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The Elusive ‘Zieglers’

Founded at the height of the 19th century ‘Persian Revival’, Ziegler & Co. in Sultanabad was the first Western firm to co-ordinate the production and export of Persian carpets for Western markets. Today the terms ‘Ziegler’ and ‘Mahal’ are used as a catch-all for many desirable furnishing carpets from Iran and beyond. Here the Bay Area dealer and writer Emmett Eiland tries to understand what a ‘Ziegler’ carpet is and asks whether the ubiquity of the label has rendered it meaningless?

There exists a cabal of antique rug dealers, new rug dealers, collectors, rug producers, rug writers and editors who cheerfully promote the notion that they can spot a Ziegler’ carpet a mile off. The truth is, however, that we would not know an antique Ziegler carpet if we tripped over it. When I began to research these carpets, I thought I knew all about them: Zieglers are great-looking old ‘Mahals’ woven for the Ziegler Company that sell for $60-90,000 and more at auction. And, of course, Zieglers are also the brand new rugs that use the designs of old Ziegler carpets.

I was wrong. The truth is that no one is sure which of the old Sultanabad (Arak) area carpets were woven by the Ziegler Company. And consequently no one can say about a new carpet, “This is a rendering of an antique Ziegler.” What sells at at auction for such high prices are carpets that someone thinks, or at least hopes, were produced by or for the Manchester based firm of Ph. Ziegler & Company in the late 19th century. Some of them are of course real Zieglers, but we just do not know which ones.

We do however know quite a lot about the company, largely through the account in The Persian Carpet by A. Cecil Edwards (London 1953), who worked in the oriental carpet export business from about 1900 until 1947, spending a lot of time in the Iranian rug markets, and was present during most of the Ziegler years. He tells us that for 160 years, between 1722 (when the Afghans invaded the Persian Empire) and 1880, there was scarcely any carpet industry in Iran at all: of course rugs were woven there, but before 1880 rug-making was what he calls “a small but useful handicraft…an insignificant village industry.” He writes that the majority of rugs exported to the West before about 1880 were old pieces that had originally been woven for the Persian domestic market.

By the 1880s the supply of old rugs in Iran had been depleted and exports had dwindled. For the first time therefore, according to Edwards, the merchants of Tabriz decided to produce new carpets expressly for export to the West. As early as 1875 they had established an office in Sultanabad, a small town in western Iran with a rug weaving tradition. A few years later, Ziegler & Co. joined them in commissioning the weaving of rugs there for export to London and New York. Ziegler was thus present at the very birth of the modern carpet industry in Iran, and was to become important in shaping what rugs would be woven in Sultanabad for the next fifty years.

The company distinguished itself from other producers in Sultanabad in several ways: first, by designing many of its own rugs with European taste in mind. According to Annette Ittig (‘Ziegler’s Carpet Cartoons’, HALI 80,1995, pp.82-87), the company even accepted designs from Western retailers; secondly, it maintained its own dyeing facility in Sultanabad, providing weavers with ready-dyed yarn, thereby controlling the quality of the dyes and colouration. It seems that the company was innovative, too, in producing small sample rugs (vagireh) as models from which their weavers could work.


Left: Ziegler carpet, west Persia, ca. 1880. 3.90 x 5.02m (12'9" x 16' 6"). From the collection of Sigmund Freud. Courtesy Christie’s London;

Right: ‘Ziegler’ carpet, 21st century. 3.30 x 4.22m (10'10" x 13'10"). Courtesy Renaissance Carpet and Tapestries. New York. Below left: Watercolour cartoon on paper.

 The company produced rugs in Sultanabad for around fifty years from the mid-1880-s to 1934, and we know that at the turn of the century, they had about 2,500 looms in over a hundred villages around Sultanabad. During their half century of production, Ziegler & Co. must have woven and exported thousands of rugs to both Europe and America.

By all accounts, the business was very successful. In Britain and America, where machine loomed Wilton and Brussels carpets had been popular since about 1850, the new production of good, inexpensive Persian rugs coming from Ziegler & Co. and others helped to change popular styles of interior design.

