IT is pleasant to believe that warmth of temperament, deep love of nature, delicacy of feeling, and an inherent sense of harmony, coupled with monumental patience, are the causes of the long-continued supremacy of the Easterns in the making of textiles. But there is another reason, which must by no means be lost sight of. The venerable recipe for making rabbit pie, which involves as a primary ingredient the capture of the rabbit, is in point. Nature has indeed endowed the Oriental with all the essential qualities of an artist, but Divine generosity and consistency are more clearly displayed in the fact that there has been placed at his hand every material needful for the prosecution of his art. All the Eastern countries, which may be called in this connection the rug making countries, reaching far north of the constantly advancing Russian border, and from the Mediterranean to the Great Wall of China, are natural homes of the animals, which yield textile filaments.
One can easily understand, in this light, how the Caucasian, Turk, Persian and Tartar, equipped with the faculty and supplied with the means, have held their own, and more, against the artisans and designers of the West, and the unlimited machinery with which science has striven to outdo them. These lands of the West, commanding in altitude, benign in climate, in great part bountifully watered, seem to have been providentially mapped out for pastures. Parts of the vast plateaus and sweeping foothill regions, distributed over Asia Minor, the districts of Kurdistan, western and southern Persia, Turkestan, Beluchistan and Afghanistan, are in truth good for little else but grazing, and for this they are peerless. Divided by great water-courses, and laced by lesser streams, they are, save in some few unfavored parts, not afflicted by trying rain periods, and heaven tempers the winds, even of the Kirghiz steppes, to the lamb whether shorn or unshorn. Sheep, goats, camels, vast herds of them, roam these uplands, where they find a quality of nutriment for which chemistry has not yet been able to devise a wool-making equivalent. There is no quarter of the world - which has not heard the fame of the goats of Angora and Kashmir. No country, save perchance the uplands of Spain, has produced wool equal to that shorn from the sheep herding about the salt lake of Niris in Farsistan.
That there is something, either in the grass upon these plains, or in the climatic conditions, which affects beneficially the growth of wool, has been demonstrated by the utter failure to raise the animals of these localities elsewhere with an equal degree of success, although effort has been made repeatedly, and at great expense. Long, fine wool for the nap is indispensable in the weaving of these knot fabrics, and a desperately small price is apt to be fetched in the Smyrna and Constantinople markets by rugs from districts where the pasturage is poor. In these places the weavers, to uphold the quality of their fabrics, are forced to use the fine pluckings from the goat's-fleece. These by lustre and softness, make partial amends for the quality imparted only by the fine lamb's-wool.
The availability of wool for textile uses is determined by the construction of the hairs. That which under the microscope presents the greatest number of serrations upon its surface lends itself most readily to weaving. In this regard much of the wool of Eastern Kurdistan excels even the famed Merino of Spain, or the equally praiseworthy Southdown.
For rugs of the heavier quality, such as the ponderous Oushaks and Anatolians, the sheep of the Asia Minor plains produce a wool that is adequate in length, and, while coarse, as it must be, is quite soft to the touch and very even.
The herding of the multitudes of sheep and goats over three millions of square miles of territory furnishes livelihood to number less tribes of nomads, who pass a portion of the year in and about the towns and villages, and start out upon the ranges as soon as the season is sufficiently advanced. The shepherd, setting forth at morning with his flock, carries wool, spindle, and distaff, in addition to provender and his indispensable arms, and whiles away the hours of the long day, twirling his spindle and singing to his own delectation the "songs of Araby and tales of fair Cashmere."
Careful to single out the choice wool for their own uses, if they be rug-makers as well as flock-tenders, the shepherds pay strict attention to the combing of the young lambs, which, at one season of the year, shed fine undergrowth. This, when the clearing up of the wool is made, is placed with the fleeces of lambs sheared for the first time and choice parts plucked from the wool of the older sheep, and usually retained for the tribal chef d'oeuvre. In different parts of Persia this is called pashim or pasham, and is used in the making of the finest shawls and prayer rugs.
