This support activity was substantial, Empire-wide and continued
into the Soviet period. The standard reference for Tsarist
times is The Modernization of Folk Art in Russia.
A kustar’ was a crafts person working at home
(typically helped by family members) making items for sale, for peasants,
an important source of income.
Outside intervention came first (1885) in the form of aristocracy
philanthropy, but in due course, after extensive surveys -- 17 volumes
in the report -- revealed the decay of craft quality, the government
began various programs: distribution of materials; training facilities;
art schools (for drawing skills); stores; museums with model examples
as well as sale items; exhibits at local, regional, and international
expositions; and overseas outlets.
Below, photographs of a training studio for instructors soon
to be at work teaching in the provinces, and one of a textile made
in such a studio.
Kustarí program in Caucasia
Some ad hoc carpet surveys within Caucasia had been completed
in the 1880’s for Shusha city and in the North Caucasus;
a carpet exhibition was held in Tiflis in 1888. (Shown is
a poor quality photograph of one of its objects, a Kuba sumak.) Carpets
were on display at the great Paris exposition of 1900, pavilion
entrance photo below.
A Kustar’ Committee with region-wide responsibility
for on the order of 40 crafts was formally established in 1899. Proceedings
of this group’s October, 1901 general convention dealt with
the nub of the carpet problem, via a report by O. I. Shmerling
on “Concerning methods of collecting antique designs of Caucasian kustary production
and concerning the development of local artistic motifs.” The
term antique was used advisedly rather than “old” and
likely means the decades before 1880.
The report called for a comparison of “antique” and “new”
carpets via a “serious study” of designs and colors. The
problem to be overcome was loss of (1) originality, (2) “typicalness”,
(3) “beauty”, (4) “colors”, and finally,
(5) the rapid adoption of European “characteristics and style”
(particularly “garlands of roses”) which were “taking
the place of purely local designs”.
Another concern was that the need was correcting a situation wherein
typical rug designs “well known” for being present “only
in its location” were blended into designs of “other
localities” making it
“impossible” to sort out one rug from another. And
this “mixing together” of elements of various types
had a “harmful effect” on the “integrity” of
the design and beauty of a carpet.
Part of the motivation for reform was a perception that in the
export market knowledgeable individuals wanted only “typical
examples” of carpets from “a given location”. All
in all, the requirement was the assembling of a large collection
of styles and characteristics, “by shape”, ie: format; “dyes”; “and
for localities, designs.” This task was seen as
“difficult”, “very serious”, and “extremely
important”, requiring “thorough” knowledge,
“as soon as possible”. Since no single individual
would have the capacity to do this, particularly with respect to “the
study of typical designs of various locations,” the necessary
step was creation of a central facility. Photography was
the correct approach to documenting designs, a procedure already
underway in the silver and gold crafts.
In sum, the emphasis throughout the report was the importance
of unscrambling the design mélange and determining correct
traditional patterns for the villages. Upshot: “The
meeting approves of this presentation and declares the desirability
of establishing of a central facility (shkol)."
By 1901 the Committee had considerable experience in the field;
the detailed surveys of carpet-making in Kuba district and of the
Kurds in Erivan province would soon be published. (1902--03). Another
conference report discussed the deterioration of color quality
and measures to eliminate bad synthetic dyes, taking considerable
care to stress that any effort to change kustary practices
required agents who knew the local language, and with whom the
women would talk.
The Committee’s 1913 annual report, timed to coincide with
the great All-Russia Kustar’ Exposition (held as
part of the celebration of the tercentennial of Romanov rule) reported
activities since its 1901 decision. The key parts are:
“In view of the importance of the kustar’ craft
industry for the Caucasian population the Kustar’ Committee
decided to gradually introduce a series of measures for its improvement
In the same way the Committee made it a priority to introduce measures
aimed at helping kustar’ weaving….
“The Committee has subsequently expanded its activities,
and at the present time maintains and subsidizes training carpet
and weaving workshops in various districts of the Caucasus, and
does everything in its power to encourage the kustary to
use the old patterns and to make sure that the carpets are made
from yarn dyed in fast colors.
“So that the carpets produced should have artistic merit,
the Committee collects old carpet patterns, reproduces them and
prepares from them working drawings that are then distributed among
Thousands of motifs were captured. A latter day milestone
was activation of a central spinning establishment with attached
dye works. The committee published a slick book of
five designs in 1913. Two are:
A rug club based in New York City recently organized an exhibition
selected from member holdings, some from Caucasia. The wall
label for this section read: “… many towns and villages
became known for producing rugs with specific designs and styles. Russian
authorities set about recording and ‘tidying up’ traditional
carpet designs. The state designs were then redistributed
throughout the villages of the regions, making it difficult to
know if the current design names bear any relation to where particular
rugs were made.”
