'A carpet is like a good piece of music'

Feature Tariq Mirza says that every time you look at a carpet there should be something new happening to you. Every project by this master craftsman is individually researched, custom-made and lovingly woven.

Tariq Mirza custom-makes carpets using natural dyeing techniques.
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When the curators of Historic Royal Palaces in London needed a carpet, they contacted Tariq Mirza. The charity that cares for Britain's unoccupied royal palaces needed to decorate King Edward I's bedroom with a Spanish carpet from the 13th century. The problem was that the technique for making this sort of carpet died out hundreds of years ago. This was part of the appeal for the man who calls himself a "medieval craftsman". "The more challenging, the more difficult, the more research involved, the more I love it."

That carpet now lies in the Tower of London, but few people know its story. One cannot tell by looking at it that it took six months of painstaking labour by Mirza and his master weavers in the Pakistani city of Lahore to complete it. "We could have made a Spanish design carpet in any weave. When it is on the floor, you would not be able to tell. It is only close examination that shows this." But that would not have been good enough for Mirza. The project turned out to be more complex than even he anticipated. "The museum wanted a Spanish weave carpet, which was current in the 13th century. They wanted it technically woven in that way. That weave has been dead for ages." To meet the demanding specifications, Mirza first began with research. He contacted museum curators and anyone with a Spanish carpet from that era to rediscover the lost art of their making. Using their analysis, his own guesswork and several high resolution photographs of the weave pattern, he began to reverse-engineer the carpet.

But after three months of research and design work, he was still unable to replicate the unique weave. "It just wouldn't work!" Whatever documentation was available on this particular method of carpet weaving was incomplete or insufficient. "We had to resort to trial and error." In the end, the carpet was delivered to the palace a mere hour before the ribbon-cutting ceremony. "I was going up the wall," he says. "The clients had no idea what was technically involved. They wanted a large carpet, which was structurally and historically authentic for that period, not a commercial product."

Mirza convinced the client to take a smaller carpet, but even then he struggled to meet the deadline. "It took a while to get the technique right. In every craft, if it is done by hand, there are certain things that somehow get missed in the recording, or it is impossible to tell when the thing is finished." To him, a craft is not something one can learn by reading a book. It must be taught by another master of the craft. Mirza compares the intricacies of carpet weaving with the difficulties in cooking: a recipe can only tell you so much. While he was a student in England, he attempted to cook fried sheep's liver, a dish he remembered from his childhood. He knew the ingredients and the cooking time, but the liver he made was as hard as a rock, not melt-in-the-mouth tender like his mother used to make. The problem lay in a crucial missed step, washing the liver before it was cut, not after. "Books and recordings can't convey everything."

While Mirza's speciality is Iranian and Mughal darbari (court) carpets, he takes great pride in noting that when historic royal palaces needed an authentic Spanish weave carpet from the 13th century, "they didn't go to Spain, they went to me". Few people outside carpet enthusiasts and museum curators know of Mirza or his work. From his modest home on the outskirts of Lahore, he and his weavers are keeping alive a dying tradition, making custom-made carpets for largely private collectors. While most of his fellow carpet makers have embraced modern technology and techniques to mass-produce Oriental carpets, Mirza makes them in much the same way they have been made for centuries. This is what differentiates him from the modern carpet-weaving industry.

He is engaged in a pitched battle with machines. "For me, carpet-making is a medieval craft. It is a pre-Industrial Age craft. "When it becomes an industry it is open to corruption. In industry, the end is profit. In a craft, the livelihood is important, but the end is the craft. You practise the craft as it ought to be practised. You do not make a profit at the expense of the craft." He blames much of what is wrong today on industrialisation. "In making things, whatever product you make, there are ways to reduce costs that are not easily detected, or that are invisible in the product, that will show themselves in 10, 15, 20, 30 years."

In his experience, this drive to cut corners for the sake of profit has greater implications than simply the quality of the final product. "There is a lot of money to be made in carpets. There are many people's children getting a college education because money can be made by selling carpets made by children. "I've seen it become, in Pakistan, an industry. It is not that Pakistanis are corrupt, or that those people who protest against child labour are good. It's not that. [A carpet] is a medieval hand-crafted thing. The moment you make it into an industry, there will be exploitation. It has to be handmade entirely, and when it has to be handmade, the maker will be exploited by the investor, because he wants to reduce costs. The only way he can reduce costs is to pay the weaver less. As a result, you get child labour, women weavers, illiterate weavers."

He blames this partly on economic pressures. For Pakistani carpet-makers to compete with India's and China's armies of cheap labour, local companies are forced not only to match but also beat the prices offered by foreign competitors. "If India is selling at US$8 [Dh30], your selling at $8 is not good enough. Soon enough you're getting into poorer labour, you're getting into illiterate labour. "This is not an excuse. These people have a duty not to exploit labour, but this is why they do it. One way to overcome this is for buyers to put pressure on these manufacturers not to do this."

