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History of Rug Making

Updated on February 18, 2011

Rugs have been woven on looms for at least 5,000 years. An Egyptian fresco of about 3000 B.C. depicts weavers working at a loom, and early Egyptian tombs show similar pictures. Ancient records, including the Bible, mention the use of rugs. Crude hand weaving began in the Middle East, probably in Mesopotamia. Woven floor coverings were used in Egyptian temples by 1500 B.C. and in Assyrian palaces by 800 B.C. These rugs were woven in the flat tapestry style and therefore had no pile. By the 6th century B.C., Persia was the greatest center of rug weaving. Persian rugs, with their rich pile, were highly valued by the ancient Greeks and Romans. During the Middle Ages, Crusaders returning from the Middle East brought Oriental rugs to cover the cold stone floors of castles and cathedrals. European interest in rug making was stimulated. At the beginning of the 17th century, Henry IV of France established the first European rug-making factory, a workroom in the Louvre palace. Soon afterward, factories were opened at Aubusson and at Paris. Aubus-son became the name of a flat rug weave that is similar to tapestry work but uses a coarser stitch. Savon-nerie rugs, as the rugs woven in Paris were called, had a deep rich pile similar to that of Oriental rugs. These two weaves are among the most famous in European rug-making history. Designed by the greatest artists of the 17th century and woven with exquisite care, rugs of this kind were works of art created at the command of kings. In 1685 the Edict of Nantes, which had guaranteed the rights of French Protestants, was revoked. Many French carpet weavers, most of whom were Protestants, fled to the Netherlands and to England. In Brussels they devised the looped-pile weave that is now famous as Brussels carpet. In England the rug-weaving industry developed in the towns of Wilton, Axminster, and Kidderminster. In 1800 the first mechanical loom was invented by Joseph Jacquard of Lyons, France. This device included the perforated cards and mechanical needles that are still used in the manufacture of Wilton rugs. Jacquard's loom decreased production costs and made rugs available to more people. However, large-scale production of carpets was impossible until 1839, when Erastus Bigelow, an American, invented a steam-driven loom. Before this invention the product of a single weaver's workday of 10 to 12 hours was 7 square yards of carpet. Bigelow's loom produced more than 25 square yards of improved fabric in the same amount of time. The first power loom produced narrow carpets, usually 27 inches wide, which were sewn together to make larger sizes. The development of wider looms made it possible to weave large seamless rugs in widths up to 18 feet. These looms brought into use the term "broadloom," which refers to any carpet woven in one piece on a loom at least 6. feet wide. The invention of new machines and synthetic fibers has greatly stimulated the manufacture of rugs and carpets in the 20th century. The earliest carpets from the Caucasus, and the only important large carpets from that region, seem to have been produced round the village of Kuba in eastern Daghestan. The finest of these are called "Dragon" carpets because the chief feature of the design is a highly conventionalized dragon, sometimes in conflict with a feng-bird (phoenix), a motif harking back to ancient Chinese sources, rendered here with exceptional power, strong geometrical stylization, and sharply serrated outlines creating an almost ferocious intensity, which, with the vivid coloring—predominantly red, yellow, and white, combined with a notably fine light violet—give these carpets an archaic force that is not surpassed in any fabric or any other comparable design scheme. Almost equally impressive are a few other pieces, of varied pattern but continuing the huge scale and monumental energy. By the early 17th century, the Kuba region was also producing a more conventional style, using the same weaving technique, with large geometrical palmettes, of ultimate Persian derivation, sometimes on a red field, more often on blue. Some versions of this type became standardized, and an export trade in them attained considerable proportions, doubtless because of successful price competition, due to the coarser weaving which made them less expensive. In the late 18th, and 19th centuries, weavers in Caucasus villages and towns produced rugs with clean, lively, and endlessly varied geometric motifs: panels, octagons, stars, often with reciprocals for outlines and margins, rendered in a great variety of colors, with intricate and ingenious color changes in the pattern