About textiles

History of Textiles on the Silk Road

One of the most important developments in Central Asia was the arrival of the Silk Road, which connected China and Europe, providing a vital trade link between East and West.  Cultural exchanges were made through what was in fact, not just one, but a network of trade routes. Religion, technology, textiles, most notably silk, spread from China to the Western world period. Central Asia, through which the Silk Road passed, benefited greatly from the Silk Road as Chinese goods were brought into the region.

It is not a coincidence that the oldest needles,  made of bone and ivory around 40,000 BC, were found in Central Asia. As a result of this important find, it is generally acknowledged that sewing was first invented there. The first textile found in Central Asia dates from 3,200 BC, from the North Caucasus Majkop culture. This textile is made of wool and is so far the oldest archaeological find in that material. By 3,000 BC, herders in Central Asia used sheep’s wool to make striped cloaks and skirts. They also made costumes out of hemp, a wild plant which grows all over Central Asia.

Trade routes in early ages
Trade route in early ages

As trade routes between China and Europe developed, small cities were established along the Silk Road. These cities were usually located near oases where their inhabitants could supply themselves with enough water to survive. These oases towns functioned as shopping places along the Silk Road. Merchants would stay in these towns and prepare their long journeys. The Silk Road brought great wealth to Central Asia. Silk was introduced into this region from China. Ikat weaving skills, although it is uncertain where exactly they came from, were brought into the region. Along with riches,  culture, religion and technology were also transported along the Silk Road. Such cultural influences were greater in oasis cities than in nomadic societies, mainly because oasis cities had more contact with the merchants who traveled along the Silk Road.

Oasis dwellers had more decorative textiles than nomads. Urban populations developed more ornamented textiles because the upper class in these societies needed indicators of rank and wealth. The general idea was that the more decorative a person’s clothes were, the higher his or her social standing was. Those who were in the upper class of the society required clothes which were ever more decorative. Finally, the making of clothes reached a level where an individual artisan could not make prestige textiles without the help of others. At this point specialized groups of textile makers emerged to make it easier to produce prestige textiles.

However, basic clothing for sedentary Central Asians did not vary a lot. They wore underclothes called tunics, which are also found in 13th century Mongolian traditional costume. At first, Central Asian tunics came down to knees, later they became shorter until the bottom part was at waist level.  Trousers and coats were also basic garments that everyone wore. Therefore, the type of one’s clothes did not tell much about one’s status. However, the material from which those clothes were made did. Their basic clothes were simply the same  for all social classes and sexes. But while the lower classes wore coats made of adras (silk and cotton), the upper classes wore silk velvet ikats, sometimes embroidered with gold thread.

Trade routes in Middle Age
Silk Road in the Middle Ages

Central Asians developed a textile culture very early because of the region’s harsh natural environment. Nomads came into the region and some of them became sedentary near oases. Nomads wore unique clothes such as trousers, and used their textiles for practical tasks. But sedentary societies used textiles to express their social standing, as some of them became rich by trading with merchants traveling along the Silk Road. When Islam arrived in Central Asia, it prohibited the use of traditional animal symbols in textiles. Instead, abstract patterns took their place. Mongols, who stopped these Islamic expansion engaged artisans and forced them to make luxury textiles for court use. The Timurid Dynasty, which came after Mongol rule, also engaged artisans. Those artisans exchanged textile weaving skills and designs  with Chinese artisans who  also worked alongside them. Emirate of Bukhara, whose textiles were famous for their gold embroidery, succeeded in creating a high demand for them throughout many societies. In the early 1900s, the Russians arrived in Central Asia, bringing with them the railroad and revolutionizing the method of producing textiles . They mechanized the textile industry, setting up workshops for mass rug productions. They also introduced new chemical dyes, especially red.  Nowadays, after Soviet break-down in 1990,  Central Asian textiles are internationally known, and are available to people al over the world via the Internet, which is a great benefit to the Central Asian economy.


The Appeal of Oriental Rugs

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Crivelli Ottoman Rug fragment, Budapest

The term ‘oriental rug’ refers to both pile and flat- woven items. They are hand woven from Morocco to China and are used as floor coverings, store bags, pillow covers, saddlebags, prayer mats, tent decorations, and many other uses. As table covers, floor coverings and simply as precious objects, rugs have been consistently prized in the West since becoming an important part of East-West trade in the 13-14th centuries. Today the traditional appreciation of oriental rugs continues. Rugs add elegance, color and prestige to a home. Furthermore, people today have become aware of the ethnographic importance of these products. We know that rugs woven by village and nomadic women have always been an important part of the marriage dowry. Also, some of the most beautiful and collectible weavings have traditionally been made for utilitarian purposes: as grain and clothing sacks (chuval), as pillow covers (yastik), as prayer rugs (sejjadeh), as area rugs ( khelle ), as saddlebags (heybe), or as ethnic ceremonial and decorative hangings and trappings. Whether one values rugs as elegant floor coverings, as woven art or simply as precious objects, village and nomadic weavings carry a strength and intensity of the culture that produced them.

Unfortunately, not many tribal groups on the Silk Road survive today. Modern life has rapidly taken over in rural areas and forced nomadic societies into urban lifestyles.

Ushak multiple prayer rug
Ushak multiple prayer rug

‘Anatolica, Anatolus, Anatoli, Anatolia’ was the name used in the Middle Ages by Christians. After Turkmen groups arrived in Anatolia in the 11th century, they translated it as Anadolu, which sounded like a ‘place full of mothers’ in their language, while Arabs called the same lands ‘Memaliki Rum’ Land of the Romans because eastern Romans ruled these lands. Crusaders called the same land ‘Romania’ – Land of Romans.

Turkmen used to live in the harsh desert climate of Central Asia. Winters were stormy, cold and snowy, and summers were very dry and hot. In this harsh environment they used wool to develop the process of felt making and tapestry weaving for their needs since they were herding sheep, goats, camels and other animals in their tribal way of life. They eventually had to move westward to find a more suitable climate and better grass for their animal stocks.

The nomads used their textiles for practical purposes. Textiles and rugs were highly decorative, yet were still a necessity because their nomadic lifestyle required textiles for various practical functions. For instance, the ground inside their dwellings (yurts) had to be covered with rugs in order to make them habitable. Felts and bands which hung around the yurts also served as insulation.

Turkmen multiple prayer rug fragment - Persian village rug
Turkmen multiple prayer rug fragment – Persian village rug

Etymology

The etymology of the term ‘carpet’ dates back to Greek tapesetos (which certain etymological dictionaries consider to be of Oriental origin; Berthold Laufer, for example, puts forward the case for considering it to be of Iranian origin. The modern neo-Persian term, in the Arabic lexicon, is farsh), whence Latin tappetum (and also tapete and tapes), and the derivative forms such as Italian tappeto (there is confirmation of the Bolognese term tapedo in the year 1290, and we also have evidence of the Venetian term tapéo and the Istrian tapio), Anglo-Saxon taeppet (whence modern German Teppich). From the Byzantine tapetion we get the Spanish and Portuguese tapete (of doubtful origin), the French tapiz (present-day tapis) and Provençal tapiz (from which we have the Catalan tapit). Arabic tinfisa is derived from the Byzantine tapetion as well, possibly by way of Aramaic.

