“Small Bags,” Part 1, and the Early Days of the TM’s RTAMs

Dear folks –

On June 20, 2009, Harold Keshishian, assisted by his oldest son Kirk


gave a Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning program here at The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. on “Small Bags from Persia, the Caucasus and Anatolia.”

In truth, Harold was substituting for a scheduled speaker who had to cancel last moment.  Harold’s collection is extensive enough, and his knowledge and experience is broad and deep enough, that he is one of those the TM can call on for an impromptu program without embarrassing results.

Harold’s conducting of this particular session was fortuitous in another important way.

It happened that the obituary of Anthony Landreau, a former Textile Museum director, appeared that week in The Washington Post.

Landreau was an important member of the TM, both as director and and earlier as a staff member.  He was a real force in what is, rightly, seen to be a very fecund period of the TM’s  history.  It was, for example, during Landreau’s tenure as TM Director that these Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning Programs were initiated.

So Harold took a little time at the beginning of his program (and made some arrangments beforehand) to shine a little historical light on Landreau and some of the results with which he was associated.

We passed out copies of  The Post’s obituary.  It is worth reading.






Harold had invited Russell Pickering


who was an active member of the central TM group in the late 60s and early 7os.

He asked Russell to speak a bit to this period, and Russ did.


I can’t quote Russ, but I will try to summarize, accurately, some key things he said about this period of TM activity.

One of the seminal events of Landreau’s years at the TM is remembered now primarily as his co-authoring with Russ of the rug world’s first serious treatment of flatwoven textiles.

It’s “beetle bag” cover is famous among ruggies.


Russ told me, in a subsequent conversation, that the idea for this title came from Alan Sawyer, who was then the TM Director (Landreau was still a curator).

This title has turned out to be an inspiration, since a number of other authors have adopted very similar ones over the years.  Ready examples include the Richard Wright, John Wertime book on Caucasian rugs and textiles.  Its title is “From Kars to Kuba.”  And more recently Jon Thompson’s catalog for the 75th annivesary exhibition by New York City  Hajji Baba Society (the oldest rug club in the U.S.) is entitled “Timbuktu to Tibet.”  So even Allan Sawyer’s title brainstorm has left its mark.

But this seminal catalog was only  part of the achievement.  It was for an exhibition, first staged at The Textile Museum, but picked up by the Smithsonian in a traveling version (Allan Sawyer’s work here may also not have been adequately recognized) that moved around the country.  Pickering reports that it traveled the U.S. for three years, with a final appearance at  The Asia House  in New York City.

The catalog was a huge publishing success.  The original edition of 1,000 hard cover copies and 3,000 in soft covers was followed by two additional reprints of 3,000 each.

As we said above, and as the obituary notes, the Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning programs were also initiated during Landreau’s tenure.  Harold seems the witness who was best positioned to observe the founding of the RTAM (Pickering reports that he still lived in NYC, although he was in Washington frequently).  Leonardo Contardo, who is also rumored to have been involved in the RTAM programs early, can remember only that he once “washed a rug” in an early one, a feat he said that was considered “brave” in those days.

Harold’s remembrance of the RTAM program’s origin is that it was an idea of Landreau’s that Harold was called upon, mostly, to implement.  Harold says that he and Dennis Dodds and Jerry Thompson and some others gave programs early on.  Whatever, it was a very sound move and its very persistence provides evidence that it has been valued over the years.

Harold’s mention of Dennis sent me to him.  Here’s what Dennis said about his “early days” participating in RTAM programs.

(Ed. Beginning of Dennis’ comments.)

“…My earliest recollection of the TM rug mornings is aided by my collection of daybooks that I have kept as a sort of diary since around 1968.

“On Saturday, April 10, 1976, I record what appears to be my first presentation.  ‘10:3o Rugs of Southern Turkey t.M. lecture.’ I had returned a few months earlier from a trip to Konya and south Anatolia and no doubt used some of my purchases in my presentation.  In my daybook, I also wrote, ‘9:00 select examples.’ This is likely a reference to picking some pieces from the TM collection to augment my talk.”

