Jenkins was an early member of the Haji Baba Club of New York, one of the few rug clubs. The test for new members was to buy a rug for less than it was worth.
Although Jenkins bought in the West, he learned early the art of bargaining as practiced in the East: never raise your voice; maintain infinite patience; watch, listen and wait; and remember that the eyes are the mirror of the soul and have been known to divulge your desires. (Dark glasses are worn by business men of the East who understand the art of sophisticated bargaining).
Only in the last 20 years have tribal rugs been exhibited. The current exhibit of 19th- and 20th-century Persian, Turkish and Caucasian flat weaves and Persian knotted-pile horse covers at the Textile Museum celebrates the farsighted collecting of Arthur Jenkins. The exhibit continues through Nov. 28 at the museum, 2320 S St. NW.
Flat-weave rugs, distinguished by their lack of pile, are often called dhurries or kilims. They are handwoven on a loom with the colored weft threads woven back and forth through the warp threads.
Although not all geographic areas are represented, Jenkins has made one of the finest private collections of its kind in the United States. The exhibit comes to the Textile Museum because Jenkins, who lives inMascoutah, Ill., was an old friend of George Hewit Myers, founder of the Textile Museum.
As a child Jenkins first noticed rugs uncharacteristically hung on the wall of a friend's house. They made an impression he never forgot and years later he revived that memory. Using his own judgment (there was nowhere to go for advice) and with the courage of his convictions, he started his collection, determined to buy the finest pieces he could find.
He studied all the few books on the subject, and later gave them to the Textile Museum. In the 1960s he gave the first flat-weave rugs ever donated to that institution. Because the makers and the merchants considered the flat weaves unsaleable during his early days of collecting, he often paid minimal amounts for an individual piece.
The comprehensive catalogue for the exhibit, put together by an independent researcher, Cathryn Cootner, shows the progress in scholarship since the first major flat-weave show held at the Textile Museum 12 years ago. The fine up-to-date reference book includes social, structural and cultural analyses of the fabrics.
Yet many questions still are unanswered. Fitting together motifs, types of weaving, colors and places of origin are like working intricate puzzles. Part of the problem is the variety of names for the same technique. John Wertime, another independent collector who lived for many years in Iran, has now devised a uniform checklist of terms, included as one of the short articles in the technical section of the catalogue.
Though antique flat weaves are scarce, their technique may be older than knotted pile carpets. Both nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples make flat weaves for themselves, making them freer of changing commercial trends.
Kilims, or flat weaves, are woven by nomadic tribes and are almost always used as curtains, bedrolls, cradles and storage bags as well as floor coverings. Since most of the weaving is done by women and tribal men do not like their women approached by male strangers, it is easier for women scholars to gain access to the tribal tents where the only satisfactory research can be done.
Animals are sources of wealth to nomads and often the best decorative efforts go into the animal coverings. These are not only for load carrying or warmth, but for dressing up animals for celebrations, such as weddings.
The very nature of the geographical areas has made the origin of pieces difficult to discover. In the Caucasus, the history of its nomadic people is tied to its role as buffer zone of past powerful empires such as the Byzantine, Ottoman, Persian and Russian.
With 50 separate peoples living there, it has been hard to call the rugs anything more specific than Caucasian.
With the sophisticated communications of the West it is difficult for us to appreciate the problem of attribution of these textiles in primitive societies. Some nomadic tribes have become settled in fixed areas either for their own or political reasons, some have forgotten who their ancestors were and thus where their traditional weaving patterns might have originated. One group is often in total ignorance of the work of a close neighboring group. But sometimes the area can be identified by such things as the dark brown wool warp used in certain pieces. The brown is the predominant color of the sheep's wool around the area of Gamsar not far from Tehran in Iran.
The large number of Senneh Kilims in the exhibit give a fine opportunity for comparison. The Kurdish rugs are of unusual sophistication, perhaps reflecting the urban orientation of these tribal people. They settled in and around Seneh, now modern day Sanandaj, when it became the capital of Kurdistan 200 years ago.
The flower motif in some of the flat weaves is thought to be influenced by European rugs. Although knowing the love of the Persians for flowers that grow in wild profusion throughout their land, this interpretation may be open to question.
The beauty of the weaving needs no explanation. The rugs, with their organic dyes and diverse ways of using the same geometric figure, are a document of an older art form now changing with the impact of synthetic dyes and European designs.
Learn About Flat Weaves
A weekend seminar on flat weaves will be given by Cathryn Cootner and John Wertime at the Textile Museum Nov. 21 and 22, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fee is $95 for non-members. Registration is limited. For more information, call 667-0441.