Rugs and Tapestries
Although historians have not been able to pinpoint exactly when knotted rugs were first made, it seems probable that they have been around since human civilization began. Man first began using animal furs as clothing and flooring, but as animals became domesticated and farming increased, the use of sheared wool and silk became mediums for weaving.
There are theories about the weaving of rugs originating with the Egyptians, Chinese and even Mayans. What is clear, however, is that as with most things in nomadic life, the origins were based on clothing and shelter not ornamentation. The nomadic people would have used wool from their own flocks of sheep to weave makeshift floor coverings, blankets and even tent coverings. The style of these coverings has changed little over thousands of years, but the designs have changed dramatically.
Oriental carpet weaving as an art form, however, has now been accurately traced back to the 5th century BC. In 1947, Russian archaeologists excavating in the Pazyryk Valley of Siberia, near the outer Mongolian border in the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia unearthed a carpet from a burial chamber belonging to a Scythian Chieftain. It had been frozen in ice and was in remarkably good condition. Modern carbon dating has placed it as 2,500 years old. This carpet which measures about 6'7" x 6' is now in the Hermitage Museum at St. Petersburg, Russia. It is hand knotted with a symmetrical knot motif, which is still used in rugs today. The design on the carpet indicates that it was made by the Scythian people and not brought from Persia. Facts like the groups of 7 horses on the border, which link to Scythian traditions of burying 7 horses with a chieftain certainly prove this, along with elk, not normally found in Persia.
The Old Testament regarded carpets as precious artifacts in the building of King Solomon's Temple (1014-965 BC). It talks about a fine curtain of red, purple and blue with cherubim woven into it by a skilled craftsman.
History of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 BC) is also colored with images of carpet weaving. He ruled Babylon and much of the Middle East. Each of his conquests resulted in a generous bounty of carpets and rugs. Unfortunately, wool textiles oxidize and crumble with the passage of time. There are carpet fragments dating from the 5th century that have been found throughout the Middle East. This seems to indicate that that the weaving art was highly perfected by that time. So we can see that the Scythians were not the only weavers.
Before the discovery of the Pazyryk carpet, a rug from the Sassnid Dynasty, entitled "Spring of Khosrows" was the oldest known rug. This legendary carpet was used in the winter by the King of Persia, Khosrow I (AD 531-579), to remind him of a springtime garden. He would stroll down the paths admiring the scenes. The body of the rug was made of silk. It measured 400' x 100' and weighed several tons. Blossoms, fruit and birds were worked with jewels and pearls. The wide outer border, representing a green meadow, was said to have been made of solid emeralds. When the Arabs invaded Persia they divided the rug into sections. What a great loss!
In China, carpet making dates back to the period of the Sung Dynasty (960 to 1279 AD). The Chinese produced rugs in factory workshops controlled by the emperors. The designs were characteristic of Buddhism and Taoism. Marco Polo discovered some of the earliest examples of carpets while travelling through China and Turkey in the 13th century. He was an ardent admirer of Chinese rugs.
Weaving as an art peaked in the royal court workshops in and Delhi, India during the Indian Moghul Empire in the sixteenth century.
The Romans adorned their palaces with rugs, both on the floor and on the walls. They were highly valued and were even used as payment for taxes. They were clearly perceived as better than money. It is well recorded in history that Queen Cleopatra was presented to Caesar rolled up in a carpet. Caesar ended up with two beautiful treasures.
Later still, Pakistan developed the art of carpet weaving from the Persians and even developed styles to suit the Mongolian Emperors.
One of the finest examples of carpet weaving can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It is a carpet, some 37 feet x 17 feet made of a blend of wool and silk which was found in the mosque at Ardebil in Persia, also in 1947. It has a cartouche in one corner, which bears the date AH947 in the Islamic calendar, which translates to 1540 AD in ours. The caratouche tells us that it was made by the order of the Shah Tamasp by a weaver named Maksud al Kashani and was used in the Shayka Safi Shrine in Ardebil.
After the explorers, the next clues we get about rugs and their patterns come from artists. The Crusades introduced Europeans to Middle Eastern rugs. They became status symbols for the very rich. Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497-1543) made Turkish carpets popular by including them in his paintings. Also, A Family Group, which was painted in 1547 by Lorenzo Lotto (c. 1480-1556) shows a rug border called the "kufic".
Paris, France has many examples of rug history. The Louvre Museum shows a stone carving of a threshold rug with a pattern that is still being made today. The Apus statue, also in the Louvre, depicts God in full decoration with a carpet on his back.
