Traditional Eastern art forms blend form, decoration, and function within an integrated whole. Where better do beauty and function converge than in a fine Oriental rug? The culmination of a lengthy chain of labor and love, from the herdsmen and shepherds to the dyers and weavers, a fine Oriental rug is an exquisite work of art. Delightful to the touch and pleasing to the eye, each rug has its own character, and tells its own story.
Weaving originated thousands of years ago after domestication of sheep in ancient Mesopotamia and of goats in the Zagros Mountains. Since wool decays over time, it cannot be ascertained when pile-rugs were first made. The oldest surviving rug known was discovered preserved by ice in the Pazyryk Valley of Siberia. The Pazyryk Rug, as it came to be known, dated to approximately 500 B.C.E., was possibly woven under the Achaemenid dynasty or by Iranian nomads in Scythia. The sophistication of the Pazyryk rug indicates a long previous history of rug weaving/knotting. Though rug styles, patterns and motifs have changed and evolved through history, methods of rug manufacture have changed little since ancient times.
Wool from the Mountains
Geography and climate have played a paramount role in the development of rug types as we know them today. The Zagros and Taurus Mountains, at the convergence of the Iranian, Anatolian, Eurasian, and Arabian tectonic plates, have a high level of seismic activity. The traditional centers of rug manufacture in Iran, Anatolia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia are marked by rugged, mountainous terrain, rendering travel, contact and communication difficult. Therefore, traditionally each tribe, village, or city has been self-sufficient in its weaving. Each weaving group has relied on local resources for wool and dyestuffs, and has carefully guarded precious streams and woods for water and timber. The physical barriers of the land helped preserve local, tribal, and familial weaving methods and styles as distinct. The differences in local tastes combined with the variability of regional flora and fauna influenced each tribe, village, or city to produce rugs of unique character.
High in the mountains, where the wind blows cool and dry, sheep produce fleeces finer and silkier than their counterparts do on the plains. The three types of domesticated sheep of Southwest and Central Asia, the fat-tailed sheep, the long-tailed sheep, and the fat-rumped sheep, grow wool perfect for carpet weaving. The fat-tailed sheep is famous for its coarse, long-staple wool that is strong and durable, with a lustrous shine, and especially receptive to dye. The long-tailed and fat-rumped varieties of Afghanistan and Turkestan display color variation that can be used to spin uniquely colored yarns from the same animal. In some regions where volcanic soil deposits such as copper remain high, such as the region of Mt. Sabalan south of the Caspian Sea, sheep consume mineral-enriched plants as they graze, resulting in the highest quality of wool, as measured by natural lanolin content. This enriched wool has made Heriz rugs among the most durable in the world.
Typically sheep are shorn in springtime or early summer. When possible, sheep are driven through a stream prior to shearing, to cleanse them of grime and dirt. Sheep are shorn using hand scissors. The wool is usually washed repeatedly, then sun-dried before being carded and spun. Soft-water proves ideal for cleansing wool, and rights to good streams and wells may be passed down for generations. Carding, by either fingers alone or with a comb-like instrument, detangles raw wool and orients the fibers in a uniform direction. The carded wool may then be spun by a variety of methods ranging from a dangling stone weight to a hand-turned wheel. Regardless of spinning technique, wool is spun with either a clockwise twist or a counter-clockwise twist. Handspun wool, which has a loose twist of fibers arranged parallel to its length, gives rugs a smooth surface and a beautiful sheen. In contrast, machine-spun wool often includes frizzy, broken fibers, and rarely exhibits the luster of handspun wool.
Silk rugs date back to at least the sixteenth century in Sabzavar and the seventeenth century in Kashan and Yazd. Silk is much finer (and far more expensive) than wool, and proves much less durable. Because of their innate fragility, silk rugs are usually displayed on walls rather than used as floor coverings. Sometimes silk and wool fibers are mixed to produce rugs with a luxurious feel and shine.
Traditionally the weft and warp of rugs have been made from wool. For well over a century, however, cotton warp has often been used as the foundation for knotting of pile. The advantage of cotton warp is that moth larvae (which subsist on proteins) have no taste for it. While moths eat wool pile and proceed to consume wool foundation as well, a cotton foundation will remain intact, making the rug easier to repair.
2010 - present
2010 - present
Dying is more art-form than science. Dyers occupy an elevated position in weaving societies and pass their secrets from generation to generation. Since traditional dyes are derived from local resources, each region will display a traditional color palette in its rugs. For instance, the villages of Hamadan, Lilian, and Sarouk in central Persia (Iran) are known for their sublime pinkish dye, which dominates their rugs and is produced by boiling madder root with yogurt. Lavar is known for its indigo dye. In some places such as Baluchistan, where dyestuffs are scarce, weavers have become highly skilled at combining yarns with different natural coloration. Most dyes from natural sources need a “mordant”, or fixative, in order to bind to the yarn. Common sources of red dyes are madder root and cochineal (exudate from insects feeding on plant sap). Blues are often derived from indigo or possibly aubergine skin. Yellows may come from the flowering native plant called isparak, or from saffron, turmeric, apricot leaves, or wild pistachio trees. Orange may be derived from grass root, plum tree bark, poplar leaves, or willow leaves; green from walnut leaves, olive leaves, or sweet violet; browns and blacks from tea, tobacco, mud, walnut bark, or wild pistachio leaves. Wool may be double-dyed to arrive at the desired shade. Madder-dyed yarn dipped in pomegranate husk solution produces orange and double-dyeing any yellow with indigo will produce green. Natural dyes retain their color well and gently fade over time as they acquire the mellow patina of age, so admired in antique rugs. In contrast to natural dyes, chemical (i.e., synthetic) dyes look harsh, corrode wool, tend to fade quickly, and often bleed easily when washed.