The English term carpet comes from Old French carpite, which is in turn derived from the low or post-classical Latin carpita, from the verb carpere meaning ‘to tear’, possibly because of the striplike shape. The Anglo-Saxson word rug is of Scandinavian derivation, from the Swedish rugg and Icelanding rögg the original meaning having to do with the concept of ruffled or intricate, like a tuft of grass or a lock of hair.

The Arabic term zarbiya refers to carpets with a striped decorative motif, like a zebra’s hide, and has a modern Italian derivative in zerbino meaning mat.


How Oriental Rugs are Made

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Carpet weaving in past and present days

Take a warp or web of threads, or chains arranged lengthwise, and weave or interlace a weft of threads, crosswise. By tying knots between one or more threads of the weft you have a “knotted” carpet. This simple definition is not intended to disguise the complex and numerous factors involved in carpet making. Basically speaking the technique of knotting a carpet is one of the simplest skills of the artisan. It has undergone very few developments or changes down the centuries, and is still carried on very much as it used to be in olden times. Carpets and textiles are now part and parcel of our common cultural heritage. They have often reached the level of full-fledged works of art, revealing that perfection of proportion and balance, both technical and formal, which is the vital element of any art.


Looms

The carpet is knotted on a loom. Although there are various shapes and sizes of looms, the most common types are still the horizontal and the vertical. As a rule the horizontal, which is easier to operate, was and still is used by nomadic tribes, while the vertical was adopted by sedentary peoples. The technical and mechanical parts of both types are virtually the same, but the results obtained can be quite different. The horizontal loom consists of two usually not very long beams, fixed to the ground with pegs, to which the threads of the warp are attached.

Horizontal and Vertical looms
Horizontal and Vertical looms

The vertical loom is similar in construction. There are two vertical poles (but not in every case because sometimes the walls of a room will be used as a support), which hold two transverse beams, one at the top and one at the bottom, to which the warp threads are attached. Opposite the weaver is the pole which acts as the heddle and enables her to shift the plane of the warp threads. To make a carpet that is larger than the length of a loom, the same method as for the horizontal loom is used: the completed part is rolled around the lower beam and the warp is then laid out again. Here too the principal defect is caused by the irregular linear arrangement of the carpet which can be produced by the uneven tension of the warp threads. In addition to vertical looms with fixed frames, there are models of a different type which make it possible to weave carpets that are larger than the loom without any of the drawbacks already mentioned.

Tent band weaving on ground loom - Weaving on horizontal loom
Tent band weaving on ground loom – Weaving on horizontal loom

The advantage of the horizontal loom lies in its utter simplicity, its lightness, and the ease with which it can be operated – all qualities that are greatly appreciated by the nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples who still use it to this day. It cannot be used for making very wide carpets, but there are virtually no limits where length is concerned.


Wool & Yarn

Fibers_and_wool_rd

Wool fibers are made of “KERATIN” and animal protein, also found in hair, nails, feathers, and horns. The secret of wool lies in the structure of its fibers, which absorb moisture, insulate against heat and cold, resist flame and maintain their resilience. Unlike cotton, linen, silk or polyester, wool fibers are covered with tiny scales, making them look like pinecones. When one fiber’s scales rub against those of others, they pull the fibers into irreversible tangles. When we twist fibers we produce yarn for various needs. When wool is compacted under heat and moisture, it shrinks into felt. Lanolin is the tiny greasy substance on fibers which protects and gives life to them. It also makes wool irresistible to moths. The larvae of clothes, moths and carpet beetles feed on this protein, leaving holes in one’s favorite sweaters or on  valuable rugs and textiles. Lanolin is used in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. In ancient days people used cow manure and garlic to get rid of moths.

Moths (left) - Moths feeding on a rug (right)
Moths (left) – Moths feeding on a rug (right)

The length of sheep’s wool varies dramatically. It can be as long as 16 inches, depending on the breed and on the part of the body the fiber is from. Wool can be bent 20,000 times without breaking.  Silk breaks after 1,800 times, and rayon after 75. Wool is highly crimped. It absorbs odors and noise in heavy machinery areas.

Wool varies tremendously in quality. Some determining factors are the sheep’s breed, its health, its diet and even the climate in which it is raised. A given animal also yields a range of wool grades from the various parts of its body. Villagers and nomads who prepare their own yarns for weaving are selective in the materials they use. They know that good quality wool combs and spins readily, takes dyes properly, and is easier to weave with. Furthermore, the weaver cares about the result, for the rug is her own creation, a product of her effort. The dividend for the purchaser of a village produced rug is that the high quality materials make it last longer and look better than a handmade but workshop product. In theory, factory-made rugs can match or even exceed the quality of village and nomadic pieces. However, more often than not the temptation to cut costs in materials and the reliance on machine spun yarns and chrome dyes result in an inferior product. Furthermore, the workshop prescribed designs are often divorced from the weaver’s tradition and lack the individuality, spontaneity and vitality the village weaver imparts to her rugs. It is for the above differences in quality of construction and in quality of artistic spirit that we prefer to deal in village and nomadic pieces rather than in workshop rugs.


Dyes & Dyeing

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Natural yellow color dyeing in Khiva – Uzbekistan
There are three broad categories of dyes used today:
  • Vegetable dyes are as old as rug weaving.
    Dying indigo (left), madder root for red color (center) and Cochineal bugs for burgundy red (right)
    Dying indigo (left), madder root for red color (center) and Cochineal bugs for burgundy red (right)

    They appear vividly in the oldest surviving rug and kilim fragments, the 4-5th century BCE examples found frozen in tombs in Pazyryk, Siberia. Successfully applied vegetable dyes, such as madder and indigo tend to be colorfast to light and washing, mellow beautifully with time and allow the wool to wear well and keep its natural sheen.

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    Dobag natural dyers in Suleymankoy village in western Turkey
  • Chemical dyes. Synthetic dyes of great variety have been sold in the marketplace since their invention in 1856. Some early chemical dyes (often referred to as `aniline` dyes) were at first very popular but later they were shunned when they were found to fade badly in light and run upon washing. Chemistry in Germany was highly developed at this time, and many Germans journeyed to England to work in the new synthetic dye industry. Starting in the mid 1860s, they returned home, armed with the latest science and technology. The industry soon moved to Germany and Switzerland.
    Particularly significant was the production of artificial alizarin red (in 1869), mainly in Germany, and indigo (1897), only in Germany. These synthetic products destroyed the trading monopolies in natural dyes by displacing the large-scale cultivation of madder and indigo. The other new dyes had no analogs in nature. In 1875 the dye chemist Otto N. Witt proposed a theory of color and constitution that is still used to explain how certain arrangements of atoms, called chromophores, give rise to color. Other groups called auxochromes enable the bonding to fiber and modify the color.