“This was after Tony had left as Director, but these regular morning sessions have been a continuing source of information and appreciation that needs to be retained and revitalized.  I have probably done a dozen or so over the years, at least, and approach each as a sort of pilgrimage to the TM where I have learned so much and met so many wonderful people who have made such a difference in my life.”

(Ed.: End of Dennis’ comments)

There was a time, during Virginia Delfico’s tenure as the Education Director, when the default objective was that  there would be a free RTAM program on most Saturday mornings.  And she was often successful.

I once put the data on TM RTAM programs for 10 years into an Excel spreadsheet and discovered that Virginia managed most months during her 11-year tenure to arrange  four RTAM programs and in some months she offered five.  It was rare to have only three.  Things have fallen off rather sharply in recent years, but there are still about two RTAM programs offered each month.

I exchanged emails about RTAM origins with Virginia and she wrote that when she was appointed as the TM’s first full-time director of education, “…RTAMs were sacred and it was one of my responsibilities to keep them going.  Jannes Gibson, another member of the Education Department, then, and I introduced textiles to the mix of Saturday programs…”

In my view, the Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning programs are one of the most effective community outreach efforts the TM makes, and can make, but it’s clear that these programs are no longer “sacred” in any sense at all.  To me, the de-emphasis of these valuable and interesting programs in recent years is both mistaken and unnecessary (it costs the TM little to arrange and to conduct them, since they are currently arranged for and conducted almost entirely on a volunteer basis).

A major obstacle to their enjoyment by a larger audience is that the Myers Room is the only room available in the TM that can accommodate such sessions at all, and there are only 65 chairs in it.  That is the reason I devote a little time to producing these virtual versions.  These programs are often too interesting, too good, too valuable to be enjoyed by only 65 people.

Anyway, three cheers for Tony Landreau, for Harold Keshishian, for Virginia Delfico, for Russell Pickering and Leonardo Contardo, and all those who have been involved in various ways in creating and perpetuating the RTAM programs.  Some of us joke a bit (but also not quite) that when a Saturday arrives and there isn’t one, we are hard-pressed to get our weekly “rug fix.”

Now to Harold’s “small bags” program.


Harold said that


he and Kirk had selected a number of small bags, from Persia, the Caucasus, and Anatolia, and that they were arrayed in layers on the front display board and that they would just work through them.

It turned out that some of the pieces they had selected moved beyond the bag format, but, smaller bags, mostly, it was.

They began with the piece below.


Harold described it as a Caucasian bag face, with a diagonal striped design popular in Caucasian rugs (ed. Bennett shows a Genje in his Plate 172).  Harold called attention to the “pinwheel-like” device that decorates the stripes.  Nooter shows some similarly shaped khorjin faces; see his plate 192.  Wertime references two similar pieces to the Qarabagh area.

A second piece was the one below.


This piece was published in black and white as Plate 46 in the “…Bosporus to Samarkand…” catalog.  Harold called it a “plan ahead” weaving, noting that it’s size was determined by that of the loom.  He said that it is a “fine, old” weaving and its wool is noticeably fine.

The next two pieces were treated together.


Harold said that these two pieces are reverse sumak and that both are fine, well-executed and older.

The next piece was an unusual one.


Harold said that it is rare to see this “zili S” (also sometimes “verneh”) in a bag face. ” But,” he said, “if you live long enough, you see everything.”  Harold also pointed to the good color in this piece and to the loop holes in the closure  system (often seen to be a “Persian” usage).  He said that this is another piece with excellent wool.

Harold didn’t say so in this session, but it appears to me that this piece was published as Plate 120 in Wertime’s Sumak Bags. Wertime attributes it to “Qarabagh.”

The next piece was attributed either to the southern Caucasus or to northwest Persia.


Harold said that the stylized “S” figures on pole devices are particularly resplendent on a white ground.   Another older, quality piece with fine wool.

