Azam, an Iranian mother of four and a breadwinner, has been weaving carpets for more than four decades. But, as she sits on a piece of wood behind a loom along with other women in a workshop in the central city of Kashan, she fears for the future of the country’s oldest industry and is afraid that she might soon lose her job.
“Although my employer is still paying my salary I see how bad the condition of carpet-making is getting day by day,” she says.
For the past 400 years, Kashan, a city located 250km south of Tehran, has been a hub of hand-woven carpets and built a reputation for its silk carpets.
But carpet traders fear its glory days are numbered as the city has failed to adapt to changes in the tastes of domestic and foreign customers – and to the threat of foreign competition.
“The hand-woven carpet market has become stagnant because it’s no longer economically attractive to both companies and individual weavers,” says Mohammad-Reza Kiani, managing director of the privately owned Kashan Silk Company.
The world has not lost its appetite for Iranian rugs but experts say buyers, especially the young, increasingly prefer tribal rugs from areas such as southern Iran.
“Buyers have become younger these days. They want a carpet to cover their house for two years and then change it for a new one. They prefer to buy a tribal rug that is simple, inexpensive and colourful,” says Mohammad-Ali Didehrowshan, deputy head of the carpet producers’ and exporters’ association in the southern province of Fars.
Iran has not yet lost its position as the world’s leading exporter, supplying more than 30 per cent of global demand for hand-made rugs. Two-thirds of its output is exported to countries including Germany, the Gulf states, the US, Italy, France, Japan, China and Russia.
But the country’s export earnings from carpets have plummeted by more than 80 per cent over the past decade. In the last Iranian year (which ended March 20 2009), they generated only $410m, according to the Iran National Carpet Centre, an affiliate of the ministry of commerce.
In another sign of the dynamics, carpet specialists estimate that the number of carpet weavers has decreased from 2m in 2007 to fewer than 1.2m in 2009. Many have abandoned the industry and joined the service sector or work as agricultural labourers.
“If I could do anything else, I would have definitely left the job because this generates little income and causes diseases like backache,” Azam says, complaining that she can hardly make ends meet on wages of IR35,000 ($3.47) a day.
Carpet traders say many small and medium-sized workshops and modern companies keep working but with difficulty. One manager of a company that dyes threads says it is operating at only 30 per cent of capacity.
The gloomy perspective is reinforced by a perception that Iran is suffering from fierce competition from China, India, Pakistan, Nepal and Turkey.
Businessmen say it is difficult to distinguish a Persian carpet from a fake. “To know whether a carpet is Persian or not, a person should either find a reliable trader or be an expert. There is no other way,” says Akbar Herischian, head of the Iranian Carpet Exporters’ Association.
“Identification tags used to be attached at the back of carpets. But competitors, including China and Pakistan and India in particular, duplicated the IDs like they did Persian carpet designs. Unfortunately, we couldn’t do anything about this. Some have suggested having a brand. The proposal is under study.”
In 2007, Iranian weavers delivered the world’s largest hand-made carpet, the size of a football field, to customers in the United Arab Emirates, which demonstrated the lingering respect for the quality and delicacy of Iran’s rugs. The carpet took 18 months to weave.
“Although Iran has lost its previous place, an Iranian carpet is still an Iranian carpet because of its exquisite quality, no matter how expensive it is,” says Razi Miri, deputy head of the Iranian Carpet Exporters’ Association.
There is little doubt that carpet dealers and businessmen are also paying for the Islamic regime’s confrontational foreign policy.
Iran’s relations with western countries have worsened since Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the firebrand president, took office in 2005. The US is leading a campaign to tighten sanctions in order to thwart a nuclear programme championed by Mr Ahmadi-Nejad.
If the government fails to find a way to stop the declining trend in carpet-weaving, experts warn, it will not take long for the industry to suffer the fate of its conventional textile industry, which has lost market share domestically and internationally.
Meanwhile, Azam is saddened that while she learnt weaving from her parents, her own children do not show any interest in the craft.
And Mr Kiani, the silk company manager in Kashan, warns that matters worsen daily. “If this trend continues, Persian carpets may be seen only in museums in the not too distant future,” he says.
Get alerts on Retail & Consumer industry when a new story is published