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    Old fading chemical dyes from sun light

    Today it is common for high quality rugs to use good chemical along with natural dyes. Sometimes individual yarns are even double dyed with both types to achieve certain colors. Properly chosen and applied chemical dyes exhibit none of the problems of the early dyes and used along with vegetable dyes, yield a rug that is very pleasing to the eye. With use the wool will gain in sheen, the colors will slowly mellow and the rug will increase in beauty and value over the years.

  • Chrome dye. In the beginning of the 20th century, better synthetic colors known as chrome dyes began to be used. These were reliable, color proof and resembled the natural dyes by being sun and wash proof. Chrome dyes are a class of chemical dye much favored by factory rug producers today. They are entirely predictable and cheap to use. However, they have several drawbacks. One is that they apply so evenly and stay so bright that they make the rug look harsh, almost metallic to the eye.
    Sample of a chrome dyed rug
    Sample of a dull looking chrome dyed rug

    The brain unconsciously perceives the colors as too regular and lacking in the visual interest appropriate to a handmade product. The unfortunate solution to this color problem is often a post-production bath in harsh chemicals to tone down the bright colors, followed by rinsing in conditioners to try to temporarily restore the natural sheen stripped off the wool by the process. After the treatment the rug looks very good. However, with use and light exposure the dyes look progressively duller as the artificial sheen disappears. The harsh chemicals also weaken the fibers, so the rug becomes much less durable.


Knots

The difference between a carpet and other textile handcrafts (tapestries, kilims, fabrics, etc.) lies in the fact that short lengths of thread or yarn are tied to the warp chains to form the pile of the carpet. These are ordinarily called ”knots”, an incorrect term, but one that is now commonly used and universally accepted, inasmuch as it is not an actual knot but rather a loop. There are three specific ways of tying this loop or knot on the warp chains: the Turkish system (Ghiordes knot), the Persian system (Sehna knot) and the Arab-Spanish system.

Knots_samples_1

The Turkish system (Turkish knot), known as the Ghiordes (or Gordian) knot after the name of the Anatolian city where, legend has it, Alexander the Great had to unravel that famous and most intricate knot, consists in making the loop in such a way that the two ends of the thread end up together in the space between two adjacent warp chains, around which they are passed.

The Persian system (Farsi-Persian knot), known as the Sehna (or Sinneh) knot (Sehna is present-day Sanandaj, a town in Iranian Kurdistan where, as it happens, the knot was rarely used), consists in one end of the thread being looped around a warp chain to emerge between the second warp chain and the chain that will carry the loop in the following knot. The position of this second end of the thread, which may be to the right or left of the chain with the loop, determines whether the knot will be a right-hand or left-hand knot.

Asymmetrical Persian knot open to right and Symmetrical Turkish knot
Asymmetrical Persian knot open to right and Symmetrical Turkish knot

The Arab-Spanish system, which is the simplest of the three, consists in looping the thread to just one warp chain: the two ends cross at the back of the chain and are pressed through again to the front. This last type of knot is the least used, and is limited to Spain.

The Turkish knot is used in Turkey, in the Caucasian region, and generally in areas where Turkish is spoken, such as Iranian Azerbaijan and the Republic of Azerbaijan. The Persian knot is used by peoples who speak Iranian (or Farsi), in Iran, Afghanistan, India, and China. The fact that both the Turkish knot and the Persian knot are irregularly spread throughout the carpet-making regions makes it difficult to establish whether one knot was more used than the other, except within a particular zone, and this has caused some experts to abandon the two traditional definitions in favor of a more scientific terminology: the symmetrical (Turkish) knot and the asymmetrical (Persian) knot.

The Turkish, Ghiordes or symmetrical knot (left) and The Persian, Senneh or asymmetrical knot (right)
The Turkish, Ghiordes or symmetrical knot (left) and The Persian, Senneh or asymmetrical knot (right)

The Turkish knot is the better one in terms of stability and solidity, but the Persian knot makes it possible to achieve sharper outlines and details in the design of the weave. If one examines the pile of a carpet made with the Persian knot it is possible to separate the two ends of the thread – if the knot is well made -which is not possible with carpets made with the Turkish knot.

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Shared warp – Offset knots

The term “shared warp” is used when a knot is attached to a free warp chain and a second chain on which there is already a knot. This practice is common in certain Turkmen tribes, such as Yomud as well as some Kurdish groups in Persia and Anatolia.


Tools used in weavings

Weaving and spinning tools
Weaving and spinning tools

Few instruments are required for weaving oriental carpets. Basically these include only devices for cutting the yarn and for beating each row of knots tightly against the last row. Usually, the cutting is done both with a knife, for clipping the yarn after each knot is tied, and with shears, for trimming the pile after each row is finished. In some weaving areas this clipping is done as the work progresses, although there is usually a finishing process after the carpet is cut from the loom.

There are several varieties of comb for beating down the wefts. This instrument has teeth spaced at intervals to fit between the warps, and it is hammered or pushed vigorously to pack the knots as tightly as possible.

Nomadic weaving tools are usually made out of hardwood such as oak, cherry, pear, chestnut or similar, so that they should last a long time.

Metal combs are mostly used for pile weavings. Wood combs are used for tapestry and flat weavings.

Weaving tools change their shape and size in between areas and as well as with the type of weavings they are used for. Equipment for the most modern production plant is much the same as that of the primitive nomadic weaver, although there are often minor local differences that would allow one to identify the source of a given tool.


Type of Rugs

A rug generally carries either the name of the village or region in which it is made: Ushak, Bergama, Milas, Dazkiri, Konya, Karapinar, Karaman, Mujur or sometimes the name of the tribe that wove it: the Anatolian Karakecili, Sacikara, Ayranci, Yuncu, Gilas,  Afshar, or the Kurdish Sinanli,  Dirican, Kalkani, Zilani, Kalati, Herki, Jhirki. There are many, many types of Anatolian rugs, each characteristic of its region and each different from all the others. With experience one gets to know the designs, colors and weave characteristics of each type. However, even experts disagree and part of the fun and challenge of rugs is that there is always room for further discussion of types and origins and for opinions on quality. One of the nice things about rugs is that they travel easily, so although the majority of our stock is Turkic, other ethnic pieces are from the Silk Road. Caucasian rugs and kilims tend to be geometric and bold in color, similar to some Anatolian-Turkish/Kurdish examples.

Turkmen rugs from Central Asia often have red fields, closely clipped pile, and a dark palette. They were wrongly called Bokhara carpets up until the mid -20th century because of being traded mostly in the city of Bokhara, in present day Uzbekistan. Turkmen rugs are called by the name of the tribes who make them. Several major groups are Yomud, Tekke, Ersari, Salor/ Saryk, and Chodor. Also, Kyrgyz Turkic groups weave tribal rugs and make felts. Kazakh Turks are famous for their felts too. All these Turkic tribes are very talented in metal arts. Especially, silver jewelry for men and animals are very collectible items in later years.

