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Rug Design

Updated on February 18, 2011

Design, Pattern Making Materials, Technique

Whatever fine art there is in a carpet is born in the spirit of the designer; but his noblest conceptions can be frustrated if the other factors are not favorable. The second step in the process, the making of the cartoon, determines whether the composition shall be clearly defined and the designs drawn with expressive contours.

But none of this is of avail if the materials be poor. Wool is the principal ingredient; it is almost essential for the warps, though a few of the very costly court carpets are on silk warps, and it is the almost universal pile material. But of wools there are some 200 kinds, varying from the soft plushy wool of Khurasan, to the brilliant hard white wool of Ahar in the northwest of Persia, or of Kerman in the southeast. The dyers' work can be either enhanced or defeated by the quality of the wool. Of two kinds of wool in the same dye vat, one will come out brilliant and lustrous, the other weak and dull.

The final quality of the wool depends on the water used for washing. Some water, because of lime or other minerals in it, hardens the wool, until it is almost impervious to dyes; others may give the wool superb luster. In some cases where the water is particularly favorable, the wool may be washed as much as a dozen times. The story goes that it is done sixty times in Khurasan, but that is romance.

Some of the 16th century court carpets, like the Austrian Hunting Carpet or a superb piece in the Swedish Royal Collection, have silk pile. But these are rare, special creations. Modern silk carpets are invariably artistically inferior, depending for effect on the meretricious qualities of sleekness and the implication of expensiveness.

Cotton is impossible for pile, save in small areas where it can provide an enlivening contrast ; but it is used in some types in the foundation structure. Undyed camel's hair for pile makes a quiet and satisfying background.

Dyes, also, are of infinite variety and of a very wide range of cost. To the innumerable dye plants are to be added such odd products as apple wood and straw, which, when properly compounded, give a brilliant yellow; and also animal products, such as the cochineal insect which provides unmatchable scarlet. Certain minerals likewise can be used, and in the preparation of many dyes the quality of the available water is again decisive.

In rugs fifty or more years old, the synthetic aniline dyes are an unqualified misfortune. On the whole, the chemical dyes of that period were unkind to the wool, more or less harsh in tone, and tended to be fugitive. Modern chemical dyes have been greatly improved until they are, in some instances, as good or even better than the corresponding vegetable dye, and ever so much cheaper, for example, indigo.

The superb colors of the great antique rugs are due to a combination of perfect wool, perfect water, and skillful dyeing. The softness of the colors in the very fine pieces is not the result of fading, and the usual sentimental comparison to old violins has little to commend if. Richness of color is the result of purity of tone and superlative skill in color juxtaposition and balance.

The final result of a carpet depends on the weaver. He is likely to insert slight minor elements into the cartoon, or modify those indicated, and his experience may guide him to inconspicuous but still effective improvements. On the other hand, any deficiency in carrying out the patterns with minute elegance is fatal for the placement of a few knots can make or mar artistic quality. Loose, uneven knotting will ruin any pattern, no matter how broad and simple.

There are two chief techniques : the ancient tapestry weave, with some variations, which makes a flat rug (so-called khilim) ; and the knotting technique which makes the pile carpets. This consists of twisting short pieces of wool round warp strings so that the ends stand up on the surface as tufts, either together between two warps (the ghiordes or Turkish knot), or with one end between, the other to one side of a pair of warps (Senna or Persian knot). The latter supposedly gives a finer surface and sharper delineations, but the advantage is more theoretical than real. Between every two rows of knots there are cloth-woven wefts, and the character of the foundation and of edge finishes are decisive features in identifying the provenance, especially of the tribal and town rugs.

The Patron

The clientele is as vital to great achievement as the designer and weaver. Without enthusiastic, informed, and discriminating patronage, ready to reward with honor, wealth, and opportunity any supreme accomplishment, carpets as serious works of art will not be created. These necessary preconditions are present in abundance for the classical carpets of Persia, India, Turkey, and Egypt. Not only did the great rulers establish endowed looms where the profit motive need play no part and the passion for perfection could have full scope, but also they made provision for the finest possible materials: specially bred sheep, specially cultivated dye plants; and they offered high rewards and opportunities for talented designers and weavers. The great carpets of the 16th century cost as much as palaces, and in many cases took longer to complete. Nobles and rich merchants also contributed to the maintenance of high standards. Rugs have been important adjuncts to every household for many centuries; they have represented wealth and luxury for every family, and have frequently been their most prized possessions. Into the planning and production have gone the talents and taste of a whole people supremely gifted in the noble and significant art of pure decoration.

Even in periods of specialization, carpets in the Near East were in a very real sense a production of the entire people. Tribal and town weavers were held to their standards by the experienced judgment of their own people, for the whole community have been connoisseurs within their own tradition. Nearly every house had its own weaving establishment, as many still do in Persia today. Even the poor supplemented their meager resources by weaving rugs, and it has always been one of the most important occupations of the tribes-peoples, both nomadic and sedentary. The carpet masterpieces could not have attained their supremacy without contributions from these more humble sources. Both harked back to ancient sources and rich, slowly maturing artistic experience; into both went the talents and the taste of peoples supremely gifted in the noble and significant art of pure decoration. It was the collapse of a generous and exacting clientele, along with the decline of the other arts and economic depression throughout the East, that almost compassed the ruin of this art.

Western patronage has by no means been wholly fortunate. The demand for maximum speed of production and minimum price, and Western aesthetic limitations and vagaries, which turned Western patrons, for instance, from rich and vigorous colors to weak and pallid tones (one of the many crimes committed in the name of harmony), have had a disastrous effect on Oriental carpet weaving. Efforts to revive the art, undertaken by various governments and already partly successful, will have an uphill struggle until the Western buyer is sufficiently sophisticated to prefer indigenous characteristic artistic qualities to his own fashions of the moment.

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