Iran’s Handicrafts, Carpet Trade Face Economic Challenges

By Parastou Mir

The term ‘handicraft’ refers to decorative and functional objects that are made completely by hand or with simple tools. Most of these are crafted using natural or indigenous materials.

Yet in present-day Iran – where the handicraft industry has been revived by a marriage of tradition and modern technology – the materials that artisans use are often neither natural nor indigenous.

Iranian handicraft has a long and interesting history that dates back hundreds of years. Like folk art, handicraft often has cultural, religious or even political significance.

Following the Iran-Iraq War [1980-88], the handicraft industry started playing a much more significant role in the country’s economy.

“My husband and I were classmates. The depressed job market prompted us to take out a loan and invest all of our saving in opening a glass-making studio in Yazd [central Iran] . . . I do the design and my husband manages the business. We had no choice; we couldn’t wait to find a job,” says Maryam Z., a graduate of the Yazd Art Academy.

Admittedly, the handicraft industry has benefited from technological innovations. Many pottery studios use steel moulds to shape clay. Laser technology is used in cutting precise patterns in traditional wood inlay. “Laser technology is routinely used these days in factories in Tehran to create decorative inlay objects,” says Dr. Nasrollah T., a sculpture professor.

In the words of the Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization of Iran, “Iranian handicraft relies exclusively on indigenous material which are readily available to artisans. Local artists use simple tools which don’t cost a lot. The skills and creativity of the artisans are more important than the final product.”

Most Iranian artists, however, challenge this assertion. “Iranian artists buy most of their material from abroad, because the country hardly produces any. The ones we buy here are of very poor quality,” says Fatemeh M., a glass and ceramics painter.

Hamid S., a designer and colorist of textile, embroidery, and handmade silk carpets was forced to shut down his business in Kashan [central Iran] due to a shortage of high-quality raw material. “Our products have suffered greatly because of the poor quality of fabric dyes,” says Hamid.

Many skilled artisans have stopped making carpets because it takes too long to weave one. They instead take other jobs. “Rare and precious handmade Kashan carpets are near extinction,” Hamid warns.

“How could officials at the Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization say that the raw materials and tools of our craft are inexpensive?” asks Babak E., a woodworking artisan. “A young graduate must work for years as an apprentice in a workshop before he can set up his own business. How could he afford rent, tools and material?”

Many artists and artisans have to take other jobs to support themselves and their families, and they pursue their craft in their free time.

While some handicraft industries are expanding, others are shrinking. Many pottery workshops have opened in recent years in Lalejin in Hamadan Province [northwest Iran] and Meybod, near Yazd. Glazed pottery, ceramics and porcelain are highly sought-after objects. The field is fast becoming a viable industry. Most studios use traditional techniques with modern equipment to create high-quality decorative and functional objects.

On the other hand, many other handicraft products are near extinction, including handmade Turkmen headscarves. They are now being mass produced in China. The handmade ones are still available in limited quantities at a very high price.

Also, most rugs are currently machine-made. “We visited the Iraqi Kurdish region of Sulaymaniyeh in 2011 in an effort to promote hand-made Iranian rugs. People were in awe of the craftsmanship and quality of the rugs. For most people, cost was not an issue, but we still couldn’t sell a single rug. They preferred to buy machine-made carpets from China and Turkey,” says Kaveh B., a Persian rug expert.

Hand-made Iranian rugs are still popular among foreign tourists and collectors. It is, however, becoming increasingly difficult to operate the workshops that produce high-end rugs. It is simply not cost-effective to make these luxury items.

Many experts believe that the concepts of “art and creativity” are not sufficiently promoted in the handicraft industry. The selling price of these precious objects does not reflect their true artistic value. Artistic endeavors rarely receive proper financial backing. And without financial support creativity cannot flourish.