The art of carpet weaving has been developed for thousands of years, as evidenced by the 2,500-year-old Pazyryk carpet discovered in the frozen caves of Siberia in 1949. The oldest surviving carpet in the world, rumor has it that the deep reds and Persian horsemen depicted on the fabric indicate its Iranian origins, symbolizing the dawn of a craft that the country would become strikingly famous for. Most commonly weaved with wool or silk, Iranian carpets feature historic moments or Islamic buildings, flower, vase, or tree patterns, fish and hunting motifs, or geometric designs.
In 2011, the value of Iran's hand-woven carpet exports reached $560 million, marginally down from the $565 million exported in 2010. With an estimated population of 1.2 million weavers in Iran producing carpets, and 8 million people directly and indirectly employed by the industry, carpet-making has become a massive source of income and an economic driver. On an annual basis, Iran produces approximately 5 million sqm of carpets, 80% of which are sold in international markets.
Today, carpets represent 55% of Iran's total non-oil export output, comprising an industry that was valued at over $600 million in 2011. One company leading the industry is Shafaghi Carpets, established in 1961. Specializing in carpets of 6, 9, or 12 sqm, the company is focused on adding value to its products by considering the unique demands of every customer. “We are studying international trends and fashion to meet the demand and partner with foreign companies. Along with partnerships, we are focusing on marketing," Kazem Shafaghi, Managing Director of Shafaghi Carpets, told TBY. Owing to the fact that an expert workforce crafts all of the company's products using handmade dyes and natural materials, tourists have come from around the globe to observe the preservation of a traditional practice. Shafaghi's customers are both Iranian expatriates living abroad and foreign visitors, many shipping products back home while on holiday in the country. “We supply tourists who come to Iran seeking handmade carpets and mail them to addresses all over the world," Shafaghi explained.
However, there are challenges to maintaining the success of this age-old tradition, especially in light of recent US-led sanctions, which ban the importation of carpets from Iran. Nonetheless, industry experts are confident that international events such as handicraft exhibitions and ongoing trade with Asia and Europe will sustain Iran's carpet export market. According to the Iran National Carpet Centre, many of the carpets purchased from Iran are then resold internationally. This phenomenon is expected to support Iran's carpet weaving as the third most important source of foreign income injected into the country.
In addition, Iranian carpets are facing fierce competition from other countries such as India and China, where many companies are producing either reproductions of the original Iranian designs, cheaper substitutes, or poor imitations.
Noting the importance of promoting original products in the international sphere, Shafaghi Carpets has taken an active role in showcasing carpet work to the world. Tehran hosted the 21st Annual Handmade Carpet Trade Show in September 2012, attracting hundreds of manufacturers and individuals seeking to showcase their expertise. However, events outside the country have proven to be equally alluring for Iranian producers. “In 2012, we expect to participate in an exhibition in Florence to promote our culture and products to Italy and its people," Managing Director Shafaghi told TBY. One of the ways a buyer can verify the legitimacy of an Iranian carpet is by identifying an imperfection. Traditional weavers intentionally leave a telltale sign of craftsmanship, usually resulting in a carpet that is not perfectly square or reveals slight alterations in its weave, unlike most machine-made carpets.
The carpet-making trade has survived tumultuous periods of history and the tradition has been upheld despite the competition of imitation carpets on the market. As local companies seek to raise awareness about the quality, design, and intricacies of their craft and enter new markets, in the words of a timeless Iranian proverb, “little by little, the wool becomes a carpet."