Oriental Rugs Have Always been ‘Green’

Alix Perrachon
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With the explosion of the green movement affecting everything from automobiles to furniture, rug importers and manufacturers are taking a fresh look at their production methods only to discover that their industry has essentially been green all along. Others are developing ways to enhance the green credentials of their handmade rugs in terms of dyeing, washing, and recycling the waste generated during the production process. While significant strides have been made by the machine-made carpet industry towards making it more eco-friendly, carpeting is still mainly produced from non-renewable petroleum products which ultimately account for up to an estimated 5 billion tons of discarded product—up to 1% of U.S. landfills—most of which is non-biodegradable.

The Verde Collection, Design, Ve-06 OAT. Courtesy of Momeni, Inc.

The Verde Collection, Design, Ve-06 OAT. Courtesy of Momeni, Inc.

While nylon can be recycled, the availability of such facilities is still limited. [2]Moreover, from a health standpoint, carpeting would appear to incur a greater incidence of ‘outgassing’ due to their higher chemical components and irritants namely dust and molds. Most offensive from the green standpoint are carpeting’s chemical treatments and synthetic backing. As for handtufted products, they are dismissed by most industry experts from being green despite their wool content because of their latex backing.    

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Vegetable-dyeing Tibetan wool in Nepal. Courtesy of Tamarian Carpets.

In contrast, states Reza Momeni of Momeni, Inc, Carlstadt, NJ: “Oriental and handmade decorative rugs are the greenest products ever made.” As remarks Teddy Sumner of Michaelian & Kolhberg, Summit,NJ, the handmades are generally produced with wool, a renewable fiber, and free from adhesives and petroleum- based products, the latter of which is “the biggest issue in 2008.”

Going back to the basics of handmade rugs, antiques are the most ecological of floor coverings, according to David Basalely of Eliko Oriental Rugs, New York, NY. Indeed, he comments: “They have an almost infinite lifespan as they are used until they’re worn out and still have some life to them…Antique rugs are as green as a handmade product can possibly be.” Their “greenness” is attributed to their being manufactured with ecologically sustainable components, primarily cotton and wool, natural dyes, and with minimal, if any, machinery involved. When questioned about the “greenness” of chemical dyes, including aniline, in antique pieces, Mr. Basalely comments that when used, they were generally applied sparingly particularly when compared to machine-made carpeting and fabrics.

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Trimming a finished rug in Nepal. Courtesy of Tamarian Carpets.

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Dyed wool drying in eastern Turkey. Courtesy of Woven Legends, Inc.

In addition, antique rugs can literally be recycled as Mr. Basalely observed: “Not only are you reusing the rugs but giving them new life.” Case in point: Eliko has developed a line of Turkish natural wool and hemp flatweaves, produced from recycled raw materials from 60- to 80-year-old grain bags. When assessing antique rugs, tribal pieces are generally the purest, he reports. The pioneers of the vegetable-dyed rug renaissance that began in 1980 with the DOBAG experiment in Turkey under the auspices of chemist Dr. Harald Böhmer are at the forefront of the greenrug movement although not by design. George Jevremovic of Woven Legends, Philadelphia, PA, was one such pioneer who started his vegetable-dyed production in western Turkey in 1982 and moved to eastern Turkey in 1985 where he employed thousands including spinners, dyers, and weavers.

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A Folklife carpet woven with handcarded, handspun vegetable-dyed wool in eastern Turkey. Courtesy of Woven Legends, Inc.

In an effort to reverse the commercialization of the production process and recreate the esthetics of antiques, Woven Legends began using hand- or machine-carded handspun wool from eastern Turkey that is hand colored with natural dyes such as indigo, safflower root, and cochineal. “When we started doing these rugs, I was thinking more ‘art’ as opposed to ‘green,’” he comments. According to Mr. Jevremovic, the creation of a green rug depends on respecting the core principles of organic rug making namely handspun wool and natural dyes. However, when a specific look is desired, purism can only go so far. For instance, the wash can range from a neutral soap and water solution to a chlorine- based bleach. “Bleach in itself is not a bad thing,” he adds. “It’s a cleansing agent.

With the renaissance of handmade rug production of the 1980s in India, Pakistan, China, Armenia, Egypt, and Romania, the “greening” of rugs took place long before it was trendy. Indeed, art and green go hand in hand. Comments Mr. Sumner on Michaelian & Kohlberg’s introduction of vegetabledyed rugs from India in 1990: “When I revived natural dyes, I was primarily intent on using dyes native to India and on creating a complexity of color with abrash while paying homage to tradition.” The fact that these rugs happened to be thereby green is an “ancillary” advantage. Today, however, importers are much moreaware of the potential environmental impact of rug making processes. Steve Cibor of Tamarian Carpets, Baltimore, MD, is among those taking steps to production more environmentally friendly in Nepal. For instance, when washing rugs, the discarded water is collected and shipped in trucks and later reused by cement companies for mixing cement for buildings.

