My interest in Afghanistan dates to when, at the age of nine, I discovered Kipling’s Kim and The Man Who Would Be King. I first went to Afghanistan in 1975, not, as did so many dealers in Afghan carpets, on the old hippie trail, or as a member of the Peace Corp., but as a carpet buyer.
[A version of this article was first published in November, 1997 in Volume 19, No. 2 of Rug News Magazine.]
In the 1970’s, I began buying in Afghanistan, strictly for my own retail store, then expanded into a very limited wholesale business, selling Afghan carpets to a few East Coast aficionados. At the end of the ’70’s, the war had escalated sufficiently to render doing business in Afghanistan difficult, unprofitable, and hazardous to one’s health. So I closed out the wholesale end of the business and no longer went to Afghanistan.
Today, in some cases, I am doing business with the grown-up children whom I used to hold in my lap in Kabul.
In the early 1990’s, I concluded that I was no longer suited to the retail end of the Oriental rug business, due to a marked tendency to snarl at dingbats who looked at a rug with 27 top colors in it, then whined about two square inches of one color, which did not match the draperies. I was convinced that rug dealers in the US could be persuaded to purchase Afghan carpets in far greater quantities than they were currently buying, albeit subject to certain conditions.
At that time, carpets from Afghanistan were stiff widely stigmatized as being smelly, dusty, having bad chemical dyes, being uninteresting, not lying flat, etc. I set up a base in Peshawar, city which is the capitol of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, and began to travel in Afghanistan to purchase top-grade carpets. I then sent the goods down to Peshawar for service, and stood over the washers and stretchers as they serviced the rugs. This insured that my goods were high-grade, lay flat, were straight and did not exude the traditional “eau de Afghanistan.”
Because my degree is in textiles, I have always had a keen interest in natural dyes, quality wools and textile design. My admiration of antique Afghan Turkmen carpets led me to begin manufacturing the old designs using merino wool and all vegetal dyes. In many cases, these designs had not been in production for 100 years or more.
I began researching these archaic designs with the intention of benefiting the out-of-work Afghan refugees in the camps of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, and with an eye to the potential profits from creating an entirely new mode of Afghan carpet. Armed with a sheaf of computer-enlarged photos of classic Afghan Turkmen designs, I set out to beard the wily Afghan in his refugee camp lair.
My initial foray can be summarized by a favorite Afghan statement, which, to this day, still sets me screaming. “We don’t do it that way.” The obvious response, “Then, why did you take a contract to do so?” drew a blank look, or a vague comment that, “This is better.” The initial manufacturing was financed by my importation from Afghanistan, and it is fortuitous that I had it to fall back upon, as the cost of developing good carpets, to my specifications, was hideous. Many of the first goods had the market appeal and saleability of a container full of wart hogs in the grip of DT’s. I dumped them on the local Peshawar market, and, with each new lot, continued debugging, re-coloring and threatening to murder my contractors for not following my “nakshas” design rendering and specifications.
Perseverance eventually paid off, and the goods began coming out as I had originally envisioned them. Repeated proselytizing to the Afghans on the financial advantages of making high-quality, unusual carpets began to have an effect. When I began giving them repeat orders, in ever-larger quantities, for the carpets which they had made correctly, the innate Afghan business sense took over. Today, all of my contractors are very proud of the designs, and frequently ask for new ones. I have regular meetings with them each trip, and encourage them to suggest color changes or design and quality improvements.
They still shake their heads over American idiocy in preferring 6 x 9 or 8 x 10 sizes, instead of the all-purpose “6-Meter” (7 x 10) size. They cannot understand why I want to make runner sizes, but they write that off to the fact that Americans are crazy, and do as I ask them to do.
All production of my two lines is done by Afghan weavers in the refugee camps of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province.
From the very beginning, through today, I have set the following production ground rules:
1. No child labor. Although all of my production is woven on one or two looms in individual family homes, all of my contracts state clearly that no one under 15 years of age is to be employed as a weaver.
Because I am a woman, I can inspect not just the carpets, but the weavers.
Because of Islamic religious proscriptions, a man of any nationality will not be able to see the women or speak directly to them about problems or changes. As a woman, I can.
If I find someone working who looks too young, I warn the family. If I see it a second time, I sack them. I have sacked a sufficient number of families by now, that they believe I mean it. I am also willing to pay for a small training loom, so that the mothers can teach their daughters, but I do not permit children to work on my goods.
2. ‘No non-traditional borders, field designs or colors in my Gandhara line. (The Gandhara is so-named because it is the ‘archaic name for Peshawar. These carpets are reproductions of classic 18th and 19th Century Afghan patterns, and I try to keep to the correct designs and colors.