development. These vary in character from the paper-thin, lapidarian elegance of the finest Kuba rugs —called Cabistan in the trade—to the deep-piled, intensely colored, strong patterned work of the Kazaks. The chief designations are: Shirvan, Ghila, Baku, Shemakha (flat, woven in a twined stitch, wrongly called Kashmir), Tiflis, Ganje, and Mughan; but there are countless other villages and valleys whose work is not specifically recognized, save locally. Central Asia has been especially known for the "Bukharas," gorgeous, deep muffled red rugs with varied octagon panels. Actually, Bukhara was only the principal assembly and shipping point for the work of thirty or forty Turkoman tribes, whose territory ranges from north and east Persia and Afghanistan through the whole of Russian Turkestan. The Turkomans are a rather rude people, largely nomadic, and it is significant that they could have developed rug styles with such finely drawn patterns, such magnificent color harmonies, and often of exquisitely luxurious texture. The largest group are the Tekkes, and the somewhat similar Yomuds. More varied designs are attributed to the Beshir group. Smaller tribes like the Salor and Akhal have their distinctive types, and many find most interesting the productions of the Punjeh, in which the deep reds are combined with very dark blues and browns punctuated with tiny flecks of white cotton. A few of these Turkoman carpets were woven for the palaces of the city-dwelling khans, but most are made for tents, including curtains and tent borders, as well as saddle and camel bags. Rug weaving in China, while not as ancient as in Western Asia, is still of considerable antiquity, at least a thousand years old. A large temple carpet, belonging to the Textile Museum of the District of Columbia, has broadly rendered plant patterns on a huge scale on a clear golden tan ground, which have close affiliations with designs in other media that seem to be peculiar to the late T'ang and early Sung period; hence, it is assumed that the carpet, which is unparalleled except by one or two small fragments, dates from this early time. By the 15th and 16th centuries some of the principal characteristics of Chinese rug design were well established, and these were quite distinct from other rug styles. In clarity, simplicity, and dignity the Chinese carpets achieved an endearing quality. The patterns, which are typically though not invariably in dark (indigo-blues) on lighter grounds (tawny tans and golden yellows), strongly contrasted, are very simple: openwork geometrical patterns, including typical Chinese geometrical meanders; simple stylized lotuses, which were at this time popular throughout Asia; and lobed and curving foliation which has parallels on porcelains. The reserve, quiet spacing, luxurious pile, and glow of the tones in these earlier carpets all remain essential features of later weaving. Later, the motifs are exceedingly varied: animals, real and fantastic; floral ornaments; intricate openwork, round medallions, or square panels. Buddhist and Taoist symbols are often distributed, rather loosely, over the field. Other themes are frankly adopted from paintings or other representative arts. Detached elements like the "hundred antiques" or some of the pictorial motifs are not easily integrated. Moreover, the meanings of many are still apparent (which is more than could be said of most Persian patterns), and the literary and intellectual interest sometimes competes with the aristocratic poise and assurance that the greater carpets convey. But despite these problems, which resulted in part from a weakness for virtuosity which also marred many later porcelains, most have considerable charm. The finest, particularly in the Kang H'si period, follow the layout of the beautiful bronze mirrors, while others have the entire field covered, as a background for larger, overlaid units, with a honeycomb imbrication or other simple repeating pattern which gives textile richness and continuity. Such pieces often attain a noble tranquility. To the old blues, tans, and yellow are sometimes added a brilliant rose or, more rarely, a deep red, or often there is a soft pomegranate made with a fugitive red dyed over yellow. All Chinese rugs are somewhat loosely woven of rather soft wool. The Western World found the old pieces so attractive that there was a commercial revival of the established styles at the beginning of this century, and many handsome carpets were achieved. Rugs have been woven for at least two centuries in East Turkestan—Kashgar, Yarkand, Khotan—which are really extensions of the Chinese style. Kashgar rugs are often called Samarkand as that city has been the most convenient market exit for that