KOSTANDOVO, Bulgaria: In a tiny Bulgarian factory, nimble fingers tie and cut, assembling knots of dyed wool into lavish floral patterns: In a few months, the carpet will be fit for royalty.
Hand-knotted and flat-weave rugs made in Kostandovo, a small village in Bulgaria’s southern Rhodope Mountains, have graced the floors of 10 Downing Street and Chequers, the British prime minister’s country retreat, as well as the Bank of England, royal palaces and Vienna’s Albertina Museum.
Other top clients have included Prince Charles and the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger, manager Nino Parpulov said.
“No one can match us at the moment. We are the only ones who offer such large sizes, complicated patterns and multiple colors,” he told AFP on a recent visit to the factory.
“Carpets of 60, 70, 80 square meters are a piece of cake for us,” the 57-year-old former forestry engineer added.
“We are probably the last hand makers in Europe,” Parpulov’s British business partner, David Bamford, said.
The 28 women working at the Hemus factory take several months to complete a single giant-size carpet – their largest creations have reached over 120 square meters.
They usually make just about 10 such tapestries each year, at a sale price of approximately $200 per square meter.
The factory also dyes the wool for the rugs, exactly matching the colors and design of the ceiling, wallpaper and furniture of their clients’ stately homes.
Almost any shape and design is possible, and the weavers can also make exact replicas of ancient rugs.
The women sit at the large wooden looms for hours, surrounded by boxes full of skeins of wool of every color imaginable.
The major challenge with large rugs is to make sure the knotting is uniform throughout as “every hand knots differently,” Parpulov said.
The largest loom at the factory is 8 meters wide and the carpets are customarily made in one piece to prevent deformations.
One carpet – an 18-meter-wide one for Britain’s Osborne House, the former residence of Queen Victoria – was made in three parts.
“It is nice to know that what you’re making will go where you will never go, and that royal feet will tread on it,” said Svetla Lambova, 39, taking a short break from her carpet work.
Lambova is one of 16 local women who swapped the greenhouses and potato and onion fields in one of Bulgaria’s poorest regions to undergo a training course at the factory last year. Ten of them stayed.
“I thought it would be very hard to learn, and I would not get used to the work. ... I am still much slower than the other weavers,” she said.
“Half of the women in the course gave up,” said Svetla Mundova, 40, another of the newly employed weavers, while tying and combing the threads of a large beige and brown carpet.
When Parpulov came to the former state-owned factory as manager in the 1990s, 1,100 women worked there.
A lack of orders and the disappearance of communist-era state subsidies had put the factory on the brink of bankruptcy and led to a stark fall in employees, many of whom retired, he said.
It took years of hard work, court battles and bank negotiations to get the company back on its feet. In the end, he and Bamford were able to buy it.
“But with three or four weavers going into pension every year, I realized last year that in five years’ time, I will be left with five or six of the 18 workers I had,” Parpulov said.
He made it his “top priority” to recruit and train more women and succeeded with the help of a 74,000-leva $52,000) grant by the U.S.-funded Trust for Social Achievement.
He now dreams of substituting the wood-fired stoves in the smoky factory hall with central heating and of finding clients in Bulgaria to give him the funds necessary to train more weavers.
Until recently, his company had not sold a single large-sized carpet in the country.
Now, a beige and moss-colored rug with carmine grapes adorns a reception room at Bulgaria’s famous Rila Monastery.
“I can say now with a clear conscience that I have left something in my own country – a small pearl that fell from the pouch,” Parpulov said.