When we turn our attention from Ziegler & Co. to the rugs it actually produced, the record is sketchier. Much of the available information is attributable to Annette Ittig, who in her HALI article reported on archival material written by the first manager of Ziegler’s agency in Sultanabad. In particular, she wrote about a collect ion of Ziegler cartoons – point papers or drawings from which rugs were woven. Thirteen photographs of the Ziegler cartoons appear in colour, although some are of border details and others are details of field designs which may be part of the same drawing. However Ittig cautions us that, “Today, the term ‘Ziegler’ is used in the trade as a label of quality to describe a manufacture. However, as such rugs bear neither company logos nor inscriptions linking them to Ziegler’s production, and as similar ‘made-for-export’ pieces were woven for other firms both in Sultanabad and elsewhere, differentiating between them has been problematic.” Elsewhere in the article she tells us that Ziegler’s rugs and other Western-designed carpets were copied by Persian and even by Turkish manufacturers! Finally, she adds that, “At the present time it is not known if or how the various lines produced for Zieglers differed structurally from the qualities woven for their competition.”

Clearly, Ittig believed that the cartoons reproduced in the article would help, and it does seem as if a collection of genuine Ziegler designs would give us the clues we need to pin down which carpets were made by the firm. The cartoons were drawn on graph paper and coloured in gouache and watercolour – with a magnifying glass one can count around a hundred knots per square inch (approximately 1,500 per square decimetre). Some of the designs are extraordinary, others nothing special. Interesting as these cartoons are, they do not seem to help us to identify Zieglers with any certainty, with one possible exception: a medallion and corner cartoon seems identical in design (though not in colour) to a rug illustrated on the same page. However, even that seems problematical as the rug is said to be made of silk. The literature has not revealed any other references to Ziegler silk carpets.

Though Ittig is quite clear about the difficulty of identifying these carpets, her article is illustrated with photographs of rugs that are captioned as Ziegler carpets but she does not explain how she knows they were made by Ph. Ziegler & Company. When I began research for this article, I assumed that I was finally going to learn exactly what a ‘Ziegler Mahal’ is and how to identify one when I saw it. But it has not worked out that way. So I asked fellow rug dealers what they thought. In my neighbourhood in the San Francisco Bay Area, Tony Kitz does good business in antique decorative carpets. When I asked him how to identify a genuine Ziegler he said that it had never been clear to him, but that Zieglers might be a little finer and have blue wefts. He went on to suggest that maybe it was not even possible to identify Ziegler Mahals.

I also spoke to David Amini and Jim Ffrench of Beauvais Carpets in New York, a respected showroom featuring upper-end decorative and classical carpets. They agreed that what was considered to be a Ziegler carpet in the market was “extremely arbitrary.” Jim Ffrench, who for some time ran the carpet department at Christie’s New York, suggested that any ‘nice’ Mahal with a large-scale design and soft colours was liable to be attributed to Ziegler & Co. However, he was quick to point out that we have no way to sort out which of them may have been commissioned by Ziegler, which may have been market goods bought-in and re-sold by Ziegler, or which may have had nothing at all to do with the compan. At one time,” he said, “Ziegler was a useful trade term which alerted knowledgeable rug people to a really good Mahal. But it has been overused and has become meaningless.”

If there is any hope of ever being able to identify antique Ziegler carpets with certainty, it lies in a handful of carpets in known collections. One carpet that was sold at Christie's London on 13 May 2001 for $92,000 was said to have been owned by Sigmund Freud. I have read elsewhere about “Ziegler carpets” in the Getty Collection, and about Christie’s famous 1984 sale at Elveden Hall in Norfolk (HALI 24, pp.16-29) that included some genuine Zieglers. One may hope that eventually someone will be able to examine documented Ziegler carpets and will nail down unique signature features by which other Ziegler products can be identified. But, until then, we are faking it.

So what about newly woven carpets that are sold under the Ziegler handle? My own company recently received two beautiful examples of new ‘Zieglers’, sent on approval by Renaissance Carpets of New York. Woven with sparsely-drawn designs and soft colours. they are just as Jim Ffrench described the old carpets that are most often labelled as Zieglers. So if we cannot be certain which antique carpets are Zieglers, how can manufacturers weave new carpets that deserve the name? The notion is preposterous. However, if antique rug dealers cannot support calling an old Sultanabad rug a Ziegler, and yet they do so every day, does that not give licence to producers of new rugs to do the same?