district in the past. The Khotan rugs have a ground of rather brassy metal, reminiscent of the gold-ground silks of western Asia, but they rarely achieve any artistic quality, and all the rugs of this region must be accounted provincial. Even more enslaved by Chinese precedents are the rather small, coarse rugs woven in Tibet, especially in Gyangtse, though the best of these sometimes have a local flavor of real distinction. Carpets had certainly been woven in North Africa, at least since early Islamic times, and the art was carried by the Moors into Spain. The rich and powerful admirals of the end of the 15th and 16th centuries commanded for their palaces splendid great floor coverings, identified by their coats of arms, which show stylistic affinities with Caucasus types. Other Spanish weavings, like the blue and yellow carpets from Alcazar, which have few and simple colors and are rather coarse in weaving, echo Asia Minor types, like the "Lotto" rugs. A wholly different style, woven in Salamanca, has typically a round central motif and wreaths against delicate, lacelike repeating patterns, chiefly in rose red and pale green. The Spanish rugs, like the Chinese at the opposite side of the rug weaving world, have great dignity, and for all their simplicity, a marked affirmative character. Rug weaving continued in Spain in a variety of types not yet assignable to definite districts. By the end of the 17th century the firm and coherent designs began to degenerate into increasing confusion. Embroidered carpets also were made, imitating Persian carpets, of the so-called Isfahan type. Some of the old native merits were continued in simple, looped-pile rugs, made by the peasants of Alpuj arras in the Pyrenees, down to the present day. In North Africa weavers continued to produce heavy, loose-piled rugs with paneled designs which have Asia Minor affiliations. This style, agreeable though not important, was recently revived under French direction. Similar conditions were responsible for the great carpets of Egypt, India, and Turkey. Again, only lavish monarchs with limitless resources and exacting taste could have produced such masterpieces as the few magnificent Cairene carpets which reproduce the mosaic patterns of Fatimid Egypt; or the exquisite prayer rugs of the Turkish court looms of the 16th century and the accompanying room carpets, ornamented with exquisite feathery, lanceolate leaves, picked out in fresh white cotton on a soft, pale red ground. Indian rug weaving has a brief history. Carpets were less needed in that hot climate; thin mats and fabrics apparently sufficing. Baber (1526-1530) and Akbar (1556-1605), however, introduced the customs of the cultivated and sophisticated Islamic world, including Persian gardens, rich polychrome architecture, and sumptuous textiles and carpets. At first fine rugs were imported from Persia (Herat, Kerman, Joshaghan), or Central Asia, but Akbar established royal looms which were greatly developed by Shah Jehan and his associates. The first carpets made on these looms frankly followed Persian models, continuing the traditions of the scrolling foliate vines and palmettes of the Herat style, or the large blossoms on ogival framework that are the feature of the Joshaghan court carpets. But the creation of beauty was regarded as one of the prerogatives of a great ruler and staggering sums were available for anything the emperor wished. The assumption that the carpet art could be improved by making it somehow commensurate with the vast wealth that could be expended on it, together with the passion for richness and elegance which found fulfillment in Mughal (Mogul) palaces and mosques, carried carpet weaving to extraordinary degrees of finesse. At tremendous cost and effort, which passed the point of diminishing returns, carpets were woven with 1,200 to 2,500 knots to the square inch; and the wool of carpets made for Shah Jehan is indistinguishable, except by technical tests, from silk, while their glowing red could hardly be surpassed by his famous rubies. Moreover, since Persian carpets depicted plants, animals, and even personages, the Indian weavers undertook to render these same subjects with still more detailed naturalism. Rugs were made that are hardly more than amazingly skill-ful woven paintings, and in some of these carpets the elements are assembled almost at random ; the intellectual organismic unity of Persian compositions is completely wanting. It was virtuosity that was in high esteem. Soon inspiration was faltering, and revenues, though still colossal, began to be inadequate to aesthetic ambitions. Carpet designs became increasingly rigid and unpoetic; subtlety, allusion, and rich color harmonies disappear. During