THE CARPET STORY, A HANDWOVEN JOURNEY
“Riiii-zaw…Riiii-zaw” I kept repeating to a local, now creating a buzz in one corner of a small remote airport in the heart of Communist China. But nobody could understand me. Here I was, traveling alone, all in an effort to find the perfect handmade carpet or better still, the best carpet manufacturer in Asia. A self-imposed quest you could say, that’s how crazy or perfectionist (?) I am.
By now I was feeling uneasy, afraid to attract the attention of Immigration police. Just minutes ago, I have been detained for a few minutes, meticulously interrogated by the officer on my purpose of visit. I showed them my whole list of itinerary and some official letters of invitation, hopping from remote towns to cities and ending the journey in Weihei and then Shehnzhen, the more modern ones just across the bridge from Hongkong.
A small crowd was now forming around me, definitely curious what a lone tourist was doing in that part of the country. This was the last airport I could fly to before I reach my destination, which was still a 4 hour drive away, or so I thought. I was definitely alone, helpless and no translation dictionary in tow. Finally an old man vending a store nearby came over and handed me a worn-out hand tissue and pen. Indicated I write where I wanted to go. I wrote down Rhizhao and he corrected my pronunciation, slowly reading it as “iii-jaw”. Then he wrote down the same word in Chinese character to show the cab driver, summoning me to a queue of dilapidated cars just around the corner.
I boarded one of the cars, showed the driver the tissue with the town destination and hotel name written in Cantonese. With just a nod and hand gestures I surmised he understood everything. It was true, I was earlier warned in Dubai that not many people would be speaking English, but I didn’t foresee it would be this challenging.
We drove for about 30 minutes, almost nearing dusk. The scenery outside wasn’t much, just an empty horizon of agricultural fields. Then we came to a stop in a crowded parking lot, full of the same dilapidated cars. I was summoned to transfer to another car, the driver speaking to me in a very quick Chinese cadence. Another man came to get my luggage and by that time the rhythmic thump of my heartbeat was accelerating, I felt I was in a scene of a James Bond movie nearing the action climax. I didn’t understand what was going on.
The new driver told me to get in the car, signaling his wristwatch that time was of the essence. Then he pointed a kilometer away that looked like a border gate full of military personnel. So we drove silently, slowly nearing the gate, I was prepared with my passport and documents, rehearsing the same spiel I told immigration. Luckily, the border security was satisfied with just a peek inside the car and a brief talk with the driver. Whew!
It was still a long drive away. Did I trust the driver? Did I trust the country? I didn’t have much choice but to leave it to faith. It was all barren land outside, streets were deserted both sides. The rows of similar-looking tall old buildings were long gone, indicating that we were far away from the town proper. I tried looking at the street signs, hoping for an English translation of city names, but I realized I was indeed in a country so alien to me, rules and language-wise. The trip was quiet except for a minute-to-minute update of a Chinese-speaking GPS. By then it was nighttime, I was more than alert. Finally we arrived at the hotel, I was met by my host and treated to a sumptuous dinner. A quick note to those who have not learned to use chopsticks, bring a fork with you as there are none anywhere. In the morning I woke up to the sound of 3 canyon blasts. Startled, I checked outside my window, only to find out it was an everyday call to start a normal working day in China. All was well.
Surprisingly, Communist China was a very welcoming place, even in the remote villages where language was realistically a barrier to any tourist. I found out that the whole country is also the safest, even transiting alone from town to town like I did. Currently the largest exporter of textile worldwide, China now leads the global rank valued at approximately US$106 billion in 2016.
From China, I visited more factories in other Asian countries, including India, currently the world’s largest producer and exporter of handmade carpet to 73 countries (US being the largest importer). Exports of handmade carpets and other flooring coverings from India stood at US$558.14 million in April-July 2017.
"The relationship between the designer and specifier should be of utmost transparency and honesty."
What Designers Should Know
In my 10 years of work as a Specifier, and accumulating thousands of air miles inspecting the technical process behind the specifications we put on our project data sheets, it is important to know the small details, on this blog referring to handmade carpets.
I-Manufacturer Profile: Facilities, Quick Response, In-House Design Team, Expertise, Production Capability, 3rd Party Testing Documents
All of the above, are the requirements we should look for when we meet manufacturer representatives or specifiers. Our projects in the Middle East follow a rigid process and strict product approvals. The standard is world-class, it is therefore right to demand the same from the products we specify.
There have been a lot of manufacturers who fall short, but nobody would know from our air-conditioned offices, not unless we inspect the facilities. How big is the facility, will their in-house designers understand the complicated design intent of the interior designer, will they have the capability to manufacture a one-piece 1,000kg of handmade carpet?
What is their production output capability? Do they have the correct process of antimicrobial and safety finish on the yarns, do they have a strict QA compliance? Are they issuing legitimate 3rd party testing certifications? Is the company financially-established to follow through with the warranty for 5 year claims? What are the project references in the region? Do they manufacture for international brands?