Harold attributed his seventh piece, below, to the Shasavan.


He said that the wool in this piece is extremely fine and invited comparison with a complete khorjin set that is Plate 11 in John Wertime’s “Sumak Bags,” volume.

Harold’s next piece was the end-panel from a cargo-bag type “mafrash.”


He said that this piece is from a rare group identifiable by extremely long-beaked birds.



Harold pointed also to the presence of a rare shade of brown used as ground color in this piece.  He said that there are pieces with identical drawing and coloration in “Orient Stars” and Hali 159.

The next piece was another published in black and white in the “Bosporus to Samarkand” catalog as Plate 43.


Harold said that he estimated that this sumak piece was woven in the third quarter of the 19th century or before.  He said that he believes it to be the first use of “fantastic animals” in bags of this sort.

The next piece was this cargo bag-type mafrash side panel below.


This is a beautifully composed piece, with graphically strong latch hook medallions and outstanding colors.


He said that the wool is excellent and that cotton was used in at least some white areas.



Harold said only the need for a little finer weave bars this piece, in his view, from a world-class ranking.

The next piece was the striking one below.


Like the first piece shown above this one has a Caucasian like instrumented diagonal striped field and an over-size border. Probably from Qarabagh as well.  Wertime says the two similar pieces in his field were made and signed by Armenians.

Harold and Kirk now took us to a complete khorjin set that had been opened up at the sides of its compartments.


Here is an unobstructed view of its full length.


Here is a detail of one of its pile panels.


A closer corner of one.


And a close-up of one of the individual botehs in its field.


Harold said that this piece is above-average Afshar of the Kerman variety because of its delicate all over sophisticated drawing.  More interesting, is the fact that the panels are the same size as many textiles and rugs that are represented to collectors as being mafrash side panels, when when the elogated shape of this bag is the same size as that of many khojins.  This brings light to the fact that collectors should be cautious of assuming a particular format.

The next piece was the Baluch khorjin face below.


It was followed by another Baluch with a “tree of life” field design.  This balisht is one of the finest of its type.  The wool quality and weave are as good as one in Baluch weaving.  The two end panels are a mixed flatweave entirely of silk.


The following piece was still another Baluch with an attractive “stars” design.


Harold said that this piece is the oldest, finer Baluch he has seen. The use of white is especially effective in this piece.

The next piece was a Turkman khorjin.


It has good color and is well composed and drawn.

Until recently, such a piece would have been described as “Ersari,” but now a “Middle Amu Dyra” designation would be more likely.  The khorjin is a relatively rare Turkmen format.

Here are some closer details of this attractive piece.



The next piece shown was another Turkmen, this time a fragment of a large torba.


This handsome fragment is from either a nine-gul or a twelve-gul Tekke torba, both of which are less frequent than the six-gul variety.

Here is a closer look at its major gul.


Pinner once did an analysis of the internal instrumentation of Tekke torba guls (which interestingly are usually larger than Tekke chuval guls), but I don’t have ready access to it as I write, but in his comments on Tekke torbas in the Rickmers Collection, he seems to place this gul center as among those more frequently seen.

The surrounding instrumentation of it does appear to exhibit some pretty clear “animal head” devices, the sort of thing that goes away quickly as designs become conventionalized.

That drawing, the colors in this piece, and Pinners indication (again in his Rickmers discussion) that the Tekkes seem to have stopped weaving the torba format about 1850, suggest that it was woven earlier than that.

Harold said he picked this fragment out of a large trash pile and was given to him.

Next, Harold treated two sumak panels seemingly from the same cargo-bag type mafrash.


Here is a large detail of this side panel.


And a closer look at a vertical slice of it.


And here is the end panel by itself.


These two panels are similar enough to Plate 50 in Wertime’s Sumak Bags volume to be from the same complete mafrash.

Harold said that strangely, this particular design seems to come to the market with a super-white ground, for pieces of their apparent age.


The next piece was a single sumak mafrash side panel with an instrumented diagonal stripe design.


