Leading the Way: The Women Shaping the Future of the Handmade Carpet Industry

A change is underway in the handmade carpet industry. The historically male-dominated field is seeing more and more women step into leadership roles, and with them comes a fresh perspective and a wealth of expertise that are slowly reshaping the landscape. We spoke with some of the women leading the way – all Label STEP Certified Partners – to learn about their experiences and why they think women are essential to forming the most holistic, sustainable future for the handmade carpet industry. 

Ali McMurter and Ana Cunningham of Creative Matters

Why the Handmade Carpet Industry?

It is no secret that a large portion of the carpet industry is composed of family run businesses. The complex and international nature of a business that is so highly reliant on personal connections lends itself well to this arrangement; however, many would tell you that it’s the artistry that inspires one generation after the next to keep returning: “I was literally born into the industry,” Theresa Paulig, co-CEO of Paulig, told us. “I grew up learning about, experiencing, and loving carpets and handwoven textiles from day one. I am the ninth generation carrying on our family business in this beautiful industry.” 

This very same artistry or love of craft is what brought many other women into the industry, whether on purpose through the study of textile or product design or by some kind of happy accident—like that of Nayla Venutira, founder of Rug Your Life, who initially set out to create a single custom rug for her baby’s nursery: “This was meant to be just a one-time event, but it turned into an exciting adventure,” she recounted. A passion for the age-old art of weaving pervades the stories of every single one of them. “The women I know who run a rug label do it out of a passion for design and textiles,” Franziska Reuber of Reuber Henning told us. “They have a very sensitive way of dealing with the material and the art of knotting; beauty and authenticity are paramount. Women’s labels have developed a new kind of language for rugs.”

Just as the handmade carpet industry itself is rich with difference, so too were the experiences of the women we spoke with. From those who entered into family run businesses to those who ended up in the carpet world as a result of a happy accident, the individuals among the group spoke of navigating a male-dominated industry with just as much range. The stand-out issue among the women who experienced the industry’s gender legacy as an obstacle was the feeling that they were underestimated or dismissed. “To be taken seriously has been the biggest hurdle,” one woman told STEP, while another expressed how she felt her suggestions weren’t always taken seriously: “I have the impression that I am spoken to in very respectful terms for being a woman, but my requests are taken less seriously, for the same reason.” Caroline Lindsell, creative director and co-founder of A RUM FELLOW, suggested how perhaps it’s been an issue of “simply not realizing the potential talent available at hand, where intelligent, skilled, hardworking women just aren’t being allowed to flourish.”

Caroline Lindsell, creative director and co-founder of A RUM FELLOW

On the other end were those who felt they did not encounter the male-dominance within the industry as an obstacle at all, expressing a sentiment of feeling generally supported or encouraged. Both sets of women, however, contained individuals like Andrea Pahl of Wool & Silk who expanded the scope beyond their personal experience to recognize the “collective challenges” women have faced across most industries “to get to where [they] are now in the work space.” Jennifer Samad of SAMAD echoed this appreciation, noting: “I have come across many pioneering women who have paved the way for the next generation, showing us what’s possible and continuing to make space for other women. Their vision, creativity and drive have spurred a refreshing shift towards creating a more dynamic and inclusive environment that continues to inspire.”

In general, there was plenty of optimism in the sense that obstacles could always be overcome with skill and perseverance. “Challenges that exist have become opportunities for growth,” Ali McMurter, managing partner of Creative Matters, told us. “As a team, we’ve found strength in our collective skills and creativity, breaking barriers along the way.”

Activating a Holistic Approach

The women demonstrated a dedication to activating a holistic approach to working. On the business side of things, this presents itself practically: None of the women we spoke with were strictly confined to a single area of operations; instead, to varying degrees, they are involved in several aspects of the business, from design and production to marketing and sales. Nicole Samad of SAMAD, who herself participates in several aspects of her family business, added how women in particular could be great contributors to these types of industries: “Working women and mothers truly know how to juggle multiple tasks at once, and I believe that it is a great strength.”

Women in leadership are also helping to steer the thinking toward a more holistic view of a rug’s life, including the impacts on the people creating it and using it as well as the environment. Mareike Lienau of Lyk Carpets, highlighted how this is essential to her process as an industrial designer: “My holistic approach aims to create an intercultural connection between people, materials, and tradition. This approach goes beyond pure craftsmanship … The person who lives with the product and the person who makes the product are at the center of my work.” Approaches like Lienau’s emphasize how careful holistic thinking—how the micro influences the macro and vice versa—are in effect gestures toward a more decolonial, feminist model of creation that uplifts and empowers more individuals.