3. Only vegetal dyes maybe used. I use real indigo, madder, isparuk, walnut, pomegranate and the other traditional vegetal dyes used in Afghanistan.
4. Ruthless attention to servicing details. I maintain both a washing facility and a team of stretchers in Peshawar. My Afghan staffers check the goods as they come in from the camps, and again, when they come back from the wash. When I arrive in Pakistan, I check every piece again, and generally send a number of pieces back for further stretching and shearing. Only those goods personally inspected by me are shipped to the U.S.
5. Make the goods in American sizes. In many ways, this was the biggest hurdle of them all. Iwould order 6 x 9 and 8 x 10 sizes and the weavers would make 7 x 10 sizes. I showed them the sizes on tape measures, both in feet and inches and in meters and centimeters, all to no avail.
Finally, I had the happy inspiration of attaching two pieces of string to each naksha—one the length and the other the width of the carpet. I had the weavers tack them to the loom, before they warped the loom, so that they could see the exact size required for the finished carpet.
Refugee Camp Production
I launched the “Vintage” production at the Khorassan Camp approximately two years ago. (Some of this production is also woven in Attock.)
Again, I researched interesting designs, this time, Persian. They are not just the Herizes and Serapis that everybody makes. The line include Kurdish, Bidjar, Hamadan, Sarah, Sultanabad, Turkish Oushak, and other less-produced patterns, as well as more obscure Heriz and Bakshayeesh designs.
Khorassan Camp is the oldest of the Afghan refugee camps. The village elders came down from Afghanistan nearly 20 years ago, negotiated the land lease, and began to build the camp. When it neared completion, they brought their families from Afghanistan to Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province. Visiting Khorassan camp is exactly like being in Afghanistan, except that ,they no longer play buz kashi there, as they used to do. Buz kashi is the Afghani national sport. Played on horseback, it is akin to polo, but a goat carcass is used instead of a ball. Many of the Khorassan Camp refugees were carpet weavers in the north, so the quality of their weaving is high. The weavers in Khorassan Camp, particularly, are experienced and very good at their work, and are able to adapt a design to a particular weave very well.
My chief contractor there is also an excellent vegetal dyer and he and his brothers, cousins and uncles do all the dyeing for the Khorassan production. The Gandhara “rules” apply to the vintage line as well.
As Khorassan Camp is located close to Peshawar, loom inspections are very convenient for me. I am trying to persuade one of the Peshawar-based NGOs to fund a school in Khorassan Camp, as they have not had a school or teacher there for several years.
The production in Attock is a bit farther flung, ranging from looms in Campbellpur to others in Haripur, but is virtually identical to that of Khorassan Camp.
Life in Pakistan
I currently spend approximately five months per year in Pakistan. I know that I am spending too much time in Peshawar, but cannot do anything about it, as problems arise every time I am gone too long.
Because living out of a suitcase for five months a year had become untenable, I finally broke down and hired a house. In terms of basic comfort, this makes a considerable difference to my life.
Now that I can cook for myself, I rarely get food-poisoning anymore, and it is convenient to be able to keep my Pakistani working wardrobe over there. I work in shulwar/kameez, the national costume of tunic and baggy pants. I only wear western clothes when I am going to the American Club.
I do not have a local loom inspector, or a manager, for my production. One family, a father and his four sons, are the straw bosses for both the Afghan designs and the overall production. They also store all the goods for me in between trips. Each contractor reports to them, and they report to me, generally via fax. A cousin of the same family is in charge of all the stretching. This family does the initial inspections. Unfortunately, they often cut the contractors considerably more slack than I do, so there are usually evil scenes when I start doing the final inspections.
I do not regret phasing out the retail operation at all. The wholesale business is much more enjoyable, although it certainly has its challenges. Carpet production is maddening. Half the time, I want to murder the Afghans. My accounts receivable drive me insane. I cannot list a single reason why I like Peshawar, Afghanistan, the Afghans or being a carpet importer, but I do. I suppose I have a perverse taste for travel in countries where you meet interesting people who shoot at you.
Mason Purcell is president of Purcell Oriental Rug Co. Ltd. For seven months of the year, in her American incarnation, she is based in Charlottesville, Va.
A version of this article was first published in November, 1997 in Volume 19, No. 2 of Rug News Magazine.
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Ms. Purcell passed away in 2011. The following is an excerpt from her obituary:
Mason Purcell of Kents Store, Virgina, died on Sunday, February 27, 2011, of cancer at her home.
She was born in Richmond, Virginia and graduated from Richmond Professional Institute with a BFA degree in hand weaving and textile design. In 1974, she and her husband, John Bolling Purcell founded Purcell Oriental Rug Company in Charlottesville. She was actively engaged in the design, production, importation and sale of the oriental rugs until forced to retire in 2005 due to illness.