In the case of Persian rugs we extend our range of taste. While we again deal in tribal and village examples, we also admire and sell some “city” or small workshop pieces which are made with care and with natural materials. These are more finely woven in floral and geometric designs. The possibilities for rugs are endless. Even so, we try to keep a broad selection of tribal weavings and textiles to appeal to a wide range of tastes.

Anatolian Carpets

Anatolian village rugs - Mujur - Konya - Milas
Anatolian village rugs – Mujur – Konya – Milas

Anatolia is a land rich in valleys and mountains, rising from the Black Sea in the north, the Mediterranean in the south, and the Aegean in the west. Its population has been a mixture of Muslims, Christians and Jews since the Middle Ages. After the Turks, the Kurds make up the second largest group, among many others: Greeks, Romans, Caucasians, Armenians, Arabs, Persians and peoples from the Balkans. Anatolia has been and still is a melting pot of cultures.

Anatolia is one of the richest parts of the world in terms of ancient history, the place where the epic poet Homer was born, and where ancient and marvelous civilizations flourished, many of which were assimilated into the cultures that followed: Hittites, Phrygians, Lydians, Lycians, Celts, Greeks, and Persians were all followed by the Romans, and, finally, by various Turkic groups. The history of Anatolia is also connected with the story of Jesus Christ and the Crusades. It is the scene of an extraordinary mix of races, religions and civilizations.

From the 7th century on Anatolia was contested by the Arabs and the Byzantines. The 11th century saw the beginning of the arrival of Turkic invaders, who called it Anatolia, meaning “Land of mothers”. These Turkic clans brought their weaving tradition with them from Central Asia. The Turkish symmetrical knot together with the Persian asymmetrical knot came to be used in these lands. Marco Polo (1254-1324) made references in his chronicles that he had seen many beautiful carpets during his travels through Anatolia via Aksaray and Konya.

The Ottoman dynasty grew out of these Turkic groups, eventually gaining control over Nicaea, Kosovo, Nikopolis, Constantinople, Kurdistan, Syria, the Caucasus, and part of Egypt by the very early 16th century. Alongside the growth of Ottoman imperial power, the arts flourished. These included the art of carpet making and the production of textiles, whose golden age was in the 14th to 16th centuries.

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15th century bird rug, Konya Museum – 19th century Karapanar rug with leopord spot design

The oldest surviving carpets of this period are the so-called Seljuk carpets found in the Aladdin Mosque in Konya and dating to the early 14th century. These carpets have repeating designs in the field and large scale Kufic borders. The field designs show elements of Central Asian influence, as well as designs inspired by Eastern luxury fabrics. About a dozen of these rugs have survived, and some on display in the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum and in the Vakiflar Carpet Museum in Istanbul.

The next generation of Anatolian carpets is documented by their depiction in European painting of the 15th to 17th centuries, above all by the Italians, who appreciated their qualities of composition and color. The favored carpet of western painters was the Ushak type, which later came to be known as ‘the painter’s carpet’. Various Western Anatolian carpet designs came to be known by the names of the individual artists who frequently depicted them, such as Holbein, Lotto and Memling.

During the reign of Selim the Grim (1512-1520), the Ottoman Turks conquered most of Persia, defeating a Turkic dynasty in there, the Safavids. Many artisans from Tabriz, the Safavid capital of the time, were transported to Istanbul to join the royal workshops there. This was also the period when Syrian and Damascus court carpets developed in Egypt and Syria under Ottoman rule. With Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1560) the Ottoman Empire extended from Persia to as far as Hungary, Rhodes and Spain. The carpet makers in these countries produced their own carpets, and yet their style was heavily influenced by the Turkic design tradition.

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Konya kilim fragment with stylized carnations – Adana Turkmen bread roller pin holder – Sivas nomad pillow case with angora wool “wish” tassels

In 16th century Ottoman decorative arts a particular design, referred to as cintamani, became very popular, appearing in textiles, ceramics, the arts of the book, metalwork–and in carpets. It consists of two small, parallel wavy bands, with three spots superimposed. It can also appear as just the three spots, or just the two wavy bands. The origins of the design, and the reasons for its power, have many sources. The three spots were a Buddhist symbol brought to the West by the Mongols in the 12th century, later adopted by Tamerlane, and so featured on his coins. The stripes have a long symbolic history in many cultures, including that of the Turks, as suggesting tiger skins, a symbol of might and power. The three spots can refer to leopard spots as well, another skin frequently depicted as a symbol of power in Persian and Ottoman painting. With its rich history and suggestive meanings, the combination of spots and stripes as a magical motif became a rich and strong symbol, of frequent appearance in the Ottoman decorative arts. Scholars today have dubbed the design “cintamani” in deference to the name of the sacred jewel of Buddhist iconography, and as a possible inspiration for the three spots motif that was first adopted by the Mongols and then by the Ottomans.

Anatolian village rugs
Anatolian village rugs

Anatolian carpets developed a very strong design tradition, absorbing many influences, but always preserving their own distinctive character. To this day, there remains a tradition of village rug making in some areas. Since 1982 the DOBAG project, “Return to Tradition”, initiated and supervised by Marmara University, has flourished in the Bergama region. Private entrepreneurs have followed this lead and established traditional village workshops in Konya province and in other regions. The best known types of Anatolian rugs woven in the past were from West and Central Anatolia, and were named for their places of origin: Bergama, Kula, Gordes, Dazkiri, Milas, Mujur, Konya, Karapinar, Karaman, Ladik, and so forth.

Many Kurdish tribes live in eastern Anatolia and have produced fine quality tribal carpets. In the Central East, Sivas and Malatya (Dirijan, Sinanli tribes), and in the southeast, the provinces of Marash and Gaziantep have also been centers of Anatolian Kurdish carpet weaving. The Great Mosque at Divrigi, along with the Shifahane (Public hospital), was a complex where many early Anatolian Turkish and Kurdish carpets were discovered. In the southeast corner of Anatolia and northern Iraq is another Kurdish rug weaving center of the well-known Ako, Balaktyan, Barzan, Bervari, Herki, Jhirki, and Alan tribes.

Tulu Rugs of Anatolia

Nomad populations producing differing types of tulu, regardless of the transhumant lifestyle they have in common, are decidedly heterogeneous. It is perhaps for this reason that the tulu they produce, even though coming from a relatively restricted geographical area, do not have consistent technical characteristics but rather are made in a large number of variations both with regards to the choice of materials and the weaving technique.

Long pile Tulu rugs ( Center one is called "FILIKLI TULU" )
Long pile Tulu rugs ( Center one is called “FILIKLI TULU” )

Tulu is the English pronunciation of the Turkish word “tuylu” meaning hairy, or long haired. Some common features are the shaggy, irregularly cut pile, the low knot density, and the simplicity of the decoration. Sheep’s wool either dyed or in varying natural shades of ivory and brown is the predominant material used to knot tulu. The use of goat’s wool and hair is also common. Long silky fibers are used for the pile, while more consistent and rigid fibers are used for the structure. There are a few types. Flikli is the type from central Turkey knotted on four warps with very soft angora goat hair. The Chekme or Cheki tulu is the one in which supplementary wefts do not encircle warps, but are only interlaced and pulled from the front of the carpet to create a long looped pile. Short pile ones are created by looping over a wood rod. Later the wood rod is pulled to create the pile.