Here is a closer vertical slice of this panel.


Harold didn’t mention it, but this piece is very similar to Plate 102 in Wertime’s Sumak Bags.

The next two pieces are also from a cargo-type mafrash.  Harold owns three of the four pieces that comprised it.  He brought two of them to this session.


The end panel above, appears as Plate 1 in John Wertime’s Sumak Bags. Here is a closer, isolated look at it.


Wertime describes it as “…one of the oldest surviving examples of Baghdadi Shahsevan weaving…”  He estimates that these pieces were likely woven in either the second or third quarters of the 19th century.

Here is the related side panel.


And here is a detail of the center of this side panel.


Harold said that he collected the two end panels and one side panel of this piece over 40 years ago and that he will never forget the “horrible, filthy condition” they were when they came to him.

He said that there is some wear to the cotton and that you have to handle these pieces to appreciate the workmanship in them.

The next piece was a pile panel from a Bijar mafrash.


This piece measures 2 feet, 2 inches wide and 1 foot,  1 inch in height.  The field design is often called a “gul Farange” and is seen to exhibit French, or at least European, influence.  Harold said that this is an older weaving with great color and condition.

Harold has a second Bijar bag face with a “gul Farange” variant field.


It has a very effective dark ground field.

This piece measures 2 feet by 3 feet, has very fine wool, great colors, and “all over” drawing.  Here is a closer detail of it.


Harold had two more pile mafrash panels, with “lightening bolt” designs on a different plane than that on which their floral elements float.

Here is the first one.


The small scale border frames its field effectively.  Here are two closer details of this piece.



The second of these two “lightning bolt” pieces was the one below.


Harold said that the only other example of this design of which he knows was a piece in the Bernheimer collection sale.

The next piece was the Afshar grain/salt bag below.


Note that this is not an “over all” design, but one in which color usages create diagonals slanted to the right.  Harold said that in all modesty he thinks bag is outstanding.

Here is a closer detail that lets you examine its merits.


Next Harold treated a series of smaller bags among those he had brought.  He wanted to draw attention to the fact that they often had very good backs and so had them placed on the display board with the backs out.  I didn’t get an unobstructed shot of them all but you can see Harold’s idea in the image below.


Now I am going to start on the left side of this “backs to the front” array and work to the right.  I will show each back in turn and then their pile fronts (they all have pile fronts).

Here is the first back.


This is an older Qashqua’i bag back in which slit tapestry is used to create a “sawtooth” effect.  There is a narrow band of decoration at the top and what appears to be weft twining at the bottom.

The pile from of it looks like this


The next back was striped.


This is an old Shiraz area bag with good colors and very effective bands of alternating wide and narrow striping.

Here is its pile front.

The next bag was a little larger, at 11 inches by 18 inches, than most in this “backs to the front” series and had a plain red back.


Here is its pile front.


The next piece was the back of a very small tobacco bag in a miniature khorjin shape.


There was still tobacco in this bag when it was collected.  Note the leather edging to protect it during constant use.

Here, below, is the pile front of the back above.


The next piece was 10 inches by 10 inches with very long tassels hanging down.


Here, below, is the pile front of this piece.


The next small bag back was this graphic example.


Harold said that this back of a Shiraz area bag is an example of drawing so well composed and executed that it could carry itself as the primary decoration of this piece without the handsome pile face that it also has.

Here is that pile face, below

(Ed.: In fact, for me, the back is better than the front.)

The last example in this “backs to the front” series was a pair of small bags with relatively plain backs.  Here is the back of one of them.


Turned to the front these two bags become more impressive.

Here they are side by side pile to the front.


Here is a closer look at the one on the left above.


And here is a closer look at the one on the right above.


This pair of pieces has very fine wool and exhibit a strong red-orange.

Harold held up another small bag, this time a complete small khorjin set.


Here is a slightly closer unobstructed view.  This piece is slit tapestry and Harold thinks it was made for a child.  “Daddy has a saddle bag. I want one, too.”