Rugs may be woven either in city workshops or by villagers or nomads who make rugs part-time for functional purposes or supplementary income as their fields lie fallow or in between seasonal migrations. Both men and women work as weavers, though the division of labor sometimes differs according to the norms of nomadic or city life. Rugs may be woven as one-sided-flat-weaves (kilims), two-sided-flat-weaves (soumaks), pile rugs, or soafs. A soaf is a rug with a flat-woven foundation like a kilim, but with raised motifs woven atop the foundation resulting in a bas-relief. Pile rugs are knotted over a fiber gridwork called a foundation, and often have narrow kilim bands at the ends to protect the pile and stabilize the fringe. Some nomadic tribes weave patterns from memory or improvise as they go along, drawing inspiration from their surroundings or spiritual aspirations.
In more elaborate designs, a sketch or more detailed cartoon is usually drafted prior to weaving, which the weavers follow as they knot the rug. Or while weaving they may refer to a woven sampler, typically a corner or quadrant including motifs and border pattern, as a guideline. Rugs are woven using either symmetrical or asymmetrical knots (often referred to as Turkish and Persian knots, respectively, which is misleading as both knots are employed in both countries.) No machine can replicate either the symmetrical or asymmetrical knot, which still must be individually knotted by hand. The relative coarseness of the wool, the skill and experience of the weaver, the intricacy of the design, and the size of the rug all factor into the amount of time it takes to weave a rug. Making a rug requires meticulous attention to detail and exceptional patience, but the end result (and the reward!), is beautiful.
After a rug is woven, it is carefully cut from the loom, the surface is sheared, and the rug is washed, then combed to remove excess fuzz. The rug is then dried in the sun and sheared a second time. After the second shearing the weavers examine the rug to see if needs touch-ups, such as compacting uneven knots and neatening curves. The rug is then stretched or “blocked”, after which remaining fuzz is singed off the back. Finally the fringe is finished by twisting or knotting, preventing the rug from unraveling and adding beauty to the rug. The rug receives a final shearing before it is considered to be finished.
Each hand-woven rug is special in that no two are quite alike; indeed a certain degree of irregularity (or individuality) is to be expected. Variations in color, design, motif or tightness of knotting, are a reminder that a rug was not made by machine, and indeed some “flaws” can add to the attractiveness, intrigue or value of a rug.
Western buyers sometimes note that a rug has an interrupted motif, or a non-symmetrical or imperfect pattern, or sides not perfectly in alignment. Such instances usually have more to do with cultural norms or personal events rather than the ineptness of the weaver. Weavers as a sign of humility may not correct a flaw in their work; recognizing only God as perfect, they do not wish to appear vain or to be the target of envy.
Often a variation in shade and tint appears horizontally within a single band of color across an Oriental rug. This phenomenon is called abrash, and may be caused by variations in yarn diameter, the use of yarn from different dye lots, uneven exposure to sunlight over time, or by differences in the amount of lanolin in the yarn which affect how well the dye “takes”. Abrash can add stunning dimension to a rug and is considered a very desirable trait in tribal rugs. Abrash is less desirable in city rugs, where consistency and symmetry are expected.
When nomadic groups establish camp they often set up portable horizontal looms for weaving, using wools from their flocks and dyes from local vegetation, and often taking inspiration from their surroundings to determine their designs. Rugs from such groups may be an endlessly shifting colorscape, documenting conditions and events of nomadic life.
Rugs that reach Western markets are usually sold “as is”, because every collector has his/her own tastes. Some perceive the bruises of history on a rug as a vital part of its unique story. Should you wish to a repair a rug, Mr. Nooraee will always ask you to be specific about what aspects of the rug you wish to fix and those you wish to preserve.
How Rugs are Classified
Rugs may be categorized according to various criteria including place of origin, weaving category, age, composition (wool, silk, or a wool-silk mix), size, and dimensions. The broadest classification of rugs is by region: Anatolian, Caucasian, Persian, Central-Asian/Turkomen, and Chinese. Certain generalizations may be made about Anatolian (Turkish), Caucasian, Persian, Central Asian, and Chinese rugs, though obviously exceptions exist. For instance, Turkish and Caucasian rugs tend to be more geometric whereas Persian rugs tend to be more floral and curvilinear. The main category would be subdivided by name, referring to town, tribe, or design. Rugs may also be differentiated by their weaving type, whether they are kilims (flat-woven), soumaks, pile-rugs, or soafs.