Left: Chekme – Cheki loop knotted angora wool Tulu rug – Right: Konya - Karapinar carpet knotted Coban – Shepherd TULU rug or Dokuma – woven TULU rug
Left: Chekme – Cheki loop knotted angora wool Tulu rug – Right: Konya – Karapinar carpet knotted Coban – Shepherd TULU rug or Dokuma – woven TULU rug

It is the nomad’s herds that provide the sheep and goat’s wool. Handspun wool undergoes traditional treatments. Washed, carded, and loosely spun, it is this which provides a soft and fluffy pile.

The warps normally have a consistent diameter and are arranged on parallel planes without there being a depression between touching warps. Wefts are thick, sometimes as thick as the warps, and are passed in a high number of rows varying between seven and ten. Wefts are not always inserted between each row of knots, and it is common to make at least two rows of knots before passing the weft.

The techniques used to make the pile of tulu are also very varied. Furthermore, in the same way as the wefts, they often vary within the same piece observing no apparent rules. Most tulu have a pile made of a thick series of symmetrical or Turkish knots, their ends well cut towards the bottom.

Tulu type rugs are still relatively unknown on the market. They are mostly made in Konya province of Turkey as well as in the Taurus Mountains and some varieties are made on the Silk Road. They are also used as mats, like Persian gabbeh rugs where they are laid out on the ground on top of a layer of felt inside the tents of many nomad populations. Very often, in village houses they serve the same purpose for sitting on or sleeping.


Persian Carpets

Persian main rug
Persian main rug

Iran means ‘light’, and this is reflected by the fact that Persia in the past was always mistress of all the arts. Firdausi, in his 10th century ‘Book of Kings’, praises the splendor of the ancient Persian Empire, which extended as far as Egypt and the Mediterranean.

The naturalistic splendor of decorations on rugs was inspired by the finest miniatures and by the beautiful binding of the holy Koran. The main feature, which totally changes the character of the carpet, is the central medallion, sometimes lobed, sometimes hung with festoons, decorated with pendants, lanterns and rectangular inscriptions. Part of the central medallion is repeated at the four corners. The borders are widened and become a splendid frame for the centerpiece. During the Safavid Dynasty (1502 – 1736), the golden age of the Persian carpet, the rule forbidding the representation of living creatures was lifted. This gave rise to two types of carpets which belong exclusively to the Persian tradition: the garden carpet, and the hunting-scene carpet.

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Baktiari garden rug – Heriz main carpet – Kerman wool embroidery

The oldest known hunting-scene carpet in Europe is that in the Poldi Pezzoli Museum, Milan. It dates to 1523 CE. Other famous hunting-scene carpets are the Ardebil carpet, dated 1539 CE. One of them is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the other one is in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, USA.

The garden carpet faithfully reproduces garden plants. It is like a gaily filled flower garden, where animals leap and play and many birds flutter and swoop, where rippling streams reflect the blue of the sky and gleam with darting fish.

Another particularly Persian type is the inscribed carpet. Verses from the Koran, poems and loving messages form highly decorative patterns. The designers of Persian carpets belonged to the cultivated class and were true artists. The gracefulness of the intricate patterns reflects the Persian mind – versatile, subtle, thoughtful and at the same time imaginative.

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Details of a Heriz, an antique Afshar and Qashqai Gabbeh rugs

There are many kinds of rugs, carpets and kilims still being made all over Iran. Some are very fine workshop carpets; some are tribal and village rugs. In more recent times, there have been various developments in the traditional Iranian carpet industry. There are still several major companies producing very fine quality handmade Persian carpets.

Tabriz, capital of the Iranian Province of Azerbaijan, is an important center for the making and selling of a wide range of carpets, from carelessly made ones to work which deserves a place in any of the finest collections. The Tabriz school can be divided into two subgroups, Tabriz and Ardebil. The famous Serapi and Heriz carpets are still being made in this area as are many other types of village rugs. Also, one of the most famous Turkic tribes, the Shahsavan, meaning ‘people who love the Shah’, lives around Tabriz. They still spend part of the year in the mountains and keep their tribal way of life. Their masterly woven ethnic textiles are in famous museums and collections in the western world.

New Gabbeh Qashkai rug
New Gabbeh Qashkai rug

Also, the southern part of Iran is a famous carpet making region. Kashan, Esfahan and Kerman are the major towns. The Qashqa’i, Bakhtiari, and Luri are nomadic groups who are very well known for their exceptional tribal weavings. Another rug weaving area is the province of Baluchistan, where the Baluchi tribes weave famous dark, blue-red, and natural camel hair rugs.

Persia is also a center of Kurdish carpets as the ancient cradle of Kurdish civilization is here. Ecbatana, today’s Hamadan, is where, since ancient times, Kurdish carpets are still made. The province of Kermanshah in the South of Iran is the well-known area of the Sanjabi Kurds. They are also famous for their weavings. They weave rugs and all kinds of tribal belongings with very saturated colors. The Northeast of Iran is another center where Quchan Kurds and Central Asian Turkmen express their own individual designs and weavings.

Caucasian Carpets

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Caucasian rugs Karagashli – Karachov – Kazak

The Caucasus is a mountainous region, lying between the Black Sea and the Caspian, bordering on Persia to the south and Turkey to the southwest. The Caucasus can never become an independent state because it is continually subject to invasion by armies as well as being a refuge for various groups such as Turkic groups from Central Asia, Armenians and Christians. Its golden age was the 12th century, when the reign of Queen Tamara shone like a single star.  This was a century of resistance against its enemies, and the only period when the Caucasus was really and truly an independent state. But the hordes of Genghis Khan drove local inhabitants into the mountains where they settled in narrow and almost impassable valleys. The population of the Caucasus is more mixed now than in ancient times. However, this did not destroy tradition, since each group keeps to itself and even today speaks its own language and follows its own customs and traditions with obstinate and steadfast fidelity. The tribes are for the most part occupied with agriculture and carpet making, and their way of life is somewhat primitive and close to the soil.

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Shahsavan tribal weavings
Extra weft broacade bag face – reverse sumak spoon holder – weftless sumak mafrash side panel

It is known for certain that some Caucasians learned the art of knotting carpets from the Turkmen tribes and they developed this art into their own style with its high level of perfection. They always remained faithful to their own individual style. In their absolutely geometrical patterns we find the ruggedness of the overhanging rocks, the harshness of the ice-capped peaks and the deep valleys of their country. In the bold color contrasts we find their native genius and a desire to resist outside influences and live their own life. Their patterns are abstract and symbolic, and mysterious and ingenuous at the same time.

