I heard through the grapevine (درخت انگور /de’rakht’e an’goor/) about the 32nd National Handcrafts Exhibition at the Tehran International Exhibition Center, not far from me in Velenjak. Iran generally uses the American spelling of the word ‘centre’. (Incidentally there is a ‘Centre Street’ in New York). This exhibition centre is huge. I took a minicab from Cherry Orchard (باغ گیلاس /bagh’e gi’lās/) opposite the khabgah and we arrived in no time.
These exhibitions are professionally run, rivalling anything that one may see at Earl’s Court. The halls are huge with tall ceilings and are well lit. The exhibition continues outside too – the weather in Tehran makes this quite pleasant. Musicians add some colour.
Pottery (سفالگری /so’fāl’gar’ee/)
There was some rather pretty pottery on show at the exhibition. I didn’t buy any as it isn’t practical for taking abroad by aircraft. It’s too heavy and too brittle without special packaging, which adds more weight.
Marquetry (خاتم کاری /khā’tam kār’ee/)
Marquetry is another popular Iranian handicraft. The boxes are very pretty and seem to be well made. All manner of pen holders, letter holders, diary holders, desk clocks can be seen here.
Metalwork embossing (قلمزنی /qa’lam’zan’ee/)
There were many decorative metalwork and embossing stands and stalls at the exhibition. Some of this is exquisitely detailed. In the bazaar at Esfahan one can hear the sound of hammers and tools in the hands of craftsmen producing items like these.
Persian carpets (قالی /qā’lee/, or فرش /farsh/)
Carpet weaving is both a well-known Iranian handicraft and a major art form. The completely hand-woven carpets are rightfully expensive as they take a considerable time and effort to produce. So machine-woven carpets have come to the fore. They are well made and have wonderful designs, but I am sure I would prefer a hand-woven carpet.
My knowledge about Persian carpets is practically non-existent and I don’t know the difference between a gabbeh (گبه /gab’beh/) and a gelim (گلیم /ge’lim/). This is a whole subject on its own, rather like knowing about the different schools and eras of painting in the west.
Termeh (ترمه /ter’meh/)
A termeh is a woven cloth. Historically they were produced entirely by hand but these days they are part-produced or completely-produced by machine. They come in all manner of patterns and colours and shapes. I’ve seen them in the bazaar at Tajrish. I bought one termeh from Termeh Hosseini‘s stand at the exhibition.
The termeh I bought is shown below. It cost 1,270,000 rials (about £9.50). I rather liked the deep red and gold colours. It will probably become another wall decoration eventually. The ugly crease will fall out in due course.
Long (لنگ /long/)
Long is a simple cotton chequered cloth usually in some shades of red and black. It was traditionally used in the public baths (گرمابه /garm’āb’e/, or حمام /ha’mām/) to wrap around the waist. It is used nowadays pretty much anywhere a cloth can be used: dishcloths, rags in workshops, window cleaning, tablecloths in cafes. I have seen a manteau made from several longs stitched together. A manteau is a long coat loosely fitting that many women in Iran wear in place of a chador (چادر /chā’dor/). Most chadors are black. Meanwhile manteaux(?) come in all colours but they often have a fairly conservative main colour, and can have all kinds of decorations and embroidery and embellishments.
Long cloths can be found in the bazaars. I picked up mine in Tajrish. They are not expensive. The creases here are not important!
Qalamkār (قلمکار /qa’lam’kār/)
A qalamkār is a cloth which is hand-printed using blocks. As a result, even when made with the same blocks, each qalamkār is unique. The equivalent name in the UK would be calico cloth. They are very suitable as table cloths.
The cloth itself is about the weight of the heaviest Oxford cottons, but of a heavier weave. It is almost like a very light sacking. The back of the cloth and the tassels at the ends sometimes have a light orange/khaki colour. This seems to be a result of the printing process as the plain cloth is an off-white colour.
I bought three qalamkar in the bazaar at Tajrish. They were made in Esfahan by Akhavan Zabolian (see below). The mostly-red cloth shown below appears to have been printed with five colours: red, blue, deep yellow, green, and black.
The largest of the three is about 2.25 x 1.50 metres. I took it to a local tailor to sew 12 small loops along the long edge, and then I hung it on a bare wall in the khabgah. It has the same pattern as the red cloth above.