May is the shearing-time. These Eastern shepherds are deft shearsmen, and even more deft at sorting the several parts of the fleeces, detecting small imperfections in the portions ordinarily accounted best, and so distributing every handful that the yarn, when it comes to the weaver's hands, shall possess the evenness only to be secured by infinite skill and care in the handling of the wool.
After the sale, which follows close upon the shearing, the preparation of the wool begins. It is a complex process, first and last, and one which requires experience and painstaking almost beyond belief. The inhabitants of the several sections have different notions concerning the treatment. Methods which centuries of experiment have approved in one district are condemned in another as ruinous. It is altogether likely that there is that in the wools of the different growths which demands for them just the handling practiced in the localities where they are produced.
The first step, after the sticks and other foreign substances have been dislodged, is the washing and scouring. As to the best way of doing this, too, opinions vary widely. In Asia Minor and throughout the Trans-Caucasus the wool is washed many times in cold water, without being allowed to dry between washings. When cleansed of dirt, and of the natural grease of the animal, it is placed in large granite mortars, called tubecs, and covered with a mixture of flour and water, or with starch. The men of the family pound and mix the mass thoroughly, with great wooden mallets. It is then taken out, placed in baskets, and in them washed again for two or three hours in a running stream, until the last trace of the starch shall have disappeared. This washing is of scarcely less importance, in the eyes of the Oriental wool-handler, than the delicate operations of the dyers themselves. Much depends upon the quality of the water, and the superiority of one stream over another has been so thoroughly proven by successive generations that it is acknowledged without dispute. Soft water, of course, is the thing sought. Hard water necessitates the use of potash, which cuts the wool in such manner that when rugs made of it are brought into service they endure for only a short space.
The washing over, the wool is exposed to the sun to dry. About this proceeding the Oriental is equally fastidious. A particular degree of warmth, a precise amount of sun, and wind from a certain quarter are relied upon to work a marked superiority in the rug, and where the wool is intended for fabrics of the first quality, or is ordered for the execution of a farmaish (made to order), the wool-worker will wait for weather conditions to his liking. Even in the spreading there is a knack essential to the best results in the finished goods. The drying, besides being gradual, must be even.
Refined by all these processes, the wool is weighed up, preparatory to picking and carding. There is a sad difference between the weight of the fleece as it comes from the shearer and of the residue after all the days of washing, scouring, and drying. About thirty percent, is lost in actual dirt and probably thirty per cent, more in animal oil, so that, though the average weight of a whole fleece, newly sheared, is about five pounds, it is a good one that nets more than two or two and a half.
The old devices for picking or loosing the wool from the mats in which it is left after drying are as simple as they are odd. That in most general use is merely a huge bow, a strong, hardwood pole, seven or eight feet in length, strung with stout gut. This formidable weapon, subdued to purposes of peace, is suspended by its middle from the ceiling, so that the cord just touches the heap of wool. The picker is armed with a bell-shaped mallet, which he plies with periodical staccato upon the bowstring, and by the vibration the wool is whipped loose and thrown on the opposite side, wisp by wisp.
Another invention consists of a solid block, or sometimes a heavy wooden frame, from which protrude upward, in close rows, stiff, perpendicular pins. The native, man, woman, or child, sits on the ground, Turk-fashion, and draws the wool again and again over and between these pins, a process which picks it apart and fits it for the spinning. This method is used only for wool, which is of more than ordinary length. It was particularly in vogue until lately in those parts of Anatolia where the material is prepared for working in the heavy modern rugs. Europeans have now established two mills in Oushak, each of which cards about three thousand pounds of wool a day. They have practically done away with the old methods.