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Details of Kazak rugs

Caucasian carpets are worked mostly in wool warp and weft and made with the Turkish symmetrical knot. Signs and symbols are many and varied. We find the eight-point star of the Medes, the six-point star of the Islamic world, the triangle, the square, the hexagon, the Greek cross, the hourglass, the comb, the dagger, the hook (said to be derived from the Swastika – meaning the continuation of life ) and here and there a few highly stylized flowers. Figures of people and animals are also highly stylized, and are found more often in the southern districts, the commonest being those of the crab, tortoise, camel, dog, peacock, tarantula and eagle. A frequent pattern in the borders is a design notched on both sides, alternating with a kind of cup, which is said to represent the lotus flower in water. Other border patterns derive from Kufic writing, and there is also one known as the ‘running dog’ which is like a long row of hooks.

At first sight, these designs might seem to be somewhat childish in their simplicity, but they are, in fact, the fruits of centuries of struggle against man and nature. In the bright and brilliant colors we read the story of man’s aspirations to a joy which life denies, or, if it allows it, then it is only at the cost of immense sacrifice. Some of the famous names for Caucasian rugs are Kazak, Afshan Kuba, Shirvan, Talish, Karabagh, Daghestan, and Sumak, a tapestry type of flat weaving.

Turkestan & Turkmen Carpets

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Turkmen main rugs (right and left) – Engsi tent door rug (center)

Geographically speaking, Turkestan is roughly delineated to the west by the Caspian Sea, to the east by the city of Bokhara, to the north by the Aral Sea, and to the south by the present day Iranian border. Traditionally, as far as carpets and textiles are concerned, we should also include certain areas bordering on Afghanistan, Baluchistan and today’s Iranian Turkmensahra. All these territories were inhabited by Turkic tribes. They were nomadic or semi-nomadic and had been settled in these regions from earliest times.

The main Turkic tribes were the Salor, Tekke, Yomud, Ersari and Saryk. These tribes were divided into subgroups. They were partly autonomous in terms of organization and social life. The history of the relations between neighboring tribes was not peaceful most of the time. This was for economic reasons and because of the desire for political supremacy. The Turkic line, which was joined by a Mongol group, gave rise to numerous tribes, of which the first and most historically important one was the Salor. Mongol tribes settled and abandoned the nomadic life. The Turkic tribes, however, carried on their wild and independent existence, devoting themselves to hunting and looting , living in caves or in their yurts, portable tents, which could be set up in just a few hours.

The Persian historian Rashid Ad-Din (1247-1318) writes in his monumental “History of the world” that the six branches of the Turkic Oghuz tribes each had an animal totem. He refers to the camel, the wolf, the ewe, the dog, the deer and the fox. This division comes from the fact that Oghuz Khan had six children and followed a cosmological principle. The six groups were the sun, the moon, the sky, the stars, the sea and the mountains. This relationship indicates that they were mostly shamanistic and animistic.

Turkmen Salor Guls
Turkmen Salor Guls

Among the Turkmen tribes, the Salor is the oldest known. The Tekke is the most well-known because of its magnificent rugs. They are possibly the best and finest weavers in all Central Asia and used to live mostly in Mary, formerly Merv, Turkmenistan. Perhaps that is why they used to call Central Asia ‘the cradle of hand-knotted carpets’. The Yomud tribes, like the others, cannot be considered to be a homogeneous entity but rather one made up of several main groups with subgroups living mostly on the southeastern shores of the Caspian Sea, Turkmensahra, and south of the Aral Sea around the Khanate of Khiva. The Chodor are also ethnically related to the Yomud and live between the Caspian and the Aral Sea. The Ersari live in the upper Amu Darya delta between what are today the borders of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Turkmen Tekke Guls
Turkmen Tekke Guls

The Turkmen tribes have always been nomadic or semi-nomadic sheep farmers. Among these people the art of carpet weaving was not so much an additional activity but rather a central factor in their social and economic life. In fact, all the different objects used in day-to-day living were knotted, from cots and cradles, to yurt (tent) fasteners, long decorative bands, chuvals ( sacks) and bags in which grain and all the various other everyday items were kept. These bags varied in form and design, depending on their use. The saddle was given particular emphasis as a major symbol of power, as were the harnesses and trappings of horses and camels. What is amazing is their achievement of magnificent craftsmanship with the special quality of their wool, as well as their particular and inimitable shade of red. This they kept strictly secret, as the Chinese did with their yellow, the Persians with their blue, so it could never be rivaled by others. The great cities of Mary, Kashgar, Bokhara and Samarkand attained a high level of civilization. Schools of poetry and philosophy, miniature painting and weaving textiles flourished, bringing daily life to a high artistic level.

Turkmen Yomud Guls
Turkmen Yomud Guls

If rug weaving, the making of bags and other similar objects are characteristic of almost all nomadic peoples in the eastern world, the Turkmen tribes certainly lead the field in terms of the importance of this activity in the life of both the individual and the community. All these activities are carried on today in some degree, mainly for personal use, but also for the purpose of trade.

Turkmen Ersary Guls
Turkmen Ersary Guls

Turkmen carpets and rugs are easy to identify by their decorative style. They are hallmarked by the repetition of small medallions called “guls” in the field of the carpet. These are star-shaped or floral-geometric stylized motifs which go back to nomadic Central Asian traditions. These small medallions – guls – are arranged in rows, running vertically or diagonally. Most of the time, the design provides the key for identifying the origin of the carpet. When there is some doubt, one can then look closely at all the various technical characteristics such as warps, wefts, and pile, initial and final bands, edges and end finishes with their flat woven part, all of which enable one to gain a more precise understanding of the rug. Almost all tribes express their own individual shapes and styles in these details.

Turkmen Chodor Guls
Turkmen Chodor Guls

The gul, meaning “flower” in Persian, was originally the motif, ornament and even emblem of each particular tribe. As time passed, this practice became gradually more and more diluted as is demonstrated by the gul of the Salor, which lost its originality when the tribe was defeated in the 19th century by the Tekke and Saryk tribes. The gul of the vanquished was taken on by the vanquisher. The most correct names for defining the rugs made by Turkmen are those of the original tribe with a specific “gul”. This applies in the case of the Tekke, Yomud, Ersari, Saryk and Chodor.

Ersary beshir carpet
Ersary beshir carpet

These carpets are woven on portable horizontal looms, using both symmetrical and asymmetrical knots. There are various examples where both styles of knot are used in the same weaving. The Persian knot is normally quite dense. The material used was mainly wool. At times, white sections were woven with cotton. The most commoncolors included many shades of usually dark madder red, brown, blue and dark green. Chemical dyes reached Central Asia after the Soviet invasion and the building of the railroads in the last quarter of the 19th century. Red was the main chemical color used by these tribes because using wild madder root to produce red required a large quantity of madder root and considerable time.

