Little did we know that a rug on the racks at IKEA could once have softened the step of person living in Persia, or carpeted the tents of a nomadic Iranian tribe. Yet it seems there’s a story–sometimes even a song–behind many a throw in their range.
A few years ago the furniture giant opened weaving centres in Uttar Pradesh, a region oft referred to as ‘India’s rug belt,’ where weavers have been working for 300 years – in extremely strenuous conditions, for a pittance – until IKEA came along and shook things up.
This was news to us. But the songs were news to IKEA when, on deciding to tweak the design of its flower-emblazoned ALVINE rug, the company discovered a ditty had been composed to aid its construction.
“The women in the IKEA weaving centres have developed songs that describe how to make specific patterns, so changing the pattern would have upset their rhythm,” says IKEA home furnishing specialist, Jane Hedstorm. “In the end, we just updated the colours so the women in the weaving centres didn’t have to change their song.”
Rugs like ALVINE come as a result of a big, world-bettering vision.
“To change the industry IKEA needed a fresh start and a new model,” says Jane, as the company had previously removed production of its hand-woven rugs from India. “That’s why we opened our own weaving centres – to guarantee great working conditions for our workers and help to raise the industry bar.” Here’s what’s afoot behind the scenes.
How does IKEA come up with designs for its rugs? We have a team of just 12 designers plus three interns and freelancers who are responsible for designing all of our products. [They] work together with the weavers to find out what is possible, what patterns work best and the optimal number of colours to be woven into each design. Persian rugs, on the other hand, can often have an entire history from another home before they make it to an IKEA store. Rugs like the PERSISK KELIM GASHGAI are handmade within nomadic tribes. Patterns have been passed from generation to generation and are inspired by traditions and the surroundings in which they live, and that’s the way we keep it. Other rugs like the PERSISK HAMADAN are hand knotted rugs produced in villages in Persia, Iran, by women to use in their own homes. We purchase these rugs from nomadic tribes and local villages when they no longer need them, and then they are hand washed and mended before they are ready to sell in store.
Back in Uttar Pradesh, how are the weaving centres regulated? Respect for human rights, based on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, is part of everything we do and is included in our supplier code of conduct, called the IWAY Standard. All suppliers are regularly monitored to ensure that they are compliant with all our IWAY regulations. For example, workers were previously paid in cash, this however was not IWAY compliant. As there was no ATM in the village, workers would not have been able to access their pay. We worked with the bank to install an ATM and it was such an important event that IKEA representatives along with the local bank manager were invited to the opening ceremony of the first ATM in the village.
In what other ways have the centres changed the lives of the weavers? IKEA has organised a bus to take the weavers from the village to the factory and then home again. Normally they had to walk 5-10 kilometres each way which is very dangerous, now they not only save time and but can safely travel to and from work with friends. The fact that the weavers get to go home at the end of the day is in itself so special. Before the weaving centres opened, weavers came from poor areas and had to travel incredible distances to get to work. As work was ad hoc, if they went home to visit their family they faced the risk of missing a job and therefore had to forgo their pay. They were not only separated from their families but also lived in horrible conditions.
We heard you also introduced a modern weaving loom… The traditional loom meant workers would sit on the ground for hours, which was back breaking work. Two people had to operate the machine at the same time, which affected production time and the workers’ wages as they relied on another person to get the job done. In response, we developed a new loom that mechanises the physically demanding part of the weaving. The loom is now upright which eases pressure on the back. Along with being easier to use, it can be operated by a single person meaning workers can go at their own pace and take breaks when they want. Consequently, this has also opened up the profession to women as they can now utilise the equipment.