Posted by: Tommy | March 23, 2011

A visit to the textile factory

In India, one of the main industries (and one of the main tourist traps) is textiles.  As we walk the streets, we are constantly being harassed about buying silk scarves, pashminas, lovely tailored suits and tapestries.  Anna has found it useful to buy a couple of shirts (Indian men take ogling to new heights – all of the women here wear extremely baggy, full length clothing.  Possibly a chicken-egg scenario) but otherwise we’ve resisted the calls of the textile sellers.  In Kochi, we did wander into a shop that sold oriental rugs and I had a marathon bargaining session before ultimately not buying anything.

I’ve been thinking about that non-purchase for awhile.  I still liked the idea of buying a rug in India (they are roughly 1/10 the price of rugs in America) and I still enjoy the carpet I bought in Turkey 9 years ago.  On our last day in Jaipur, we hired a tuk-tuk driver for the entire day.  He charged us 300 Rupees ($7).  We went and saw a palace, a fort and a temple.  He took us to a good restaurant that had Indian prices, not tourist prices.  We were having a nice time and he was very honest- telling us how much we should pay for different things, telling us about the different tourist scams we might encounter and how to tell if they were happening, and some other useful tips.  We could just tell that this guy hates the Indian practice (worldwide practice, really) of preying on tourists who don’t know any better.

So I felt this was the perfect opportunity to look at actually buying a rug.  I asked our driver if there were any rug shops around.  He told me he could take me to a factory where they make them, rather than a shop that buys from the factory and then marks them up.  He warned me that even at the factory, I’m a white guy so the price would be higher.  I should not take the first offer (Clearly, he didn’t know who he was dealing with).  He also disclosed that if we bought anything, he would receive a 2% commission.  Again, the most honest guy we’ve met in India and probably on the whole trip – excluding Ruslan Kim, of course.

Our great driver

The textile factory was fascinating (though it made it hard to bargain later after seeing how much work goes into each piece).  They started by showing us the loom – this was a show loom, as they let their rug-makers have the loom in their house to make for a better family life.  The rug-makers will have as many as 5 people working on one loom, hand-tying knots for 8-12 hours per day.  The guy showing us how it’s done moved slowly at first, just to show us how it’s done.  Later, I saw him working for real, not showing anyone, and I couldn’t follow the movement of his hands.  The curved blade in the picture chops the string after each individual knot.

Working at the loom.

A professional designer starts the carpet by drawing the design on graph paper.  He colors it in, then hands it over the loom preparer.  The loom preparer threads the loom with vertical string, then marks out the design on the white thread.  The loom is always set with a full complement of thread and different sizes of rug are worked on at a time.  The loom we observed is actually making 3 small rugs.  The loom preparer marks the thread with each color, drawing a colored spot each time the color changes.   The knot-tiers then come in and hand-tie hundreds of knots, going horizontally across the length of the loom.  When they reach the end, they cross-thread a piece of black (at least on the rug we watched) thread horizontally on top of the knots they’d just tied and start on a new row.

This process takes several weeks or even months, depending on how many people are working on that particular carpet (and probably depending on how much they want you to pay and how big of a sucker you look like).  Afterward, the fully-knotted carpet is turned over the guys who shear the excess strings and shave the carpet to a uniform length.  This sharpens the detail work and makes the colors come alive.  After shearing, the carpet is washed and dried in the sun.

Shaved vs. unshaved carpet

After we’re shown this whole process, we visit the rooms where this factory also makes other textiles.  We saw some people working on block-printed fabric (one industry specific to Jaipur) and some others working on a hand-sewn gold silk wedding suit.  Check out the elaborate workmanship – and then be amazed that you could buy this, tailored specifically for you, for $100 or less.  I would have bought one, but I’ve already been to the only Hindu wedding I can imagine I’ll attend.

Hindu groom's suit

After they’ve softened us up by showing us the extremely laborious process of making the rugs, they ask if we’ll consent to being shown some finished products.  But wait, there’s more.  In the selling room, they have flashcards showing all of the work that has gone into these rugs before they even get to the factory.  They show us pictures of the camels that are shaved – only once per year, during the hottest months- to make the camel rugs.  It takes 2-3 camels to make a 5×7 carpet.  They show us pictures of a rug-making family in the village – 2 women, 3 men, sitting alongside each other at a loom in a tiny, one-room stone hut with no electricity, no water, nothing but a loom and 5 smiling faces.

They bring us drinks – Sprite instead of the traditional chai tea that signals the opening of negotiation.  The salesman sits next to us in his suit, calling out orders to a younger guy who begins taking rolled carpets from the walls and rolling them out for us on the floor.  We start with 3, one of each of the three main sizes of carpet and one each of the three main varieties.  Small, medium, large.  Silk, camel wool, sheep wool.  He asks which ones we like.  I ask about price before answering.  Sheep wool with cotton is the cheapest, while the silk/cotton and 100% camel wool are about the same price.  I’m leaning toward sheep wool – it’s a lot cheaper – but Anna thinks the camel wool is interesting.  If we’re going to pay for camel wool, I’d rather have silk as I think it looks nicer and feels better.  Before we go any further, I ask him if it’s a fixed price shop.  He says yes. Now, normally that would mean that the prices are fixed.  The initial price is lower than in most other shops, but there is no haggling.  Take it or leave it.  But I soon learn that at this shop, it means “I can fix the price if you aren’t going to buy something.”

The rug I’d bargained on in Kochi was a small one – 2.5′ by 4′.  One of Anna’s objections was that it’s hard to do anything with a small rug except put it in a hall.  She wanted to get the next largest size, the 4 x 6.  (Large is 8 x 10).  So we tell him that we can rule out the small ones, but we are undecided on wool type.  The boy starts rolling out rugs and the third one he comes to has us both excited.  In Kochi, we didn’t see a single thing that we both liked alot.  This particular rug was a medium-sized sheep wool – it’s the light blue and red one in the center.