The yarn hand-spun by the shepherds, in the open air, as described, is in great favor with the manufacturers, but the supply is small, since, as we have seen, the herdsmen, using only the selected wool, keep the yarns of their spinning for their own rugs. In a few towns there are shops where many hands are employed, but even in these the machinery is all of the primitive sort. The old-fashioned distaff and spindle are preferred, and the use of a wheel for spinning is as much of a concession as the Oriental will voluntarily make to mechanical progress. Attempts have been made from time to time, by European firms or their Eastern agents, to establish steam mills in connection with their weaving interests at Oushak and in other places. The proposition has always met with a loud protest from the wool-workers of the district, and the government, in paternal regard for its infant industry, has refused to lend a hand.
The yarn, which is made in three grades, light for the weft, medium for the warp and heavy for the piling-though in very fine rugs the light grade is taken for pile - is usually purchased by the firms for which the rugs are being made, and its cost checked up against the master of the looms, to be deducted from the money due on the completion of the work. This refers only to districts where the entire output is controlled by the European and American firms or their native middlemen. In the small villages inland, the native storekeeper, of whom mention has been made, advances the money for wool, or the wool itself, to his less prosperous townsmen.
The use of goat's-hair in rugs is restricted by its wiry nature. It is apt to spin poorly, and packs unpleasantly when much trod upon. To the rugs made by the mountaineers, who employ it most, it lends a certain wild, shaggy appearance, thoroughly in harmony with their strong colors and crude patterns. Of late years, experiments have been made in mixing the goat's-hair with wool, but even thus the traditional obstinacy of the goat is not overcome, and the Kulah and Ak-hissar mohairs have not met with the success which such enterprise and ingenuity merit. The Angora hair, especially, is slippery and unworkable. There grows, however, on the goats raised in the lowlands of Asia Minor, the sand hills of Turkestan, and the highlands of Central Asia, a fine, silky fleece next the skin. It starts in the autumn, and if not cut falls out before spring. Then, during ten days or a fortnight, the herd are subjected to the most thorough combing. With care and attention, perhaps half or three-quarters of a pound of this down can be obtained from each animal. From the best of it Kashmir shawls are made, and its use in rug weaving is illustrated in the finer Tartar fabrics - Tekkes, Yomuds, and Bokhara prayer rugs.
Of the real, straight goat's-hair, which can be utilized in piling rugs, by all means the best is the filik, known in European markets as peloton rouge, and sold in America for camel's-hair. It is of a light chestnut color, and is used without dyeing, to produce brown grounds, as, for example, in the Mosul and Hamadan rugs.
Only on the plateaus of Eastern Persia, Afghanistan and Beluchistan are camels found which produce a hair suitable for rug weaving. They are shaggy beasts, but the undergrowth of their coat forms a sort of fleece, which, however, must be plucked instead of sheared. The processes through which this hair passes, to fit it for the weaving, are similar to those employed in treating wool.
Of silk, little need be said, since the fabrics made of it are not here considered. It is silk the world over. It is produced in vast quantity in many districts of Persia, Central Asia and parts of Asia Minor. In Luristan it is one of the chief exports. In some sections, especially in middle Asia, the mulberry trees upon which the silk worm breeds grow wild in forests of considerable magnitude. Among the products of Samarkand are rugs of raw silk. Trial was made at Oushak of like material for heavy rugs resembling the woolen fabrics in size, design, and colors. It met with small success. The plentitude of silk has led to experiments of this sort in other Asia Minor districts. The latest has been in Caesarea, where, during the last year or two, great numbers of silk rugs have been turned out. They are copied from the Persian and old Ghiordes, or the conceits of European designers are used. The American market is as a result flooded with these copies. They can be detected oftentimes from the fact that the pile inclines toward the top instead of the bottom of the rug, showing that they have been worked from the top to the bottom of the design. In copying, the original is turned, back toward the weaver, to facilitate counting the number of stitches in each color. The pattern rug is turned upside down because, the prayer pattern being prevalent, the apex of the arch furnishes a central point to work from, and the weavers, many of them unskilled, wish to secure this as early as possible in their progress with the fabric. The best silk rugs of Persia, patterned after the renowned fabrics of two or three centuries ago, are wonderful, but, like other light silk rugs, they are meant and chiefly used for hangings, and deservedly command very high prices.