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Knots are not all there is to it

James Opie's rug business really does think globally

War in the Middle East hasn't deterred Portlander James Opie from life as usual, which means a trip to Iran every couple of years to hunt down carpets for his decades-old business, James Opie Oriental Rugs.

During his most recent trip, in May, he didn't feel like he was close to the war in Iraq. 'In fact,' he says, 'you feel much farther away from it in Iran than you do in the states. That's because they're not at war with them Ñ we are.'

Opie, whose travels have been extensive and wide-ranging, calls Iran 'potentially one of the best tourist destinations in the world.'

He was pleasantly surprised by the accelerated modernization that's taken place just since his previous visit, as well as by the leaps in social awareness about safety, health and quality of life.

'Iran even has labor laws now,' he says. 'If there are more than five weavers under one roof, labor laws apply, with vacations and overtime. So it's probably only a matter of time before Iranian rugs are off the charts in terms of expense.'

Opie's trips to Iran outnumber those to other rug locales. 'Other than the fact that I love the country, I go there because they make the best rugs in the world, and they start off with the very best rug wool. They've been breeding sheep for carpet weaving for thousands of years. That's one of the reasons that Persian rugs are almost synonymous with the term Oriental rugs.

'I see rugs coming out of Iran now where there is not a weak link in the entire chain of production: There's no child labor, the wool is hand spun and then it's vegetable dyed. They wash the finished rug repeatedly to be sure that the colors won't run. The designs are appealing, and the weavers often have input, so that it isn't simply a totally designed rug; the weaver is revising and adding some personal artistic nuances to the finished product.'

Travel within Iran, he points out, is greatly enhanced by the fact that nearly every educated person speaks fluent English, and signs are in both English and Farsi.

In spite of the country's appeal, Opie admits that it may not be practical for people to go there quite yet to tour or buy handicrafts on their own.

'But if they can get into a tour group, or can otherwise get a visa, the bazaars are open for business, and it's possible to buy.'

Counting the knots

His advice to buyers, whether abroad or at home, is to shop for a dealer.

'When I'm in the Middle East, I shop harder for business contacts than I do for the rugs themselves,' Opie says. 'A dealer who will tell you about the qualitative details of a rug is in one category. One that will sell you a rug with a defect and not mention it is in quite another.'

He offers no checklist of factors to be aware of, explaining that the easiest ones to master really don't mean all that much.

'For example, there are Oriental rug dealers who will teach their customers to count knots Ñ the implication being that a rug with more knots is better than a rug with fewer knots.

'But it's simply not the case,' he says. 'A whole array of factors play into the quality of a carpet, such as the nature of the wool, the nature of the dyes Ñ vegetable or synthetic Ñ whether the wool is hand spun or machine spun, as well as labor conditions, including the possibility of child labor.

'Does someone want an extremely fine rug that was made by an 8-year-old girl? I don't think so.'

Inside the rug belt

Opie's business lures him to a variety of countries, since 'Oriental' refers to anything from Turkey to China. The 'rug belt' actually starts in Romania. Some rugs are made in southern Russia and, of course, Iran and Afghanistan. Every country has its own styles, because designs vary from town to town, village to village and tribe to tribe.

The journeys also allow Opie Ñ the author of two books on Oriental rugs, one of which has been published in four languages Ñ to gather material for future writings.

The longtime rug shop owner is unperturbed by the burst of rug stores opening in the Portland area over the past few years.

'Any rug dealer should be glad to see more stores opening, because that means more and more people are interested in rugs,' he says.

'When I started in the business in 1970, probably 2 percent of the American population had Oriental rugs. Now the figure is over 5 percent. My mailing list alone contains the names of roughly 2 percent of Portland's population.'

Still, he's too much the realist to think most people will base their home dŽcor choices on a commitment to the global advancement of fair labor laws or similar issues. As an enduring enthusiast of the Middle East, he believes it's 'extremely important that we engage constructively with that part of the world.'

'The welfare of millions of people there, and perhaps our own welfare, requires it.'