The history of rugs in France began with Louis IX (1226-1270). He was the leader of the Holy War of the Crusades. He conquered the Moors, who had migrated to France from Spain. Part of the bounty was fine rugs and carpets. By the end of the fifteenth century, Louis XII (1498-1515) had brought many Italian craftsmen to help train his French workers. Francis I (1515-1547) continued this tradition by brining such artists as Leonardo DaVinci and Andrea de Sarto to work for the royal family. From 1547-1589, the crafts dried up. In 1589, things took a dramatic upward spiral. Henry IV (1589-1610), started a rug factory in his palace to create rugs for the French market. He liked the rugs so well; he never shared them with the population. Louis XIII (1610-1643), his successor, started an outside workshop for the people called "Savonneries". These French designs, however, were not as popular as the Middle Eastern designs.
The documented history of rugs increases greatly for rugs from the 17th century onward. It is easy to see the changes since the 16th century are relatively minor, although patterns for general areas changed. In a series of books Oriental Rugs-Persian by Eric Aschenbrenner, the issue of geographic barriers to transportation and ethnographic barriers and how they affected the weaving of rugs. These barriers of transportation are the major reason that Persian rugs are such an art forms whereas rugs from India and Pakistan have never achieved this status.
Oriental rugs made their way to America in the late seventeenth century. They were used as floor coverings and wall coverings. The nineteenth century Victorian era saw a dramatic increase in demand for the rugs. The bold colors and designs complemented the dark and heavy Victorian furniture. An Oriental Indian rug owned by Cornelieus Vanderbilt sold for $950,000. The American market has always been strong for these beautiful works of art.
Geographic and ethnographic barriers created marked differentiation of rugs between weaving districts. The urban areas supported factories where weaving techniques could be refined. But a weaving district was not limited to just the city. In fact, families living in primitive conditions in areas surrounding the town of note did much of the production: Heriz is a small town in the northwest portion of Iran- yet the production of Heriz carpets is huge. This is because a lot of families made them according to set standards in the area. To be kind, these standards were not always strictly enforced. If there was no cotton for a foundation, they might use wool. If madder was in short supply, some other red dye might be used. Therefore, even within an area there is product differentiation. For instance, in the town of Bidjar, many rugs were woven with specific foundation pattern, and these rugs were called Bidjars. But more rugs were woven in the surrounding areas in the homes of "subcontractors" and they were called Bidjars also. The control over the countryside contractors was much weaker than the control held over the factory weavers. As a result, a Bidjar can vary according to location.
To the southeast of Bidjar is a mountainous area, inhabited by a tribe called the Quash-Qai. The rugs from this area are called "Shiraz" and are woven by a number of nomadic tribes roaming the desert. The Quash-Qai are one of these tribes. Although by miles the geographic distance between Qash-Qai and Bidjar is not much, the ethnographic difference is huge-and the difference in the rugs is huge also. If you keep this thought and proceed to the northwest of the Qash-Qai, you encounter the Zagros Mountains. North of this range is Isfahan. There is a huge difference Isfahan rugs and Shiraz rugs, this is probably due to the environment in which the people live.
Look at the map and find Northwest Persia. The weaving area of Heriz is most representative of northwest Persia. A Bakshaish rug, just south of Heriz, looks geometric like a Heriz but has pastel colors. Meshkin, close to Heriz but to the east, uses angular octagons instead of the Heriz arrowhead, but is made of wool sheared from dead sheep, and this wool holds dye differently than wool sheared from live sheep. Ardabil, to the north of Meshkin, stylizes the angularity of the Heriz rugs. Karaja, to the northeast of Heriz, uses a modified Heriz pattern. Ahar, to the north of Heriz, softens the angularity of the Heriz patterns and makes them slightly more curvi-linear, like the patterns in the urban areas.
The town of Tabriz does not reflect similar weaving patterns to the other towns in the area. History explains this. Tabriz was settled at the foot of volcano Sahand. The town was never devastated by natural disasters. It was ruled at various times by Genghis Khan, Timur, and Shah Ishmail I who began the legendary Safavid weaving dynasty. This ruling period from 1501-1736 was highlighted by the reign of Shah Abbas the Great (1586-1628) who cultivated the arts to their highest pinnacle. It was known as the Golden Age of rug making.
As the Safavid Empire ended in the 1700's, the art of weaving decayed. The rekindling of the weaving greatness began in the early 1900's and has continued even until today. The weavers of Tabriz are known for their speed, and for their development of a special tool that permits them to weave and cut the knots at the rate of approximately 40 per minute. This is far above the average of 20 knots per minute for a skilled weaver.
Today, the same traditions of weaving still endure, with wool still being spun by local people from local sheep and some dyes still being made from plants. What is clear, is that tradition is unlikely to die out in the unforeseeable future, as there are groups of wandering nomads who continue in their old ways as long as there is land for them to live on. The semi-nomadic folk of the villages are still weaving the same patterns and styles as they have always done.