Throughout the world, retailers and manufacturers alike call certain of their new carpet lines Zieglers. In the 1990s, Black Mountain Looms broke new ground by producing ‘Ziegler’ carpets in India, Turkey and Romania. Today, Peter Linden Oriental Rugs in Dublin, Ireland offers new ‘Zieglers’ setting the word in quotation marks. One of Linden’s ‘Ziegler’ carpets is a new Pakistani piece with a blue field and an all-over pattern of scrolling palmettes which an online advertisement says has 325 knots per square inch – approximately three timesas many as the original Zieglers. Jacobsen Oriental Rugs in the United States illustrates a new Pakistani rug, calling it a ‘Ziegler’ and saying that it is “A variant Sarouk design withdeep red ground and floral sprays. ”Pak Persian Oriental Rugs has a ‘Ziegler Mahal’collection “based on old designs that came out of that region,” an honest explanation. At leastone manufacturer of machine-made rugs also uses the name: Rugs Direct offers a “Ziegler Wilton collection of runners machine woven in Egypt with an antiqued finish.”

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Left: Ziegler carpet, West Persia, late 19th century. 3.45 x 3.81m (11'4" x 12'6"). 

Right: ‘Ziegler’ carpet, Iran, 21st century. 2.82 x 3.71m (9'3" x 12' 2"). Courtesy Renaissance Carpet and Tapestries, New York.

Almost without fail, the new rugs that are called Zieglers are in lattice repeat patterns of floral figures. Their design elements often are large in relation to their borders, and motifs have been simplified from their late 19th century prototypes. The overall effect is of rather simple rugs that are not too busy for today’s market. The majority have been woven in Pakistan by Afghan refugees, made from what appears to be naturally-dyed handspun wool. Most are good quality carpets, far more interesting and varied than the ‘Indo-Bijars’ and ‘Indo-Heratis’ that for many years ruled the low and middle sectors of the market. Most of the new ‘Zieglers’ are inexpensive, retailing for as little as $35 per square foot, about the same as the mechanical-looking Indo-Kashans of the 1970s and 1980s.

So are the carpets based on old Mahals woven by Afghans in the Pakistani refugee camps as good as the old Persian Mahals they were fashioned after? Evidently, both productions have been made from handspun wool and use a combination of natural and synthetic dyes (Edwards wrote that Ziegler’s rugs were made with “both native and European dyes”, suggesting that both natural and synthetic dyes were used). The weaves of both are usually about a hundred knots per square inch. Both antique and modern productions are strictly  commercial in nature, made without apology for export to the West. Both productions have been bargains in their times and have been commercially very successful. Both productions are alikein being made with sufficient body to wear well. Neither product has been clipped low and distressed so as to have the look of an antique carpet as some rugs are today. While native weavers from Pakistan, India, China and some other countries tend to weave rugs that are technically good but artistically stiff and mechanical, Persian and Afghan weavers have the knack of weaving rugs that are graceful and fluid (as do Turkish weavers). This rug-weaving skill I value above most others.

It may be said that that Persian Mahals were the prototypes and Afghan Mahals are the copies, but one rarely sees a new immigrant-camp rug that is a literal copy of its prototype. Both productions have been cobbled together to produce something that will sell. Both have borrowed heavily from classical Safavid designs and have used a Mughal design here and perhaps some Arts & Crafts elements there. They are commercial products, so I find no harm in that.

However, the real difference in the quality of the two productions is the wool. The Persian stuff is better. In my experience, even Gahzni wool, which seems to be the best and most expensive wool in wide use in the refugee camps, is not as lustrous as good Persian wool. I believe that in this one important respect, antique Persian Mahals sometimes beat their modern cousins. Except for this one difference, though, a very good case can be made that the best new Afghan/Pakistani Mahal-type carpets are every bit as good as the old Mahals, including the pieces many people would call Zieglers.

Which are more attractive, the old carpets or the new? Examine the photographs on these pages and decide for yourself.

by Doris Leslie Blau