Among other interesting recent green initiatives is that of Megerian Brothers Oriental Rugs, Inc., New York, NY, in Armenia where the ecological aspects of production are taken into consideration not only with respect to the rugs themselves but also with the weavers who make them. All components of the rug-making process are local from the natural dyes extracted from roots, flowers, and plants (e.g., pomegranate for the tobacco hue and walnut skin for yellow and brown) to the extra virgin wool free from exposure to toxic materials. Equally important, according to John Megerian, the air at the weaving facilities “is always purified and harsh chemicals and solvents are never used.” Employees are offered milk and yogurt at the end of the day to purify their digestive system of any dust. Meanwhile, new at Michaelian & Kohlberg’s facility in China are adjoining fields whose plants generate all the dyes for their Hamadan Collection.

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Weaving a rug in Armenia. Courtesy of Megerian Brothers Oriental Rugs, Inc., New York, NY.

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Washing a rug in Nepal. Courtesy of Tamarian Carpets

Moreover, in the countries of origin themselves, attitudes are gradually becoming more vigilant about the proper handling of by-products of dye residue to prevent their filtering into the ground. Experts report that even China, notorious for its environmental record, legislation regarding dyeing facilities is becoming more stringent with respect to the use of non-toxic elements and recycling. Experts also comment that the developing countries’ infrastructure, while improving, still needs more work. “It would help if the producing countries took some initiative,” notes Mr. Jevremovic. There is some controversy regarding the “greenness” of the more widely used chrome dyes. From a strictly purist standpoint, the most organic rugs are of undyed natural fibers, such as wool, nettle, and hemp. “However,” remarks Mr. Cibor, “these rugs are popular because of their look rather than their greenness.” While natural dyes are held in the highest esteem, the imperatives of continuity often dictate that they be combined with chrome dyes or that they be made of chrome only. Tamarian’s manufacturers in Nepal have recently converted to Swiss-made metalfree chrome dyes (Clairnet) which do not “out gas” as one walks over the rugs. “Regular chrome dyes have metal substance,” notes Mr. Cibor. “They are not bad but not great.”

Meanwhile, comments Mr. Momeni who has recently launched the handknotted 100% natural- dyed hemp Verde Collection from the “Naturally…Momeni” group of products: “Chrome dyes have been used for generations without any negative health impact. I think the big advantage of their being present in hand-knotted versus in machinemade rugs is that hand-knotted rugs are washed and sundried thereby limiting any negative chemical impact.” Adds another industry observer: “Having chrome dyes doesn’t make them not green.” Still, continues Mr. Cibor: “Research needs to be done on these to evaluate them more precisely.”

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An antique Ferreghan Sarouk handknotted with natural dyes, 4.3×6.5 c. 1900. Courtesy of Eliko Oriental Rugs, Inc.

How aware is the end-buyer of the “greenness” of rugs? Members of the interior design industry – the prime ‘movers and shakers’ of retail sales and increasingly involved in the green building and design movement—see untapped opportunities in the oriental rug industry. “The handmade rug industry could be doing more to educate the public on how rugs are being manufactured,” states interior designer Annette Stelmack of Stelmack & Associates III, Denver, CO, and co-author of Residential Sustainable Interiors. Echoes Judy Swann of Green Interior Consultants, Westport, CT, an ASID interior designer who consults with the design trade on implementing green design: “It is atypical for designers to realize that handwoven rugs are green. This message has not yet reached the public.”

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An example of Eliko’s all-natural wool and hemp kilimcollection handwoven in Turkey with recycled materials from 60- to80-year-old grain bags. Courtesy of Eliko Oriental Rugs, Inc.

Yet, despite her green background, this former Marketing/Business Development Manager at DuPont who was key in developing the company’s textile division’s recycling program in the 1990s, admits that esthetic considerations pre-empt green concerns, i.e., she might opt for a machinemade over a handmade product if esthetically it better suited the project. Like most members of the design trade, she is not yet fully aware of the “greener” attributes of handmade products; clearly, there is a need for the industry to better communicate the green advantages of handmade rugs. Adds Michael Mandapati of Warp & Weft, New York, NY, which primarily services the design community: “If clients don’t like a rug esthetically, they won’t buy it whether it’s deemed green or not.” Still, Ms. Stelmack comments that clients would veer toward green rugs adding: “The education level of designers on the green value of handmade rugs will evolve. However, it is really up to the manufacturers to educate them.”

by Alix Perrachon, Contributing Editor

Recommended reading: Foster, Kari, Stelmack, Annette, and Hindman, Debbie. Sustainable Residential Interiors. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2007.  They note that Oriental and decorative rugs are unparalleled in their ‘green’ properties, when compared to their machinemade counterparts. Indeed, there is “a wider selection of styles and fibers to choose from that fit eco-friendly specifications in area rugs than with wall-to-wall carpet,”

1.Kari, Foster Stelmack, Annette and Hindman, Debbie, Sustainable Residential Interiors (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.), p. 369.

2.Ibid, p. 223. Reprinted from the Fall 2008 of AREA Magazine courtesy of the Oriental Rug Importers Association, Inc.”

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