An International Journey: Growing a Business in a Foreign Land

Business and Culture in Romania

It began several years ago in Bucharest when as a Fulbright scholar teaching public policy in Bucharest I discovered that making hand loomed rugs was an old tradition in Romania.  Perhaps, I was destined to collect these rugs since trying my hand at importing hand crafted items had always been on my list “to do.”

Growing a business is a challenge, especially when its product comes from a country in eastern Europe where its producers have experienced economic and political times very different from mine. The rug makers I know may well remember during their lifetimes an abdication of a king, occupation by the Soviets after WWII, widespread suffering under the rule of a harsh dictator , the 1989 Romanian Revolution which brought an end to the communist era and most recently the accession and finally, the membership of Romania in the EU. And during these tumultuous times, geographic regions have been lost to other countries and then regained.  They have experienced times of extreme want and hardship and now, in an amazingly short period of time, they are participating in a free market system.
 
I am often asked about possible familial ties to Romania. There aren’t any.  My ties to Romania are based on feelings of respect toward work done by hand and the way of life supporting it.  I am interested in helping foster a tradition that spans the generations and yet remains vibrant as techniques and designs are reinterpreted over time. During one visit to Romania four years ago, we helped celebrate its membership in the EU. Opportunities for a newer, stronger economy will hopefully evolve, making life better for people in the cities as well as in villages.  However, there must be a place for the old, too.
 
The younger generation (40 and under) in Romania speaks English well. Although this group, with a rare exception, is not the cohort weaving rugs at home, they do use the internet and are the grandchildren and other young relatives of the rug makers whom I know. They are my email contacts. Today, when email doesn’t seem to work, a good friend in Bucharest makes phone calls for me.  Everyone, regardless of where they live, has a mobile phone.
 
My interest in Romanian hand loomed rugs took shape about four years ago when I met several rug makers at a juried craft show during our stay in Bucharest. Returning to the show the next day with a map of Romania I asked them to pinpoint where they lived in the hopes of a possible visit.  Along the way of this venture I have had incredible help from many persons, beginning with the granddaughter of our landlord, a high school junior fluent in English, who would call the rug makers for me. When we received a positive response, she helped us navigate train schedules and the process of buying train tickets. In retrospect, our first visits must have been new experiences for both the rug makers and us, the buyers. (I often had the feeling back then that the rug makers were surprised that we actually turned up.)  One rug maker when meeting us at the train station near her town told us (through a translator) that she had not slept the night before we came.  Of course, neither had we.
  
Since then I like to visit Romania once a year to collect rugs and see what the rug makers are doing. The rail system radiating from Bucharest gets me where I need to go. One needs, however, when boarding to make sure to get on the right train car since at various stations along the way, various railway cars are detached for other destinations. The trips are long, but worth the ride with scenic views of the agricultural countryside, villages and industry. The desolate buildings of former collective farms are a reminder of the communist era, a 42 year long period ending with the 1989 Revolution.
 
The trip to northwestern Romania is especially noteworthy: the train leaves early evening with arrival early the next morning. In the dark it would be easy to miss the station stop, a lone station house near the Ukrainian border. But the train does stop and the passengers disembark by jumping from the train steps to the ground, helping each other as there is no platform. The rug maker waiting for us is a most welcome sight.

The rug makers I know have learned to make rugs from their families or have had formal training in state-run workshops or in monasteries during the 50’s and 60’s. These workshops were said to have given rise to a uniformity of design, wiping out individuality that had blossomed during the first half of the 20th century. This explains the similarity of designs in a particular region. I know one weaver who uses the same design motifs she learned back in a workshop,  but fortunately for us, her individuality is expressed through the colors she selects.  Another rug maker who was taught at a monastery uses the same design motifs she learned but over time has incorporated other motifs inspired by her garden. Most rug makers I know  worked for the “state” during the communist period  and  only after retirement have they been able to do full time what they have truly wanted to do all these years: create hand loomed rugs in their homes.
 
A husband wife team of rug makers younger than the others has had different training.  The wife learned rug making from her family and  inherited the loom she uses from her grandmother.  She was educated as a textile engineer and her husband, as a textile chemist. Together, they are using their knowledge to interpret traditional designs for contemporary effects and to restore the very old tradition of creating dyes from plant materials,  a custom dating back to the beginning of the 20th century but one which was gradually lost during the remainder of the century.
My visits to rug makers in their homes are warm and hospitable, part business and part social:  food prepared for the occasion and visits often arranged to area sights, like an old church or monastery.   When the time comes for our transactions, rugs are measured and prices quoted per sq meter, with the price varying according to the complexity of the design. So far the prices seem fair, fair enough for me to be able to sell in the American market place and fair enough for the rug maker to continue her craft.    As far as I know, I am the only American importing rugs from Romania.
 
  The very nature of rug making in Romania is decentralized, which means individual rug makers making and selling rugs in their home and for me, necessitating buying from a number of rug makers.  Of course it is this very individuality of rug making that accounts for its charm and uniqueness. It takes about 3-4 weeks for a rug maker to actually weave a popular sized rug of 33” x 58”. However, the process of creating a rug begins long before the actual weaving. Although the rug makers whom I know do not raise their own sheep they are very selective in purchasing the wool, generally buying from the same shepherd each year.  (In many parts of Romania, sheep from villages are taken to the mountains for the warmer months, coming back in the fall. According to local legend, it is this “summering” which produces the best wool.) After purchase comes the washing of wool by hand in nearby streams and then spinning of the wool, both tasks often done by the rug maker herself. Finally, it is time to set up the loom once more and begin a process that spans the centuries.

My business model includes communicating as much information as possible about each rug: where it was made, who made it, the types of dyes used and the meanings of the design motifs. The meanings of the designs are the most interesting but the hardest to determine.  The history of design is especially complex as Romania found itself at the geographic intersection of various cultures at various times: Byzantine, Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Balkans and the West, particularly France. Contacts with rug specialists at the highly regarded Peasant Museum in Bucharest have been valuable in helping me understand that the meanings to individual rug makers are not generally the historical ones nor the ones spread by trade or migration but the ones related to their own way of life. When I ask the rug makers about the meaning of the designs they have woven, it is often difficult for them to tell me. Perhaps they can’t find the right words or maybe they have forgotten the meaning from long ago.

The last thing I need to do in bringing rugs to this country is to enter them legitimately into the commerce of this country, or in other words, bring them through US Customs. Although there is no quota on hand loomed rugs imported from Romania nor is there customs duty on this particular type of hand loomed rug, this is no easy task.  Even though my contribution to US commerce (and the trade deficit) is miniscule, the paper work is enormous and I have learned that it is more effective to hire a customs broker to handle it.

Once the goods have cleared, I go from the fun part of the supply chain, selecting rugs and getting them here, to the other end of the supply chain, far removed in miles and culture from where the rugs originated. It’s time to tell the story of Romanian rugs to the American consumer, but that is another story.