Wool is a primary yarn for hand tufted carpets. It is important to note that wool is the sheep’s and other animals’ hair, graded and cured for several end products. The type of sheep wool used in carpet production and its grade classification differ from the sheep’s type and origin. Years ago, British wool has always been the top grade wool type. Its supply is an industry itself, with the British Wool Marketing Board as the only organization in the world that collects, grades, sells and promotes wool, representing more than 60,000 producers with annual fleece wool clip of approximately 38 million kilos. A counterpart has been established to represent the international wool industry, the International Wool Textile Organization, annually meeting up to set current rules, including issues on animal welfare and sustainability. The finest wool in the world has been recorded to be from the Merino sheep in Australia and New Zealand, used to be an exclusive preserve of Europe’s royal families.
Different sheep breeds have different wool hair. For British wool, 75% are utilized for carpet production, 10% knitwear, 5% cloth, 5% bedding, 1% hand knitting, and 4% other uses. Other countries have their own sheep breeds and wool type as well. Australia outranks all other wool-producing countries exporting 25% of the world’s wool requirement. China ranks second, then US and New Zealand.
For project purposes, we always see hand tufted carpet as a project specification. From the designer’s drawing board, the specification starts off as a 100% British or New Zealand wool. The quality is superb but so is the price. As a designer however, the possibilities for color and texture are limitless. The yarn being whitish in color in its raw form, pastel dyes can be used. Sometimes, the specification digresses as the budget limit is imposed. It is acceptable for as long as the designer is informed and the design color is not compromised. Chinese wool is a bit off-white and Indian wool almost hemp-brown. If this is preferred, then the specification should be altered to such wool type or labeled "blended".
Other yarns have also been used in carpet hand tufting, producing various effects and texture. For a lustrous effect, silk has been used as highlights in the design pattern and wool still the primary yarn. Though, for a high-end requirement, a 100% silk carpet can also be manufactured. Bamboo and viscose have also been used as alternatives for a lesser budget. It should be noted that color dyes on these different yarns produce differing outcomes.
Hand tufted carpet production involves a creative process, beset by century-old skills and handiwork, giving it a full meaning of the term “handmade”. The wool yarn is carefully selected, carded and spooled. It undergoes a chemical process of washing, dyeing and moth-proofing before the actual tufting commences. Simultaneously, traditional canvas cloth backing material is prepared, the pattern and color coding individually marked. I tried tufting once, twice, thrice in different factories, and the result was always the same: FAILED. The tufting gun was heavy, the skill required years of practice, the precision and speed only time could develop.
A 3-dimensional effect can be achieved by utilizing the different construction methods such as cut and loop, engraved or multi-level shearing. Different colored yarns can also be spooled together to produce a stippled effect.
No matter how beautiful the carpet product is, if the installers are not skilled and certified, the result is a disaster. For wall-to-wall installation, insist on a top-grade underlayment as this should last as long and be warrantied the same as the carpet.
And the rest falls on the Specifier. He/She should be a semi-clone of the designer, fully understanding the requirement, the designer’s vision and intent, the effect of color and texture. There must be a complete knowledge of manufacturing process as he will be the sole translator to the factory. With the designer, a comprehensive technical specification sheet will be composed.
The relationship between the designer and specifier should be of utmost transparency and honesty. This refers to budget and delivery. If the project’s budget is limited, there are ways to tweak the specification like yarn alternatives or density construction to suit the product application, will it be an area rug in an office lobby or will it be installed in a heavy traffic area in a mall corridor or hotel public area.
Delivery has always been the bane of most projects. It is important that the specifier initially probes all the right questions on project lead time so he can inform both designer and contractor on required time frame for this material, to include factory production queue, manufacturing time, sun-drying of latexed canvas (which is dependent on existing weather condition), shipping schedule, clearing/delivery/installation period.
The specifier should know he is not a mere product salesman. There is a greater responsibility of taking ownership of the project. Handmade carpet can just be a minute specification in the project entirety, but try testing this on the contractor and miss the shipment. All hell will break loose if you delay the handover. The specifier should deliver the product from designer’s vision to installation. There must be an impeccable attention to detail and schedule, most importantly a post-installation service. This will involve a brief seminar with the end-user’s facilities team on recommended cleaning procedure.
And once the project is handed over and the hotel opens, try sitting down in the lobby with a pina colada and admire your handmade carpet. The feeling of fulfillment might surpass that of the owner's.
Meanwhile in India…rushing through the crowded streets of Varanasi on my way to the airport back to Delhi, I told the driver in-between gasps, “I would spare myself a heart attack if I don’t look out the window,” referring to his daredevil driving maneuvers. He politely told me in heavy accent and exaggerated hand movements “Maaa’aaame, you arrre in India. You should ONLY have 3 things, 3 things: good horn, good brakes, and good luck!”