Profile: A rug craftsman works to preserve Turkey’s ancient masterpieces

Story by Emily Rudisill // Photos by Katie Kriz

ISTANBUL, Turkey – In a city where Turkish rugs are sold on almost every corner, Dinar Hali, Kidir Alan’s carpet and kilim restoration shop, is easy to miss. From the outside, the sublevel space looks less than remarkable. There are no flashy carpets hanging outside to attract tourists wandering through the trendy Sultanahmet area, and no noisy merchant beckoning for passersby to come down.

After removing the old threads, Kadir Alan repairs a section of an antique carpet.

Even on the inside, it doesn’t look like a typical rug shop. Rare and antique carpets hang on the walls as exquisite works of art. Piles of rolled carpets are stacked high in the corner, waiting to be sold to a private collector – not thick-walleted tourists hoping to score a bargain.

On any typical day, Alan sits in the corner sipping çay and working to repair a colorful carpet draped on his lap. He pulls green spun wool through the back of the rug with a hook, closely following the pattern weaved into the rug centuries ago. Again and again, his hands make the same motion, each time adding the tiniest bit more color to what is already a visual masterpiece. With a delicate hand and great care, he puts the thread in place, sure to keep the integrity of the original. He’s methodical and focused and quiet, striking a rhythm that seems more meditation than work.

“I do my job as a hobby or a meditation,” said Alan without looking up. “I have to like it and I have to enjoy it. Then I can help my customers.”

Alan’s clientele consists mainly of international customers who seek him out as an expert of rare and antique rugs. “I have three [types of] customers. Collectors because they trust my taste, dealers because I’m a wholesaler, and private customers who are the users,” said Alan.

Roger Gardiner, a retired librarian from London, Ontario, became interested in oriental rugs after a colleague introduced Gardiner to her own collection. He now owns more than 100 rugs and textiles, several of which he purchased from Alan.

Gardiner met Alan a week after he attended the International Conference on Oriental Rugs in Istanbul. “I was staying at the Hali Hotel near Kadir’s workshop, and as I passed this shop, he popped out and invited me in,” Gardiner said in an e-mail interview. “Having already visited dozens of rug shops in Istanbul, I was somewhat suspicious. However, once down the steps and into his shop, I was immediately converted into an enthusiast.”

Lying on the floor near the front of his shop, Alan had a Yomut Turkemn rug. He had just finished repairing it and, as he often does with customers, challenged Gardiner to find the repair.

Stacks of rare and antique carpets line the walls of Alan's shop.

“I could not. Turkmen rugs tend to be very tightly woven and knotted, far more so than the typical Turkish rug. I thought to myself, ‘if he can do this kind of work on a Turkman rug, he can restore and repair anything.’ After that, I relaxed, while he showed me some of his other rugs and served tea.”

Born in Sultan Hani, a traditional carpet-weaving village located in Anatolia and famous for its Ushak carpets, Alan is a mild-mannered man with thick salt and pepper hair and an inviting smile. “It’s a village where you can find people who repair carpets. It’s a kind of family job,” said Alan. He moved to Istanbul in 1981 when he was 11 to learn the family trade from his brother. “If you want to learn this job and be successful, you need to start at this age,” he said.

Five years later, Alan opened his first shop near the Çemberlitaş neighborhood in Istanbul. In 1997, he moved to his current space and started selling in international markets. He also has a factory with 10 employees located in his hometown where most of the carpets are sent for repairs.

His nephew, Osman Alan has been working with him since 1992. Osman manages the logistics of the shop acting as a second pair of eyes to check for damage or patterns that may help catalogue a piece.

The two men have formed a great relationship over the past decade. “We know each other very well. That’s why when he comes to the shop in the morning I know his mood,” said Osman who looks up to his uncle as both a businessman and a friend. Osman credits Alan for teaching him about business and customer service. “He respect[s] his customer so much,” said Osman. “He is very careful about discipline.”

Rugs have been synonymous with the Turkish region since the 13th century when Marco Polo introduced Anatolian carpets to Europe. The widespread production and sale didn’t begin until the late 19th century when the government recognized their value and began encouraging citizens to open shops, explained Ismail Kaya, owner of Sufi Turkish Fine Arts in the Egyptian Spice Bizarre.

Traditional Turkish carpet art dates back to the early 12th century and continues to draw tourists and collectors to the region to hunt for the perfect rug.

Originally, the carpets were weaved in rural areas and given as gifts to heads of state or those in important political and religious positions. Eventually, weavers began using them in their own homes to insulate the floors from the fluctuating climate of the region.

Alan points out the differences between natural and synthetic dyes.

Each rug is unique and specific to the village and family and use double knot weaving compared to the single knot technique of Persian and Afghan counterparts.

“In the past, in Anatolia, people weaved carpets for themselves,” said Kaya. “They write their history on the kilim by design.” A kilim is a carpet with flat weaving rather than knot weaving.

Today Turkey’s carpet market is declining. Cheaper, machine-made versions of the traditional ones have entered the scene, attracting tourists who are more concerned with price than quality, explained Kaya. “Thirty percent of the carpets are imported from China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India,” he said.

Once a carpet comes into Alan’s possession, either through a dealer or one he finds during his travels, he assesses the condition and begins researching to identify the origins.

The restoration process can take anywhere from 15 days to three months. But often Alan prefers not to make any major repairs. He’s rather show the customers the current condition so they can decide which spots they would like repaired. Collectors tend to favor pre-restoration carpets because it preserves their authenticity.

“Collectors always look for the extraordinary pieces,” explained Alan as he unpacked some of the rare rugs from his own rotating collection.

Imperfections in the rug’s design, asymmetrical patterns and natural died wool are all important components when identifying a rare carpet.

As for making repairs, it’s important to carefully match the color of the wool to the original. “The colors are very important to the value of the carpet,” said Kaya, pointing to a woven pillow. Different styles of carpet use different colors ranging from soft pastels to deep reds and purples.

Alan uses antique wool harvested from old carpets that were beyond repair. “It’s not difficult to restore [a carpet], but it’s difficult to find the correct wool,” said Alan while pointing out sections of rust colored wool he recently restored. If he is unable to find antique wool, women from his village will spin and dye wool to match the project. “We give the ladies a sample and they spin it for us,” he said.

A day after he returned from a business trip to Colon, Germany, Alan rolls out two of his rarest carpets, which he will keep in his collection until he finds a sufficient home. One piece, a two-foot by two-foot square carpet, is still puzzling him.  His face becomes determined as he explains what he’s researched so far. There is evidence it was part of a larger carpet, he said, and the Holbine, the German painter, influenced the design.

Because Alan deals mainly with collectors interested in the rarity of his pieces, his business was not hit quite as hard as others in his trade. He also attributes his success to his honestly, his attention to authenticity, and to his relationship he has with his customers. “My mentality is to be honest and to do business for the future,” he said.

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About carlenehempel

I teach journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, and am leading a team of students abroad to report and write.
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