It started serendipitously nine years ago. Giuseppe Di Leo and Jim Hampton, friends and fellow teachers at a Montreal high school, attended an auction of oriental rugs.
“We’d seen ads in the newspaper and wanted to know more,” Di Leo said. They each bought a rug and, says Di Leo, “probably paid too much.”
The experience implanted in them what Di Leo calls “the rug bug.” The two friends began studying and learning everything they could about oriental rugs and then they began collecting them.
Some of the rugs from their collections are on show until March 29 at the Museum of Costume and Textile of Quebec in St. Lambert.
The rugs hail from the Caucasus, the geographic region between the Black and Caspian seas that includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, Dagehestan and Georgia.
The exhibition features 27 rugs, on loan from 10 collectors who are members of the Montreal Oriental Rug Society.
“This is a focused exhibition of rugs from that particular region,” says Di Leo, a co-curator of the exhibition with Hampton. “Caucasian rugs feature geometrical patterns: stars, flowers, plants and stylized animals.”
A few are kilims, meaning that they’re flat-woven, and the rest are pile rugs, he said.
And because they’re antiques, ranging in age from 100 to 150 years old, the colours come from natural vegetable dyes. “When you look at them, you’re mesmerized by the colour and geometric shapes, by the designs and materials,” Di Leo said.
Hampton describes himself as an eclectic collector. “I like Persian, Turkish, Caucasian and Turkomen rugs,” he said, adding that as a “rug hunter,” he finds his best treasures at estate sales. “Washington and Boston are where the really avid collectors are,” he said. “But the Montreal Oriental Rug Society has been going on since the 1970s, and we’re resurrecting it now.”
The society began having shows at Di Leo’s urging. Now an art teacher at Dawson College, he co-curated a show at the CEGEP last year.
Di Leo says he and his friend educated themselves about the rugs by reading, attending auctions and visiting rug dealers. “We wanted to know why there’s such a large price range in Oriental rugs,” he said. “To understand a rug, you must understand its structure, its colours and whether the warp and weft are in cotton or wool.”
The antique rugs were made by nomadic peoples. “These were individuals who were not sophisticated artistically but they were very strong in how they used colour and pattern. For them, creating rugs is an intuitive process,” Di Leo said. “The rugs speak to me. I wonder what the weavers were thinking while making them. Every knot has a thought in it. This is a matriarchal industry that gets passed down from mother to daughter.”
Di Leo and Hampton will be at the museum with several other collectors on Saturday, Feb. 7 to discuss the rugs. Anyone who owns an oriental rug and has questions they’d like answered is invited to take the carpets to the museum that day.
The Museum of Costume and Textile of Quebec is at 349 Riverside St., St. Lambert. It’s open from Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends. Admission is $4.