Rugs are typically named for their place of origin or for the weaving tribe. Nomadic rugs may be known the name of both tribe and sub-tribe; for example Tekkes and Bokharas are also referred to by the broader name Turkomens. Rugs from small villages may be named for the nearest large rug-manufacture center if enough similarities exist between the rugs produced in the larger town and the surrounding villages. Kerman is both a city and a province in Iran and rugs from either bear the name Kerman. Lavar (Raver), in the province of Kerman, is known for rugs of extraordinary quality, though rugs in nearby towns such as Rafsajan may also be called Lavar Kermans. To add to the confusion, some rugs are named for their design rather than their place of manufacture or the group that made them. This is especially the case for rugs woven in India, China, Pakistan, and Egypt that imitate Persian, Turkish, or Caucasian designs. Sometimes a clarification is made by labeling such rugs as (e.g.) Indo-Isfahan¡, but if in doubt the buyer should always ask if the name refers to the actual place of origin or to the design. Some of the most popular rug types are Tabriz, Kashan, Hamadan, Mashad, Isfahan, Kashmar, Shiraz, Gabbeh, Ardabil, Lilian, Sarouk, Bakhtiari, Nain, Qom, Sabzazvar, Turkomen, Heriz, and Bidjar.
Weaving category refers to the mode of production of the rug: is it a nomadic rug, a village rug, a workshop rug, or a master-workshop rug? Nomadic rugs are woven free-hand from memory by nomadic or semi-nomadic tribeswomen. Usually nomadic rugs display compositional boldness, a simple color palette, and dominant geometric forms. Like nomadic rugs, village rugs belong to “cottage industry”; their weavers work part-time and at home. Village rugs, woven on stationary looms, may be of simple or elaborate design, but they tend to preserve the creative, individualistic vision of the weaver. Workshop rugs may display the same designs and motifs as village rugs, but they differ in the manner of manufacture. Workshops operate as full-time businesses. Weavers are organized under direction of an overseer/supervisor (salim in Persian) consulting a cartoon or template who systematically calls or chants the color of each knot as it is required. Workshop rugs lack the improvisational nature of nomadic or village rugs, but allow the weaving of highly sophisticated, technically challenging, intricate rugs. Moreover, workshops can accommodate large looms (and produce larger sizes). Each workshop in Iran and Turkey has its own style and defining characteristics. Master-workshop rugs come from workshops that have achieved highest standards of workmanship and prestige and are the most expensive. Isfahan, Nain, Hereke (in Istanbul), Kashan, Tabriz, Mashad, Kerman, and Qom are all widely considered to be master-workshop centers of hand-made rug production.
Rugs may be grouped by age, essentially a moving target. Dovar means not brand new, but not old enough to be considered “old”. “Old” is used to describe rugs older than twenty-five years, “semi-antique” for rugs older than fifty years, and “antique” is reserved for rugs older than seventy-five years. Ascertainment of age is to a certain extent a subjective process, requiring knowledge of weaving technique, workmanship and cultural history. Only occasionally does a rug bear a woven monogram or inscription that can be correlated with a specific range of verifiable dates.
Rugs are frequently designated by their size or by their approximate dimensions, which have technical terms in Farsi, often corresponding to the intended function of the rug. For example, jaa namazi is the typical size of a prayer rug (namazlık in Turkish). (In addition to a relatively uniform size, prayer rugs often feature a mithrab, or pointed arch, which can be positioned to face toward Mecca.)
A few terms are employed to convey the degree of authenticity of a rug. Authentic rugs are hand-woven with at least one of the following qualities: “Original” describes a rug for which all parts of its production come from the traditional area of the rug’s manufacture. It is possible to find similar rugs elsewhere that are finely woven but use foreign dyes or wool from places as far removed as New Zealand and Tibet; such rugs cannot be termed original. ”One-of-a-kind” refers to a rug that is made with only natural fibers, dyes, and wool, and not mass produced. A “unique” rug is not only one-of-a-kind, but also is the only known rug of specific design woven in the rug’s place of origin. (In other words, if it was woven from a template, the template was not used as a model for additional rugs.)
Every part of a rug tells a story. As we have seen, the wool and dye reveal much about the rug's place of origin; its mountains, water sources, local trees and flowers, and herds of sheep or goats. The design tells us a story about a tribe, a village, a family, about art and tradition passed from generation to generation. Just as no two hand-knotted rugs are exactly alike, so each rug is from the hand of an individual, a window into the unique soul of its weaver.
Some rugs reflect the weaver’s immediate environment or the natural setting of the weaver’s home or village or encampment. Other rugs display celestial inspiration: stars, suns, and moons. Some rugs have a clearly spiritual dimension represented by a tree of life or the ultimate aspiration: the garden of Paradise.
Let your own eyes, hands, feet and spirit experience the story and the joy of hand-made rugs. Mohammad Nooraee will be delighted to welcome you and be your guide.