Rug display

We express interest, but not too strongly.  Anna has been bargaining with me long enough to be very toned-down when she likes something and immediately point out its flaws.  He keeps rolling out other carpets but we keep coming back to the light blue  and red one.  We’re talking price; asking about each of them and then comparing to to the light blue one.  He’s talking about how great it is and how it’s one of a kind.  He shows us an old Sotheby’s catalog that has a similar rug (the rug designer copied the design from this catalog) selling for $34,000.  He tries to tell us this rug is an investment, that it’s something our grandchildren’s grandchildren will still be enjoying 100 years from now.  All the normal stuff.

One of the favorite tricks of merchants in India is, when you ask the price, they tell you something totally outrageous.  Usually, it is the same or slightly lower than what you’d pay in America – which makes it totally ridiculous to pay that in India.  When you balk, they ask you what you’d like to pay.  Most people use the initial price to decide what to say next – since you’d be perfectly willing to pay the first price in America, you might counter with something 75% of that in India.  And then the shopowner knows he’s got a sale.  Because the reality is, they would be willing to sell it to you for 25 – 40% of that first price.  He’ll still argue with you and try to get you up to 80-85% of that first price, but even if you stick to your guns with the first price, it’s roughly double what they need to sell it for.  They act really insulted when the “price you’d like to pay” is only 30% of their first price – flabbergasted that they’d tell you 5,000 rupees and you’d offer 1,000 or 1,500.  But you can’t really know what the lowest price is until you stick to a price and they’ll let you walk out the door without buying it.  And when that happens, you can always come back the next day and start negotiations from there.

Anyway, back to the rug.  We’re moving along.  My price is just under 40% of this guy’s first price.  He’s moving down slowly, pulling out more rugs all the time, showing us other pieces while we’re still talking about the medium-sized sheep wool one.  And then he rolls out a larger-than-medium sized camel wool one that makes Anna oooh! and aaah and exclaim – “We should get that one!”  She starts talking about what furniture would look good with it, what room it could go in (if we had a house, which we don’t) …really playing it cool.  I’m still enchanted by the light blue and red one.  The salesman, sensing an opportunity to sell us a larger, camel wool rug, starts talking up the virtues of the bigger rug.  It’s 5.5′ x 7′, but he’ll “give” it to us at the medium sized price, since it’s not as big as the large (“Really, he says, I should charge a price halfway between the two but I want you to make your wife happy.”  Thanks, buddy).

The rug!

After an hour of negotiating, I’m the proud owner of a rug I like, but my wife loves.  After selling us the carpet, the salesman told us it’d take a few minutes to pack up the rug for shipping, so we could check out some textiles in the meantime.  There, we found something we both could agree on.  An orange and blue, hand-embroidered duvet cover with elephants, camels and dancing people on it.  The guy showed us roughly 20 different things, but we kept coming back to the duvet cover.  When he told us the price, I knew we’d end up with it – it was less than buying a duvet cover at Target.  After he ran out of more expensive things to show us, we came back to the elephant/camel design.

I told him we liked it and asked if that was their best price.  And then I got unlucky – an older white guy walked in.  The textile salesman (not the same as the carpet salesman) who’d been helping us knew this new man and you could almost see the cartoon dollar signs ring up in his eyes.  He quickly told me that it was their best price.  I was indecisive for one minute, trying to get him to start negotiating with me.  And then he walked off.  It really threw me – but he made a beeline for the other guy and before I could fathom what was happening he was pulling silk cloth off the stands for the old man.

About that time, the rug salesman appeared, asking if I’d be willing to pay for some of our rug in cash, since I was getting a good deal and they’d have to pay the credit card fee.  I agreed and he drove me to the ATM.  While I was gone, Anna passed the time by watching the guy pack up the rug.  It’s folded into a very heavy, very compact cube.  It’s wrapped in plastic, then sewn into a pillowcase-looking bag.

All the way to the ATM and back, I was thinking about how that duvet cover was worth it, even at the “sticker” price.  When I got back, I quietly asked Anna for her honest opinion – she agreed, she really wanted it.  So I told the rug salesman that we were interested in one more thing upstairs and could they cut me a deal, since I had agreed to pay cash for part of the rug and since I was buying the rug in the first place.

Hand-sewn elephants and camels

He knew he had me – his salesman had walked away without negotiating at all and I’d still come back.  He knew I wanted that duvet cover bad enough to come back and ask for it – there would be no 60% discount this time and I knew that going in.  He threw me a token 15% and said that was the best he could do.  I knew he was lying, but I also knew I had no leverage.  I agreed to 15% and the guy who’d just spent half an hour meticulously wrapping our carpet for shipping was forced to unwrap it, add the duvet cover and then wrap it all over again.

Sewing up our purchases

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Responses

  1. Great selections – I must take you with me when it is time to negotiate on something Tommy!

  2. I am really sad I missed this! The factory sounds awesome and I love the rug and the duvet. (Also, the rug in the front left of the “rug display” pic looks like the rug from Kochi, no, or at least one of them?)

  3. Tommy, UBE will be sooo proud of your negotiating skills. Of course he will think that you got that talent from his influence!!! I love both of your selections! XOXO

  4. I have seen the rug in person and touched its camel wool and it is fantastic. The colors are so vivid. The picture of the duvet likewise does not do it justice. Gorgeous and a really happy piece.

  5. […] On buying a carpet – Other than the advice in the post about buying carpets, I’d say that buying a rug in India is a good idea.  I’ve stopped in nearly every rug shop we’ve seen (to Anna’s never-ending annoyance) all over the world and India has the best combination of prices and quality. […]


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