A Focus on Female Creators

In an industry where women are the primary producers, having female leaders who understand the unique hurdles women face in the workplace—such as equal pay, childcare, and discrimination—is crucial for fostering a supportive and inclusive environment. Women in leadership roles play a crucial role in ensuring that the concerns of this segment of the population are not only acknowledged but also addressed from a relatable and empathetic perspective,” said Nathalia Gregores of Shame Studios. “As the world develops, and more and more women join the workforce, we will all become a crucial part of continuing and promoting the knowledge and traditions of this craft.” 

Nathalia Gregores of Shame Studios

Among these women, we also see a gesture toward revising the legacy of male dominance in design, generally; in a movement toward celebrating not only contemporary female voices in design but also historical ones that were overlooked or suppressed. The most recent collection from ClassiCon, for example, which was assembled with the support of CEO Larissa Sarjeant, features rugs exclusively designed by Eileen Gray, one of the most influential female architects and designers of furniture in the early 20th century.

Working in collaboration with Kirkit Rugs, Dorothy Bourne of Christopher Farr helped realize a similar collection featuring designs of Bauhaus designer Anni Albers, as was featured in the Women Behind the Weave exhibition. Several of the leaders we spoke with also pointed out how women have traditionally made the aesthetic decisions for the home, so having a woman’s perspective in design and leadership roles is very valuable for the industry as a whole. “It is very important within the design sector that women are given a leadership role,” Irène Münger of Studio5 affirmed. “It is time to show our perspective.

The Importance of Diverse Leadership

As the handmade carpet industry continues to evolve, the voices and contributions of women in leadership roles are becoming increasingly vital. Their diverse perspectives, coupled with a deep-rooted passion for the craft, are paving the way for an even more inclusive and dynamic future. As Maryam Ebrahimi of EDELGRUND put it, this change also reflects the lived reality of the industry: 

Despite the historical management of carpet trade by men, women have long been the primary contributors to the weaving and production processes. Throughout the history of the carpet business, women have consistently served as the backbone of the industry, progressing from laborers to designers and, eventually, becoming trade and business owners. As women attain success in diverse aspects of the carpet business, the industry naturally progresses towards greater inclusivity and openness, acknowledging the longstanding contributions of women in the carpet industry.

The women spoke of the need for diversity of all kinds in leadership. “Diversity matters,” said Carmen Lama of THANK GOD IT’S FAIR WEAR. “Different perspectives enrich any business and foster innovation.” Many of the women also spoke of how greater diversity leads to more balanced decision-making guided by empathy, communication, and creativity. “From my experience, women have a high ability to show empathy and curiosity, which is necessary to cooperate with many cultures,” Annique Drechsle of Designercarpets told us. “This cultural flexibility has always characterized the carpet business and it is crucial to its success.” This sentiment was mirrored by Ana Cunningham of Creative Matters who noted how integrating women into leadership roles “is crucial for cultivating a better future” in the handmade carpet industry. “Their presence introduces diverse perspectives, creativity and resilience, fostering an inclusive and innovative environment.”

By embracing female leadership, the industry is not only recognizing the talent and expertise of women but also ensuring its relevance and resilience in an ever-changing world. “It is just the most empowering message for all women from all countries that we can succeed in the rug industry regardless of the challenges we face,” said Bonnie Sutton of Knots Rugs. “Most carpet weaving countries are still very patriarchal, and women do not have the same rights as their male counterparts. More women in the carpet industry can only be a positive step forward to address this.” As a younger generation comes through the ranks, a more progressive era for the rug industry is underway—one that is ready to inspire the next generation of female leaders, as Vida ter Hazeborg of IPEK and Rugtales put it: “It is generally important to signal to women that the rug industry could also be interesting for them as a career. Even with children and a family! I myself am the mother of two little girls, and it is very important to me that they learn early on that they can become anything they want.”

Vida ter Hazeborg of IPEK and Rugtales

This article is a continuation of our series on women in the industry that began with The Women Behind the Weave: Past, Present, and Future, which looked at the often overlooked contributions of female weavers and designers.

Next up in the series is Women Facilitating Change: Interviews with Tanveer Jahan and Prasuna Saakha, originally published in COVER Magazine, which looks at STEP representatives helping to make change on the ground.

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