Coded knot sequences, called a talim, on a hand-built carpet loom

A Farewell to Carpets

It takes a community to build a carpet in Kashmir. Over as long as a decade, a carpet will move from family to family, each one an expert in their task. It starts with the silk suppliers, dyers and spinners, and moves to the weaver for several years. Once the weaver is finished, it goes to the washers, trimmers and binders. A very select few end up at A Silk Addiction.

Mohamed Kokroo can’t say exactly how old he is. His beard is mostly grey and his hands are dark and rugged. Deep lines run from just outside his nose and skirt around the corners of his mouth. His sparkling brown eyes settle softly into a spider’s web of lines that deepen when he smiles. He smiles easily and bows as he grasps my hand in welcome. It’s hot today, but a thick wool sweater hangs on his thin, springy frame, zipped to his chin.

He might be seventy, but he moves fast, like a six year old, like he’s late for something, but happy to be right where he is. More than anything, he strikes me as supremely kind.

Mohamed

Bilal translates talk of the weather and tells me that this year Mohamed will retire from a lifetime spent in front of a loom tying knots in his workshop. For the last eight years, he and his son, a master carpet weaver in his own right, have taken the finest part of each day to weave two identical carpets, the culminating work of their careers.

For the first few fresh hours of each morning, they would sit side by side, one singing out the patterns coded into the talim, the other calling back a confirmation and simultaneously securing tiny silk colors onto the silk warp stretched vertically in front of them. A breath, followed by the next note in the song, and again, 40 times more to cover just a single linear inch.

Once the row is finished, they lay in a locking thread and hammer it tight with a special comb to hold the knots in place. Repairing any mistakes they might have made in the previous row is no longer feasible, so they have to get each knot right the first time. It’s meticulous work that demands focus and attention. As the best light of the day fades, they turn their meditations to the more conventional carpets that form the bread and butter of their individual practice.

As we chat over tea and dry almond cookies, it becomes clear that Mohamed is in fact late for a nephew’s wedding. It’s one of many this season and he’s anxious to start the day-long trip to celebrate. But before he goes, he wants to show me the carpets that he hopes will allow him to fulfill a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca, and therefore, be granted access into heaven when he passes on to the next world.

Two boys in slim jeans and new mustaches hold a rolled carpet in front of them at shoulder level and, at Mohamed’s signal, unfurl it with a snap, smacking the ground as the carpet unrolls towards me. The dramatic emphasis is well-played — what I see is breathtaking.

I’ve probably looked at 500 carpets in the last 4 weeks as I meandered across the subcontinent. I’m not necessarily in the market to buy any, but it’s a pleasant way to be entertained, sipping tea in the shade, socializing and privately narrating the relative merits of each proposal. Typically, I might mentally jarring or ill-fitted colors, an attractive but mundane pattern, coarse handiwork or some other flaw in the design or workmanship.

Once in a while, a carpet may inspire an initial flush of excitement — fine materials, well-chosen colors or an unusual but still attractive design. No flaws, however, is different from true artfulness and it’s a rare carpet that holds up to more than an hour of familiarity.

In this case, what I see is exquisitely balanced, beautifully colored and incredibly detailed. Each square inch contains 1,600 hand-tied knots. The surface of the carpet shimmers as I circle it, dark from one side, the light swallowed up by the dense pile, and luminescent from the other, where the light strikes the side of the silk fiber and is reflected back at me. The pattern on the front is perfectly translated to the back, the knots even and flawless.

The audience watches me silently as I scan the work, inching along on my hands and knees, sweeping my fingertips over each section searching for imperfections or variations. Composed of over four million silk knots tied onto a foundation of silk warp and weft, each carpet feels alive under my hand, like a flat, dense, sleeping cat.

Clearly, retirement agrees with Mohamed. His nephew (most of the men in the room seem to be related to him in one way or another) tells me that he’s been traveling from one wedding to another, chatting and visiting and catching up on all the socializing that he’s had to put off for most of his life. Soon, he wishes me well and with a touch of his forehead, he’s off.

A few days later, we seal the deal over tea. Mohamed pleads with us to stay for lunch and hops up several times to consult with his wife, hidden away in the kitchen. At one point, I see him staring at the pair of carpets resting rolled up in the corner.

“Are you sad to see them go?”

After a heartbeat or two, he breaks his gaze, turns away with a smile and waves his hands dismissively at the twins. “Agh, those two have caused enough pain for a lifetime. Good riddance.”

I’m not entirely convinced.

The long vertical threads form the warp of the carpet. The weaver pulls a pair of threads and ties the colored knot around them to form the pile of the carpet.
A book of talim. Each page from the talim encodes about 20 rows of the carpet, specifying which colored knots go where.
A Kokroo workshop, open to the elements.
Mohamed Kokroo’s son.

P.S. Mohamed Kokroo completed his pilgrimage, or haj, to Mecca in the fall of 2011 and is back in Kashmir enjoying his retirement. In case you happen to meet him one day, the proper way to address him now would be Haji Mohamed, meaning Mohamed, who has visited Mecca.


Originally published at www.asilkaddiction.com.

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