using critical judgement I could take a large fragment from one rug and a smaller one from another, each of the same period, or at least looks exactly like it, and woven in the same location and fulfills the same design and structural needs of the rug now being assembled. Knowing how to choose the fragment is critical, how to prepare it and cut it perfectly to fit the carefully square cut hole it’s going to be inserted into. Or I could piece together many small fragments first to make a larger, more cleverly pieced together patch, that’s much easier to insert than many small pieces or old rug scraps individually. Invisibly sewing the edges of a prepared replacement fragment to the edges of the now square cut hole perfectly makes them lie even and flat, with the nap running in the right direction, where even dealers can’t tell, as the stitches simply vanish into the rug.

Mr. Keshishian points out that a repairman does repairs that are not necessarily good for the rug, in the sense that they are not returning the rug to its original condition. Often the decision is made to repair the damage with a needle and thread and then permanently secure it, rather than properly reweaving it. The repairs are done to make the rug ready for floor use. Proper restoration includes weaving optical effects into the rug such as re-creating changes rugs go through as they age, like abrash, to make it look like the original rug would have looked a century later if it had faded naturally. This optical effect is accomplished by weaving artificial abrash into the rug using red yarns dyed in alternating lighter shades or piling the rug with naturally faded yarn from antique spinning wheel skeins.

A discussion of proper re-weaving

Proper weaving is restoration. Needlework is repair. My repair training focused on restricting any further deterioration resulting from damage, like unraveling field holes, by securing and stabilizing the loose boundaries, until a master repair person can get to them or going ahead and repairing the damage in such a way that would make the rug usable on the floor.

When I need a rug to be partly rewoven I seek out an expert weaver of the type of rug knot that I need re-woven, a weaver who is used to weaving that type of knot only and that is all they practice. If I need asymmetrical Senneh knots perfectly rewoven, I go to a Persian, preferably Kurdish, weaver. I don’t practice all the time myself, so even though I’m trained to weave these knots, I would prefer a Persian weaver, for the sake of the Persian rug. Since I do know how to weave, conversely, I know which weaver is good for my rug, from a weaving point of view. Mr. Sahakian often said: “No one should even be in the rug business unless they are a weaver, since who else can judge the quality of weave?”

Ninety percent of the repairs I’ve done in my career are from the damage caused by vacuum cleaners pulling apart the rug’s side edges, top and bottom ends, and corners, all caused by the powerful suction of the hose. Rugs were never made for vacuums. To repair vacuum damage correctly all original internal structures must first be rebuilt by re-attaching all broken cables in the foundation with same diameter strings and then refinish the original side edge by overcasting it with matching antique wool yarn. It is possible to invisibly repair damaged side edge(s) without any actual weaving, in the same original technique but with un-original parts by rebuilding the original inner cable’s structure, which cannot be seen once overcast.

The last part of returning the rug to its original condition is a full-submerge shampoo using cold water, soft soap and hand washing techniques that will remove anything that’s not supposed to be on the wool in the first place, while leaving what is supposed to be in the wool, like lanolin. Squeaky clean, bristling, shiny wool creates a glass like surface that’s far too slippery for any removable dirt to stick to. Correct drying and a full perimeter repair will bring the rug back close to its original state resulting in a beautiful, useable rug where no one will be able to tell what’s been done to it. What we call a ‘first class finish’. It can be both deceiving to clients and frustrating to repairmen because after doing all the work perfectly, the rug is merely returned to looking like it’s supposed to, so that if the work is done right, it’s impossible to tell it was done at all. Mr. Sahakian would entice his dowager client by saying sweetly, “Darling, if you can find my repair, it’s seven hundred and fifty dollars, but if you can’t find it, it’s fifteen hundred!” She would take off her shoes and get down on her hands and knees and search for the repair but she could never find it.

Sahakian would encourage me to master my fear of the immense discipline and focus required in rug weaving by saying: “When you weave the hole back in the rug, you’re not just weaving the hole back in the rug, you’re weaving the hole back in your life!”