Kurdish Carpets

Kurdish tent reed screen
Kurdish tent reed screen

The Kurds live largely in southeastern Turkey, western Persia, northern Iraq and northern Syria. The origin of the Kurds is still controversial. Xenophon mentions the Kurds in 401 BCE as a freedom-loving mountain people, not subdued by the great Persian kings. Strabo had written of the tribes of ‘Kurtioi’ in Fars and Media around the beginning of the Christian era, and we have evidence that they fought as mercenaries in the armies of the Seleucids and the kings of Pergamum. The Kurdish language is Indo-European, related to Iranian-Medic. It is assumed that the Medes fled to the Eastern Taurus Mountains in 600 BCE and mixed with Hurrite mountain people. No overall Kurdish state was ever formed. There had always been independent clans and principalities.

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Details of Kurdish rugs – Eastern Anatolia, Turkey

In the 9th and 10th centuries CE, the Arab geographers still spoke of the Kurds as living in an area stretching from the north of Azerbaijan as far south as Fars. It is possible the name was used for a variety of mountain tribes whose only common characteristics were their predominantly pastoral way of life and their rather wild nature.

The earliest known Kurdish dynasties developed under the rule of Saladdin Ayyubi in the 12th century. In these years, Ahmad Sanjar, the last of the great Seljuk sultans, created a province during his rule and for the first time called it Kurdistan, ‘Land of the Kurds’. This name stills survives as one of the provinces of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Today, in addition to some parts of the Caucasus, Iran and Turkey are still the major countries where many great Kurdish carpets and textiles come from.

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Kurdish weaving is certainly equal to that of Turkic weaving. After all, the Kurds have lived with Turkic groups for millennia, and have had shared cultural experiences. Their nomadic and pastoral life must have taught them how to make great textiles and rugs from the wool of the flocks that they raised and lived together with. Exceptionally fine 19th century Kurdish rugs are still available on the market today. Some groups had a reputation for spinning very fine yarn through holes in their finger nails. Even today, most Kurdish rugs are made by nomadic groups in Iran, Turkey and Iraq. They have lustrous wool which sparkles in sunlight and feels like silk. Many Kurdish rugs were made on horizontal looms. They have great selvages and end braiding in their weavings so that they can be easily identified. They used to be in very high demand in the 1980s and 1990s by western collectors and wrongly called ‘Yuruk’ rugs. Yuruk is a term used by Turkic tribal people in Anatolia, meaning migrating nomads in summer and winter periods. Kurdish weavers mostly used symmetrical knots in their rugs. They also weave incredibly fine flat-weaves and very strong warp-faced floor and bedding covers in pile as well as pillow cases called yastiks, grain bags, clothing bags, saddle bags, saddle covers, pack animal bands, skullcaps, fabrics for clothing and various animal trappings.

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Kurdish rug details (right and left) – Kurdish grain bag (center)

Most 19th century and early 20th century Kurdish rugs and textiles contain all natural dyes made by their own traditional methods. Cochineal red is one of the colors that they used, more than madder root red, after its arrival by sea on its way to Antioch in the last part of the 19th century. The shades of their dye colors are a little different than the same colors made from the same dyestuffs from other rug centers. This is because of the water they use up in the high plains. Most Kurdish rugs are called by tribal names while some of them were given city and town names by merchants where they were marketed. Most Kurdish people live in villages and big towns in present day Turkey, Iran and Iraq.


Felt Rugs

Felt making
Felt making

Fluffed wool can also be compacted with heat and agitation into felt. Felt making is a very ancient craft and dates back to the beginnings of civilization. The surface of felt is water-resistant, while its interior is highly absorbent. The first woolens were more likely to have been felted into densely matted wool than woven. One can imagine the continuous rediscovery of felt – felt as it appeared on the body of a sheep as it molted, felt from the piece of loose wool used for kneeling on the ground, for sleeping on and sitting on a horse’s back as well as other animals.

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Baluch, Lakai and Turkmen felt details

Felt is a remarkable product. It absorbs moisture, insulates against heat and cold, resists flames, and stays resilient. The nomads of central and western Asia used felt for clothing and tents. Greeks felt-lined their helmets, and Roman soldiers wore breastplates of felt. Pliny the Elder, whose Natural History was considered a scientific sourcebook in the Middle Ages, said that felt treated with vinegar would resist iron and fire.

Kirghiz yurt hanging felt from Pamir mountains and Kirghiz yurt in upper Wakhan Valley
Kirghiz yurt hanging felt from Pamir mountains and Kirghiz yurt in upper Wakhan Valley

Kilim Flat Weavings

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Flat woven Turkish and Kurdish kilims

Kilim is a Turkish word. In Persian, the word is “gelim” and in Central Asia the word “Gelam” means ‘pile rug’. The word kilim is basically used to refer to tapestry-woven floor covers as well as other flat woven textiles such as, sumak. cicim, zili, along with jajim in Persian, and palas in Kurdish which are warp-faced woven flat weaves.

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In these warp-faced techniques, the weaver has less freedom in design creation and color possibilities. In Anatolia, the most common method is the weft-faced design.

Kilim is one of the five flat-weave techniques. It is more commonly woven than other methods of flat weaving, such as slit warp, shared warp and interlocking color wefts on warp yarns or in between vertical warps. However, sometimes two or more techniques are woven together on the same piece.

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Most flat weaves are made for personal use. Some were marketed in local bazaars for various personal and family reasons such as marriages, the building of homes, or migration to another village. Weavers usually kept the best wool for their own use. Wool was washed, combed, spun and dyed by women before being woven for their own needs. Designs were exchanged in nearby towns and between tribal groups. Many of the motives had meanings and reasons for use in weavings. Some were talismanic, some were religious, some were environmental and some were even political. Prayer kilims were the most common type of flat weave for hanging on walls. Even pictorial ones were made for the same purpose.

Weaving on vertical looms
Weaving kilim and pile rug on vertical looms

Rug Care

A good rug properly cared for will outlast its owner. Older pieces that have already seen a generation or two of wear are best used out of high traffic areas such as entryways. Newer rugs can be used heavily for years and will only become more beautiful. Ends and edges should be rebound if they start to unravel to prevent premature wear. Since grit in a rug grinds at the foundation, gentle vacuuming (without using a power beater attachment) helps a lot. For the best results, turn the rug upside down and use a rug beater attachment to vibrate the back, or tap the back with your hands and feet. The grit will fall out onto the floor where it can be swept or vacuumed away. Rugs rarely need washing. A proper pad under a rug or kilim keeps it from sliding and stressing the fibres and so extends its life. Along with dirt and grit, moths are the other big enemy. These creatures love dirt and dark places, so any stored rug should be clean and have some moth flakes sprinkled on it . It is always best to keep wool rugs and textiles in places where they can have some air and light. For rugs in use moths are less of a problem, although they can breed (and feast!) while hanging on walls and under furniture left in place for extended periods.

Rug Cleaning

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The way to ruin your own rugs

Periodic professional cleaning can add years to the life of a rug or kilim. However, over cleaning or improper cleaning can be harmful for rugs and textiles.