It was in a barren atmosphere of cold, famine and Indian arrows that America's earliest rugs were made. That they were escapist in some measure for their makers is apparent from the many records of rugmaking as recreation. But the recreative aspect was merely a small facet of an occupation that was motivated by necessity.
Primarily rugs were a utility for keeping draughts and chill off the floors and to give the early homes a less makeshift, less transient appearance. The crude homes of the settlers were hardly more than four walls and a roof with anything serving the essential purpose of bed, chair and table. Many of these people had left moderately comfortable furniture abroad but the crowded, hazardous boats in which they came had no surplus space for their possessions. The houses they erected in the wilderness had to be habitable and the ruthless winds had to be kept away- from the damp, draughty floors.
In the first days those floors were only bare earth, which became actually boggy in wet weather. As soon as possible the men wooded them over, but while this helped the mud problem, it did not do much for the wind and cold. To provide a little warmth sand was strewn cm the floors, almost an inch deep, to seal the cracks. When the sand became dirty, it was tossed out and a new supply brought from the beach. Sometimes it was raked and brushed into a simple design such was the hunger for attractiveness despite the obvious futility of keeping it in order, for, of course, the first footprint ruined it. Conditions remained thus until about 1680.
Toward the close of the century there was a little more time to survey the home and add to its meager comfort. One of the ways this was accomplished was to use sailcloth in room size. The material was painted heavily on both sides, with about eight coats of filler, and laid upon the floor. The exposed upper surface was then painted in tile-like patterns of contrasting colors, looking, oddly enough, like our modern linoleum. These painted floor cloths were used chiefly in the better houses. Others used small pieces under tables and similar strategic spots. By 1720 this fashion was being imitated by the middle classes who had typical designs painted directly on the floor itself.
It was on floors like these-either painted floor cloth or painted floor that rugs, if, when and as available, were used. This accounts for the anachronistic presence of what seems to be marble or tiled floors in portraits painted before 1180. Before the American Revolution, woven floor coverings, aside from domestic rag carpets, were practically unknown in this country. Although a few "Scots" ("ingrain" carpets from Europe) had found their way into some private city houses, these were such a rarity that visitors who entered rooms where they were laid tiptoed around them in awe so as not to harm them.
Up to 1776 the floor covering in most general use throughout the colonies was the rag carpet, made with a stout flax or cotton warp supplied by farmhouse spinning wheels. The early settlers, particularly in New England, had been accustomed to such occupations as spinning and weaving in their homeland, and as long as English ships brought over adequate supplies there had been no pressing need for such activity in the New World. However, there were frequent interruptions of such communication, as when English ships bringing supplies to the colonies were captured by the French during the French and Indian wars, and on other occasions. At such times the want of clothing and textiles, especially in rigorous New England, caused much suffering and compelled the women of the colonies to use their ingenuity, their spinning wheels and all their resources to meet the continual emergencies.
The frontier women, never finished with work, called it recreation to go to spinning frolics, quilting parties and sewing bees. It was not unusual in colonial days to see a woman on a horse, with her spinning wheel rigged up behind her, setting off on a long ride through the wilderness for a few hours of gossip and work of this kind. It is against this background that the story of American rugs unfolds.
The best-known native textile art in North America is the weaving of Navajo Indian blankets and rugs. These impressive rugs are still made in a style that was traditional in Mexico and the southwest United States long before the arrival of Europeans: kneeling before a vertical wooden-frame loom and using a shuttle to weave colored threads together into large-scale geometric designs. Originally Navajo and other Southwest Indian blankets were made of hand-spun cotton thread, but after the Spanish brought domestic sheep to the region the people primarily switched to wool. Though Navajo rugs are the most famous weaving in North America, they are certainly not the only one. Finger-weaving has been important throughout the continent since ancient times, and finger-woven blankets, tapestries, and clothing are still made in many tribes. The chilkat blankets of Tlingit people are one of the finest examples of finger-woven Indian blankets. Seminole sashes and patchwork are another important Indian textile art. A more recent tradition is star quilts or blankets, which originated among the Sioux tribes (Lakota, Dakota, and Nakoda/Assiniboine) and spread throughout the Great Plains. Quilting was one of many crafting techniques that Native Americans borrowed from European traditions and adapted into something unique to their culture. Star quilts are made by piecing a mosaic of cloth diamonds into the shape of the traditional eight-pointed morning star design of the Sioux. Before the evolution of star quilts, traditional Plains Indian blankets were made from painted, quilled and beaded buffalo hide. When the buffalo herds were exterminated this craft largely died out, but some Plains tribe artists still make buffalo robes and blankets today from the hides of animals raised in captivity.
As we enter the new millennium, these unique treasures are still praised for their magnificent and incredible beauty. It is our mission to clean these rugs with the most practicable and diligent methods. In this way, we are helping to preserve a piece of history.