When Carpet Repair Makes Sense

When Carpet Repair Makes Sense    11/12/2009

by Regine Cole,
as seen in Old House Interiors

An editor’s visit to the Lexington Avenue workroom of Hayko Oltaci reveals why good (that is, invisible) carpet repair is expensive. It requires design and color sense and practical skill.

What do you do when the puppy chews the corner of that antique prayer rug you love? When the hooked rug your grandmother bought in rural Maine many years ago begins to disintegrate, can it be repaired? Should it be? Let’s say you’re a collector, and you’ve got your eye on a wonderful Aubusson that’s worn threadbare in the center. Should you buy it with restoration in mind, knowing how difficult it is to match the colors? You already know that a clumsy repaired old tapestry is worth less than one with holes.

 

An editor’s visit to the Lexington Avenue workroom of Hayko Oltaci reveals why good (that is, invisible) carpet repair is expensive. It requires design and color sense and practical skill.

What do you do when the puppy chews the corner of that antique prayer rug you love? When the hooked rug your grandmother bought in rural Maine many years ago begins to disintegrate, can it be repaired? Should it be? Let’s say you’re a collector, and you’ve got your eye on a wonderful Aubusson that’s worn threadbare in the center. Should you buy it with restoration in mind, knowing how difficult it is to match the colors? You already know that a clumsy repaired old tapestry is worth less than one with holes.

Carpet lovers bring dilemmas like these to a narrow, unassuming door amidst the hustle and bustle of New York’s Lexington Avenue in the Sixties. Stairs lead to the second-storey atelier of Hayko Oltaci. New carpets (which he sells) are rolled up in one corner. Old carpets (which he loves) are everywhere else: stacked on the floor, draped over tables, hung on the walls, and stretched like a canopy over his desk. The carpet restorer visitors that his work, on display at prominent auction houses and galleries, is invisible. “Good carpet repair can’t be seen,” he says. It may seem that he’s stating the obvious. But a few hours of looking and listening taught this visitor that the work of repairing carpets, more painstaking than incomprehensible, is hard to do so that it doesn’t show. And you realize Hayko, a Turkish-Armenian-American born in Istanbul, has something more than knowledge, skill and experience, although he certainly has those. He has an instinctive understanding of the original weaver’s intention. His is a near mystical affinity for carpets.

A large Oushak is folded and draped before a woman seated at a large table in the back half of Hayko’s long, narrow shop. The no. 20 tapestry needle in her hand flashes as she works on the damaged area spread out in front of her. She takes tiny stitches, ties knots and trims the woolen yarn with fluid, sure movements while she talks with her workmates, who are similarly working on carpets spread out in front of them. Hung on the wall behind her are the skeins of wool in colors corresponding to the ones in the carpet. All those different colors, and the scale of the individual knots compared to the size of the whole carpet, are a visual lesson in the complexity of the pattern, the huge range of colors, the subtlety of their blending – in short the enormity of the job. She’ll be at this a long time, I suppose.

“A rectangular piece in a Caucasian rug, approximately 8 inches by 3 inches”, Hayko agrees, “will take one week.”

Most of the skeins hung behind the workers are the crewel, Persian, and tapestry yarns known to needlepoint hobbyists: Anchor, Appleton, and Paternayan brand wools in one-, two-, and three-ply strands.

“We also use hand-spun woolen yarn”, Hayko says. “Whatever is closest to what was originally used. If we can’t make a close enough color match, then we have to dye the yarn ourselves. If there’s a hole, you you have to put back the warp and the weft.”

These are, in the case of oriental rugs, usually made of cotton, wool, or a combination of the two. Several of the projects spread out on his worktable show rectangular areas with the contrasting brightness of the new threads being woven into old carpets. But no two jobs are exactly the same. To do this work well, you have to know fibers, be able to tie Ghiordes, Jufti, or Senneh knots needlepoint in tent, cross, half-cross, or basketweave stitches, do plain weave and weft wrapping, overcasting, chain stitching, and be able to differentiate between vegetal and aniline dyes, right- or left-hand lays. In short, repairing rugs requires what is needed to make them in the first place: sure, practiced hands, a good sense of design and color, appreciation for the materials. Since Hayko does not limit his work to oriental rugs, but also repairs tapestries, kilims, needlepointed rugs, hooked and rag rugs, encyclopedic knowledge of the huge world of carpets is only a beginning. With becoming modesty, he claims that after 20 years in carpet repair, he is still just learning.

Hayko was not born into this business. His passion was sparked when, as a teenager, he was disappointed at a rug his father as sent out for repair. “They didn’t ruin it”, he says. “But they did shoddy work, and the carpet deserved better”. Upon leaving school, Hayko served a two-year apprenticeship at a famous Istanbul carpet repair shop, then moved to France to ply his chosen trade. Here too, he was disappointed by the quality level of the workmanship he encountered. And he felt unappreciated.

“In France, you work, you work, you don’t make any money,” he recalls. “It was seven years of agony.”

He left for California and employment at a large firm , and eventually ca to New York, where he started his business in the Chelsea Antique Building. At first he worked for the surrounding carpet dealers. Three years ago he moved to this location, and now his clients includes Christie’s, Bloomingdale’s, high-level collectors, and homeowners from the nearby Upper East Side. His hands spend less time holding a needle as more of his time goes into the mechanics of running a business. But he trains each of his employees in the methods he first learned in Turkey.

“It takes three to six months to be able to do it,” Hayko says. “But I can tell whether they’ll be able to learn it from the first time they pick up a needle. They have to have good fingers, with sensitivity of feel but strong. The dexterity- it’s like a surgeon’s with that kind of focus, that ability to concentrate on very tiny things while working on a very big thing.” And, he adds, a good sense of color is extremely important. The lighting in the working end of his shop is necessarily strong, and color matches are best done in the daylight.

This kind of work is expensive. Often Hayko has to explain to potential customers that the cost of repairing their rug is greater than the value of the carpet itself.

“From a picture I can tell them if it’s worthwhile,” he says. He bemoans a business in which customers are often told that their purchase is rare and precious when, in fact, the carpet they are buying is very ordinary indeed.

Has damage ever gone too far for repair? Like so many things in the world of rugs, the answer is both yes and no. If the pattern is recognizable, even a tiny scrap can be expanded into a larger carpet.

“But you get to a point where you have to ask whether it’s worth the bother (or the expense)”.