I am going to draw some attention to the cypress tree (سرو /sarv/) which can be seen in the termeh and the qalamkar above, and is shown larger below. This a symbol of Iran with various interpretations, and can be found on all kinds of decorations and handicrafts. The cypress tree with the top bent downwards has several names in Persian: سرو واژگونه (/sarv’e vāzh’goo’neh/), بته جقّه (/bo’teh jeq’qeh/), بوته جغّه (/boo’teh jeg’geh/).
I bought the large mostly green-coloured qalamkar below at the exhibition. I haven’t measured it but it is huge. I’m not quite sure what to do with it but it is very attractive. Around the edges, the cypress tree with the top bent downwards is again used here as a decoration. It is also present in the pattern in the centre.
Wooden blocks are used for hand printing these qalamkars. I saw these at the exhibition at one of the stalls. They have become permanently stained by the inks used.
Many of these qalamkars are printed in Esfahan. Around Naqsh’e Jahan Square (میدان نقش جهان /mey’dān’e naq’she ja’hān/), the main square there, there are several shops specialising in these. Many of the other souvenir shops sell them too, and they can be found throughout the bazaar. But the greatest selection and variety of patterns and colours is seen in the specialist shops.
The cloths come in sizes from about a foot square to 12 feet long and 6 feet wide. Most are rectangular or square and there are smaller numbers of round ones. The small ones don’t weigh much, they pack up tightly, and are not expensive either. The cloths are sometimes printed specially to be used for making bags, wallets, and so on.
I visited Esfahan again in September 2019 and wandered through the bazaar to Akhvan Zabolian, the maker of three of the qalamkars I bought in Tehran. They have two shops on the square.
The wooden block that is used to hand-print these cloths is called a qāleb (قالب /qā’leb/) and is made from pear (گلاب /gol’āb/) wood. I asked why they use pear wood, what special features does it have that makes it more suitable for this type of work, or is it simply abundantly available. I was told it is just soft enough to carve without being too tiresome, and just hard enough to keep the details in the carving for a reasonably long time. How long is a reasonably long time, I asked. A ‘reasonably long time’ could actually be ephemeral depending on how often the stamp is used. But it is the first two qualities which make pear wood the most suitable at all.
All the qalamkar shops have a very wide selection, and it can be seen in the photographs below that some of the cloths have not very much printing, while others are entirely covered with printing. The patterns are as diverse as one could possibly imagine but certain patterns are more common. The old worn-out (کهنه /koh’neh/) blocks can be bought but I didn’t ask the price. Whatever, they are too ragged for further printing use and can serve only as decorations or souvenirs.
There were some Portuguese and Brazilian tourists in the shop. They spoke no Persian, and the shop staff spoke no Portuguese. However the tourists did speak some English. So I volunteered my services and did some interpretation. The tourists had some questions about how to wash the qalamkars, how fixed are the colours, the measurements of the large ones, can they get a discount, and so on. It was during these few minutes that I realised that my language skills really have improved. I was quite surprised.
I consider that speaking a foreign language to a good level is like a key that can open all manner of locks. It breaks down barriers between people very quickly. So rather than asking ‘how much is the rug‘ like a tourist, my Persian is now suitably advanced to ask some pertinent and interesting (to me) questions about the print-making process, without any previous exposure to the particular vocabulary of print-making. Before I went to Esfahan I didn’t know the Persian word for the block or stamp they use for printing these qalamkars. After asking in the shop and learning its name, I think that I will never forget it. But even then I wasn’t finished. In the space of a few seconds I asked several more questions about this block, this piece of wood. This is the level of foreign language skills that I am aiming for, where questions and conversation comes naturally and without needing to think and prepare. Conversations can be carried on and developed at this stage.
I bought three more qalamkars in Esfahan because they are a little bit cheaper there than in Tehran (transport costs). The one shown below with the faravahar (فروهر /fa’ra’va’har/) motifs is a gift for a Zoroastrian. I specifically asked in the shop for such a design. Simple and small ones can be found for about £2.50, more decorative ones cost about £5. Prices then go upwards according to size and complexity.
I hope that I have given a little insight into some of the handicrafts and the cloths that one can find in Iran. I recommend a qalamkar as a souvenir (سوغات /so’gāt). They are very suitable for both functionally and as decorations.