Nonsense. The facts are exactly the other way around.
The inability to link particular rugs to particular places was
the problem which the “Russian bureaucrats” (not ethnic
Russians) set out to correct by untangling mixed designs and by
reinstituting traditional designs for the right locations. It
did not make a problem; the export market had already done that. Kustar’ support
activity is well documented but lies behind the iron curtain of
the Russian language. Information in English, however, has
been accessible for quite some time, and obscurely (See note 4), for more than 20 years.
A private association is free to say whatever it wishes and its
standards are its business. The show, however, traveled,
and the wall label appears at the open to the public Textile Museum
in Washington. One can not help wondering what its standards
are and what it sees as its responsibilities for the accuracy of
information on its walls.
A comprehensive description of carpet-making in Caucasia is contained
Isaev’s 1932 book (the
base work underlying the Kerimov et al publications begun in the
early 1960’s) which covers both the Imperial and the early
Soviet periods and uses a taxonomy which is based on structure
and geographic area. Its illustrations are taken from a Zakostorg
catalogue (the Soviet export arm) published in Leipzig;
all color plates cite village of origin. There are more than 50
of which 22 appear in Isaev; two are illustrated below. There
can be considerable confidence that the patterns originated in
the Imperial period; so think carpet people in Tblisi and
in Baku: the Zakostorg project “came up with the better designs
of antique carpets.” Whether
as is likely from the prior work or from its own, the outcome --
antique traditional designs -- is the same.
Sorting out the carpets from Caucasia in design terms is tricky. One
hurdle is the frequent assumption of a bogus specificity and a
false exclusivity. Adding
to the problem is the widespread use of the first set of names
available in English (second hand hearsay deriving from Kerimov) with a garbled typology.
World War I and civil war halted carpet-making for at least ten
years. A key question is how effective had been the support
efforts begun in 1901; the answer lies in the kustar’ program
archives in Tblisi which will have a good deal to say about the
specifics of what went on, where, a nice project for the conscientious
student (who has Russian); access help from the Georgian State
Museum can be assumed.
There is indeed a question about central authority activity impact
on local traditions, particularly for the Soviet period. Although
the Caucasus kustar’ committee showed not
a whiff of interest in design innovation, the Soviets radically
altered the system, eliminated its bourgeois elements and imposed
considerable central control; change began.  In Caucasia there were
major departures in some districts, notably the introduction of
very different carpet types (fine yarns, short nap) in Armenia. There
was, however, continuity: one of the early Soviet activities, a
1926 exhibition in Kuba district of its rugs, consisted of traditional
In Caucasia the hallmark of the support program was a return to
correct village-centric traditional designs. Despite marketplace
distortions many designs are correct, particularly for the tightly
woven products from the eastern half of what is now the Republic
of Azerbaijan. While it is unrealistic to assume that the
old support program had great success in confining designs to a
single location, to consider whether a particular rug came from
one village or another in a given weaving zone is pointless. What
matters is an accurate nomenclature based on the most appropriate
village of its origin.
The point concerning the kustar’ program is that
it did not obfuscate but, rather, rescued traditional art.
W., The Modernization of Folk Art in Russia, The
Revival of Kustar’ Art Industries, 1990.
Pervago Svezda Deyatelei, Kustarnoi Promyhshlennosti Kavkaza, Tiflis,
1902, p. 121-22.
text can be found in R. E. Wright Research Report, VI,
No. 3, 1988.
kovry. Albom ispolnitel’nykh risunkov dlya kustarei. Vypusk
I, SPB, 1913 g.
accompanying catalogue used similar language.
Wright and Wertime, Caucasian Carpets and Covers, 1995,
 Isaev, M.
D., Kovrovoe proizvodstvo Zakavkaz’ya, Tiflis,
1932. A copy apparently has languished untranslated for
many years in the HALI office.
one of the export kustar’ sales outlets run by
Zagostorg was located.
D., Opovyshennii tvorcheskoi roli masterisy protsesse izgotovleniya
kover, Iskusstvo votchnikh kovrov, Baku, 1972, p. 272.
N., Kovrovoe iskusstvo Azerbaidzhana, Baku, 1971, p.
neat observation by the late Barry Jacobs.
L., Aezrbaidjanskie kover, 1961.
Ulrich, Caucasian Rugs, 1965.
W. , op. cit, Epilogue.
and Wertime, op. cit., p. 154.