the great period there is no evidence of anything having been created for general use. But thereafter India began weaving both for export and for a less exacting domestic clientele. Deterioration accelerated apace. The chief factories were in the main Mughal cities: Delhi, Agra, Lahore, and Amritsar. The craft continued, and in the late 19th century weaving was introduced into prisons under government supervision and with excellent materials. These products found a large export market, though they could not compete in design with the best contemporary Persian and Turkish work. Weaving is still carried on on a considerable scale, and some special looms in both Amritsar and Kashmir turn out pretty good imitations of classical Persian carpets, while other centers like Masulipatam distribute uninspired products, largely to a local clientele. Turkey, in addition to the court shops had many commercial looms which found a lively export market, as well as a substantial production of tribal and town types of great interest and beauty. The shops of Oushak turned out large carpets with an interesting design of interlacing arabesques in gold on a mellow red ground, or big pieces with great star-medallions, predominantly in yellow on red, both types reflecting earlier Persian styles. Smaller examples of the arabesque type appear so often in the paintings of Lorenzo Lotto that they are often called by his name, and the earliest of the star-medallion Oushaka are shown in paintings of some of the Venetians, notably Paris Bordone's Ring and the Fisherman. Gorgeous pieces apparently were owned by Louis XIV, and at Jean Baptiste Colbert's suggestion the Gobelins shops undertook, without success, to manufacture the type. Another contemporary Turkish type, with geometrical foliation in the field and interlacing pseudo-Kufic borders, also predominantly in yellow and red, appears in many other European paintings and is so strikingly used in some of Holbein's work that they are named for him. Where these were woven we do not know, but their clear color and firm designs, their dignity and strength give them high rank. Still another Turkish type, that goes back certainly to as early as the 15th century, appears in Flemish paintings, such as those of the brothers Van Eyck and Memling. Here the dominant patterns are complex octagons in rich reds, blues, and greens. The designs are so close to those woven in recent times by tribes marketing their wares at Bergama that a continuity of production seems certain. A number of small Turkish mats, about three by five feet, woven apparently in the 16th and 17th centuries, with a little central medallion on a panel of incredibly intense red, have also been assigned to Bergama. The same weavers also used a white or tawny field with the color intensity concentrated in the medallion and small border units. By the 18th century, Turkey, which had prospered mightily under the able sultans, had developed an immense repertoire of carpet designs, and had become especially successful in devising effective prayer rugs. The commonest type, woven in various places, has a plain panel, red, blue, or green, often of great purity and depth, with spandrel and border patterns consisting of geometrically rendered plant motifs. Except in the spandrels over the arch there is no movement in these designs, none of the graceful undulating vines typical of the Persian carpets and their Indian derivatives; but the effect of the Turkish compositions is rich and tranquil, neither intellectual nor poetic like the Persian inventions, but mellow and sumptuous and glowing. The acme of refinement was achieved by looms in Ghiordes and Kula. The more commonplace examples of these types tend to be weak and monotonous, but the finest have real beauty and a highly individual quality. The Ghiordes tend to be thin, are usually in rather light colors and have multiple narrow borders with very finely divided patterns. Kulas are thicker and coarser, often blue and yellow, though the most striking examples have a plain red field. Laodicaea of the Bible, the modern Ladik (now Denizli), was apparently responsible for a beautiful type of prayer rug in the 16th and 17th centuries, distinguished by plain panels defined by slender double columns, the only successful application of architectural motifs to carpet design. These columns were also used in other Asia Minor types. The Ladiks from the end of the 18th century, a dating determined by a few superior inscribed pieces, had changed in style, and are marked by a plain red panel with a band across the top of lilies or tulips. A good Ladik is one of the handsomest of the Asia Minor carpets.


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