This piece has a less attractive back.


The next piece shown was the Senneh saddle cover below.


Here are some closer details of this piece.



The red line from the end of the saddle void on either side of the rug adds a dramatic touch to the geometry of this handsome work of art.


The next piece was the one below.


This is a small, finely woven piece, but in the world of Senneh weaving it is ordinarly.

The next piece was the one below.  It is an older Senneh, 1850-1860.


Very soft handle (if you take it in your hand it has the feel of velour).

The next piece was another pile mafrash side panel, this time with three diamond forms floating on a version of the Herati pattern.  Also a Senneh.  It has a harder than normal Senneh handle.


Here are some closer details of this piece.



This is a piece that gets better as you get closer to it.

Harold and Kurt next treated two pieces with very similar designs.


The first of these was the famous one below.


Wertime attribute this piece to Garrus.  “this has been recognized as one of the masterpieces of sumak bag art.  This outstanding example of sumak art was acquired Mr. Keshishian, Sr. in Paris in 1922 and give to Harold on his 35th birthday.

Here are some details of this piece.



The larger piece with this boteh field was the one below.  Although very similar seeming it is a Senneh that Harold acquired out of a lady’s trunk about 1960.  It has harder than average handle for a Senneh weaving.  Harold things this firmness is in part due to the fact that it seems never to have been used.


Here is a closer detail of this piece as well.


You can see how similar the drawing of the botehs is.

Next, we turned to a salt bag.  It appears to be a Bakhtiari.


Nice crisp drawing on it flat woven front.  Notice the strip of pile at the bottom.

Here is the colorful back of this piece.


Harold called attention to the fact that the decoration of the neck of  the back of this bag is done from the “wrong” side.   So the side that faces outward is the “back” of the fabric, the side usually not intended to be seen.


The warps from the striped body of this back are continuous into the neck, so it is not clear why the weaver wove the neck area in this way.  Perhaps it is just a mistake, but it seems a rather obvious one to see early on and to have an opportunity to  correct.

Next, Harold had the Baluch salt bag pictured below.


This piece has dates woven into its field that indicate that it is not old, old.  But it is well composed, and borrows and renders some Turkman design devices effectively.  The inscriptions on this piece is in Armenian something Harold says is not as farfetched as it may seem.  There lots of Armenians in Central Asia.

The next two piece were pictorial.

The first of these features some nice rabbits.  Harold thinks this piece is likely a Lavar Kerman.


Among other things, Harold noted that the piece above was acquired in the same lot as the famous Persianate, boteh-field bag face above.

Here are some closer details of this “rabbit” piece.   First, a lower left corner.


Then the field of bunnies.


And a closer view of two of them and the surrounding foliage.


The second pictorial piece is a favorite of Harold’s.  It is the piece below with an image of a sitting cat.


Harold said that there are at least two things to notice about this cat.


First, it’s feet have been dipped in henna (some Persian women used henna, cosmetically, to enhance their beauty) something Harold said indicates that this was a “much loved” cat.

A second oddity is that the cat sports a “Kaiser Wilhelm” mustache.  This suggests that it was woven during a time when things German and especially Kaiser Wilhelm usages were fashionable in Iran.  In one session in which this piece was shown, someone said that a traveler to south Persia in those days noted that many men had “Kaiser Wilhelm-type” mustaches.

One more closer corner detail show the nicely drawn borders on this piece and the simple botehs scattered on its field.


The next piece was the old fragment below.  The Persian call this a ‘naqsh.”  It was usually part of a woman’s pantaloon.  It is likely 18th or 19th century.  It is embroidered with a “tent stitch”


Here are two closer looks at the instrumentation in its diagonals.



This is the end of Part 1 of this virtual treatment of Harold’s “small bags” rug morning.

Members of the audience had brought in a number of pieces and these are treated in Part 2.

To go on with Part 2, use the link that follows:


or return to the entry page using the link in the announcing email and click the second entry on the right.


R. John Howe

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: