Magazine article International Trade Forum

Trade in Tokens of Heritage: Traditional Carpets and Kilims

Magazine article International Trade Forum

Trade in Tokens of Heritage: Traditional Carpets and Kilims

Article excerpt

Producers and exporters of traditional carpets and kilims need new marketing approaches to meet today's challenges: an increase in machine-made carpets that imitate Oriental rugs and kilims; growing consumer interest in environmentally friendly products; and consumer concern about child labour.

Repositioning carpets as "tokens of heritage", joining industry forces to educate consumers, using the Internet effectively and making the right contacts are among the ways producers and exporters can stay competitive. ITC is working with several international organizations to give greater identity to hand-made carpets in trade statistics. This change would give policy makers more accurate data for trade development planning. Maria-Mercedes Sala, ITC Market Development Officer for artisanal products, reports.

Millennia of tradition are behind the hand-made carpets and kilims of today.

Carpet knotting is thought to have started some 3,500 years ago in Central Asia, a crossroads for many civilizations. In making tents to protect themselves against rigorous weather, migrating tribes used goat hair. This material - longer and stiffer than sheep's wool - led tent makers to develop the flat-weave technique, so that the fabric was smooth and tightly woven. The result yielded virtually waterproof tents. The technique was then applied to create floor coverings to insulate the tent's earthen ground from humidity: the first kilims were born.

Over time, the art of weaving evolved and kilims were used to serve other practical needs: as room dividers in tents, blankets, prayer rugs, saddle bags and even as rocking cradles. In an attempt to improve tent beds made from stacks of leaves and to fold and carry sleeping mats on horseback easily, nomads started imitating animal pelts by adding pile to basic flat-woven articles: the first knotted pile carpets thus appeared.

The oldest surviving pile carpet - discovered in 1947 in the Altai mountains of Siberia and now exhibited at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg - has been carbon-dated to have been from the fifth century B.C.

From ancient times to today's markets

Since then, hand-made carpets and kilims have found their place, from modest dwellings to rich homes and palaces. Variety in design and craftsmanship reflects traditions handed down from one generation to the next. In parallel with this production activity, trade in carpets has always flourished. Nowadays, carpet-making accounts for the highest percentage of all craft exports in a great number of developing countries.

Major suppliers

In 1997, world imports of carpets and kilims totalled nearly US$ 2 billion. The single most important supplier of carpets and kilims was the Islamic Republic of Iran (24.7%), followed by India (21.3%), China (13.9%), Nepal (8.4%), Pakistan (8.3 %) and Turkey (7.1 %).

Major consumer markets

The European Union is the leading import market. Its population of 370 million bought over 63% of the total value of world imports for these products in 1997. Within the European Union, the major consumers were Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. Together, they accounted for more than 45 % of the total value imported in 1997.

Far behind Europe, with a 19.5 % share of the total value of total imports in 1997, North America was the second largest market, followed by Asia and the Pacific.

Statistics for 1995-1997 show a sharp decline in trade in traditional carpets. Among the causes for this decline are competition from mass-produced, lower-priced carpets and a decline in European home construction. Consumption for durable household goods, however, is expected to increase soon.

Statistics on trade in carpets must be interpreted with care, as they include both machine-made and traditional carpets (see box below).

Eclectic consumer tastes

Loose floor rugs are rising in popularity again, as wooden and tile floors in homes have been an increasingly-used alternative to wall-to-wall carpets in recent years. …

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