Before carpets needed to be mass-produced to fill the demand for them, being a master-craftsman was a badge of honour. "When I was a child, the weaver would come in. He may be illiterate, but he's been weaving for 30 years and the people would stand up and offer the Ustadji (teacher) a seat. If you asked him to cut costs, he would put his foot down and say it is not done." Mirza believes the necessities associated with running a successful industrial enterprise run contrary to the worth of a handmade item. For example, treating a carpet with acid will give it an instant antique look, but drastically shorten its lifespan. Still, doing so both increases the appeal to buyers, thus ensuring that a carpet manufacturer does not lose precious future clientele. "I think this is disrespectful to the man who sat down and wove it. You ruined his labours to give the carpet a higher dollar value. It is handmade; there is a part of the maker's soul in it. You live in that thing. You don't go and ruin it just to make $50 [Dh185] more."

The rest of the world has embraced industrialisation and mechanisation, but Mirza clings to the methods of the past. At times, this makes business difficult. "Sometimes I get customers who ask what is special about my carpets. So I give them a list and say that your great-grandchildren will use it, and they say, 'What do I care about my great-grandchildren using it?' OK, sorry! "People who are not into carpets can be forgiven for not knowing what is involved when they are made properly. What we try to do is produce a carpet as a craft, which means that I have to find people who understand carpets to buy them. Otherwise, a person not familiar with carpets cannot tell the difference between one that is made commercially and one that is not. The more you explain the differences, the more they will think it is a sales pitch. Therefore, I only do custom-made carpets. So my work is for people who know carpets and are looking for someone who knows how to make them."

There may be money in carpets, but not a terrible amount to be made in the historically correct and meticulous ones Mirza makes. His carpet prices start at around $1,600 (Dh5,875) but can be more depending on the size and what goes into it. "Like anything in the world, commerce wins out. Survival is tough. I have held on, but it can be difficult." While this is a labour of love for Mirza, he did not always want to weave carpets. Born in Pakistan, he moved to London, where he was originally a young student of sculpture under Anthony Caro, the famed British sculptor, at the St Martin's School of Art in the early 1960s.

While at St Martin's, the Tate Gallery obtained one of Matisse's famous gouaches découpées. Newspapers were filled with praise and celebration of the acquisition, and the gallery portrayed the work in its entrance lobby. After two weeks of non-stop coverage, it transpired that the work wasn't by Matisse. It was a fake by an anonymous artist. The silence that followed was deafening and, to a young Mirza, inexplicable. "Now I was a kid, shall we say emotional, immature. I couldn't understand. I went to [the critics] and said, 'Listen, Matisse didn't do it, but all the praise you were lavishing on that painting was due to something you saw in the painting. Yes, it is derivative, but if the painting does what it did to you at that time, then it is still a worthwhile piece of art.'

"They said, 'You don't understand.' No one wanted to talk to me. I was just left with the feeling that these people didn't know what they were talking about. I decided then that I would make utility items that would not pretend to be art." Mirza left London for Iran in 1966 where he learnt the family business: weaving. This was a natural shift for a young man disillusioned by the world of high art. "I would not pretend and talk highfalutin' about art. No talk, it is just a carpet. You like it? Good. If you don't like it, it is not good enough - no hyperbole."

Despite Mirza's assertion that his carpets are to be used, they are beautiful. Hanging from the wall of his living room is a carpet depicting pastoral scenes from Iran. It is a reproduction of a style of Iranian carpet called The Four Seasons done in the Tabriz weave, his personal speciality. He acknowledges that the purpose of his craft is more than to produce a pretty carpet to walk on. "What is a good prayer rug? The moment you spread it out you almost experience the emotion you should feel after you have said your prayers: you forget yourself, your ego, your pride. If the carpet can do that to you, even a little bit, then it is a successful prayer carpet.

"When well done, [a carpet] is like a piece of good music. It should play on you and should give you a feeling of satisfaction. Every time you look, there is something new happening to you as you look at it." Only a craftsman can achieve this. "You see, anything that is aesthetic, for it to be able to provoke and talk to you for a long time, for 20 years, it cannot if I haven't put in six months into the designing. If I put in two days, it will talk to you for two months. There has to be an investment of time, except in the case of genius, but then the genius put in work beforehand."

Unfortunately, Mirza is a dying breed. Few people today possess his meticulous devotion to the past, his encyclopaedic knowledge and love of the scholarly side of his craft. "After I am gone there may be no one to do what I do."

Tariq Mirza is the owner of Mannam Carpets. Pictures and information on how to order his carpets can be found on his website: www.mannamcarpets.com