Stages in cleaning are several:

  • The rug is warmed to soften the wool, followed by manipulation to remove abrasive particles.
  • Machine agitation (dry) is done in a `dust tumbler` to continue the grit removal process.
  • The rug is hand washed with liquid soaps in cold water. Sometimes gentle chemicals are added to set certain dyes to prevent running.
  • Slow drying and sometimes blocking to restore shape is the final step.

Repair & Restoration

Kilim - Flat weave repairs - Antique looking restoration
Kilim – Flat weave repairs – Antique looking restoration

Even very basic maintenance can make a rug or kilim last longer and maintain its beauty. For example, on older rugs we can stop the fringes from unraveling by means of an end stitch and rebind damaged edges to prevent premature wear. For rugs or kilims with more advanced condition problems we offer repiling and/or reweaving.

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Pile repair on a Bergama rug

For such operations we use natural handspun wool, never inferior factory produced yarns. Old wool and vegetable dyed wool are used where appropriate. Written estimates are of course always provided in advance. If you have any questions about restoring your rugs or textiles, just let us know and we will give you the best advice.


Silk Embroidery

Suzani Embroidery from Uzbekistan

Suzani embroidery
Kirgiz and Khorezm silk embroidery

The term suzani is commonly used to refer to large textile urban textile products worked with silk yarn, sometimes with small features in wool, with a certain range of stitches, on cotton or silk ground cloth. Uzbek, Turkmen, Tajik, Kyrgyz, and other ethnic groups still make them today in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan, in familiar designs, presumably for dowries and other domestic uses.

The semi-contemporary suzani textiles are hand woven and hand embroidered by women, in designs traditionally used in the 18th and 19th centuries in the Silk Road cities and towns of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The silk used in the embroidery of these pieces is colored mostly with natural dyes from various plants and insects. The red comes from madder and cochineal, the blue comes from indigo, the yellow from a variety of local plants, and the black from pomegranate. The brilliance of the dyes, along with their subtle variations, results in an appearance unmatched by the flat regularity of modern chemical dyes. In addition, the fineness of the silk itself influences the quality of the final product.

Contemporary suzani embroidery
Contemporary silk suzani embroidery

The ground fabric is hand woven with a silk warp and cotton weft, adras Ikat, or silk on silk, atlas Ikat. The silk warp gives the ground fabric a ‘hand’ or touch that is superior to that of a simple cotton fabric, and the silk adds a subtle visual richness to the surface.

These handmade Central Asian embroideries are the expression of ancient craft traditions. The production of embroideries, in many forms and styles, and for different functions – the bride’s wedding dowry, equipment for horses and horsemen, and the embellishment of reception areas – was an integral part of the lifestyle of Central Asian people. From an early age, girls in the families of Central Asia were taught the mastery of embroidery in order to follow the tradition of producing their own wedding dowry. Suzani express the cheerfulness and creativeness of the women who made them. These women used their skills to maintain the regional traditions and customs of this applied art. Most Suzani motives carry a symbolic meaning relating to fertility, protection, health and household stability.

In the past, in both Eastern and Western cultures, textiles were a repository of wealth, a mark of status, and an indicator of a clan or tribe, and a major component of long distance trade.

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Details of antique suzani embroidery

We now live in a society of mass production, where the importance of beautiful textiles in our environment has been minimized. These textiles from Uzbekistan open a window to an appreciation of fabrics in our environment that is now largely missing in our daily lives.

LAKAI Embroidery

Early reference to the Lakai people in the literature of Central Asia was negligible until Alexander Burns published the account of his ‘Travels in Bokhara’ in 1836. Of the Lakai he wrote: “Near Hissar (present day Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan) live a tribe of Uzbeks called Lakay. They exist mostly by robbery and their women accompany them into the fight. A saying amongst them curses everyone who dies in his bed, since a true Lakay should lay down his life in a foray.”

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Chain stitch Lakai embroidery

George Borodin, in his romanticized history of Samarkand, “Cradle of Splendor”, described the Lakai: ‘warriors, from early youth to late manhood they take to the highroads in the hills and mountains, hunting, killing and thieving.’ The Lakai came to notice again in the 1920s when Ibrahim Bek, head of the Lakai tribe, led his people against the Russians and gained control of the Lakai valley for six years before he and his tribe were forced to flee to Afghanistan. They settled north of the Hindu Kush and developed a reputation as horse breeders or, as some sources claim, horse thieves! From these accounts it becomes apparent that the Lakai were a fierce, independent people who had isolated themselves from the main body of the Uzbek tribes and had retained the Steppe tradition of the mounted warrior-herdsman, long after other nomadic tribes had abandoned this lifestyle. It would not be illogical to suppose that the art and culture of the Lakai mirror their way of life and that their patterns and symbols might therefore reflect those of the early Turco-Mongolian hordes.

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Cross stitch Lakai embroidery

The Lakai live mostly in northern Afghanistan, southern Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. These tribal people have a talent for making very fine embroidery with the cross and chain stitch. The strongly used ‘animal imagery’ is a style from the Pazyryk culture with its Altai shamanistic character. They never used sentimental designs. They made mostly strong  and dynamic drawings, an expression of their shamanistic past. They loved saturated colors and used natural dyes up until early aniline dyes arrived in Central Asia as early as the late 19th century. They produced articles of many shapes and sizes, wall hangings, vanity bags, bedding bags, pouches, and belts, as well as skullcaps and hair ornaments. Their extremely fine embroidery is very well respected in the textile arts of Central Asia.


Hand Loom Textiles

"Man on Horseback Dragging a Mongol Prisoner". Safawid brocade fabric dating back to late 16th century
“Man on Horseback Dragging a Mongol Prisoner”. Safawid brocade fabric dating back to late 16th century

Silk Ikat & Velvets from Uzbekistan

Ikat workshop in Fergana Valley
Tie-dyed silk warps before and after weaving

The Central Asian-Uzbek term is abrband (‘abr’ meaning cloud, ‘band’ meaning tying). However, the Malay-Indonesian term, ikat, and Uygur term atlas, is widely used in Uzbekistan today. The technique requires precision in tying and wrapping silk threads before dyeing in order to create a desired pattern. The number of times threads are tied and wrapped depends on the complexity of the ikat pattern and the number of colors involved in the design. Unlike carpets and flat weaves, the design of an ikat fabric is articulated on the yarns before weaving begins. Ikat weaving involves 37 steps including dying the silk warp yarns multiple times before it is out of the loom.

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Velvet ikat weaving

When an ikat is woven with silk warps and cotton wefts, it is called ‘adras’. A silk on silk woven ikat is called ‘khan atlas’ and ‘shoi’ in Tajik. A cotton warp and cotton weft ikat is called ‘Boz’ which is still woven in the Fargana valley of Uzbekistan. In fact, only adras ikats were permitted for men because of religious restrictions.

Atlas is the main local word used in Central Asia  along with the term ‘ikat’. Uygur Turks use atlas in East Turkestan (Today’s Xinjian – China). During the Chinese Qing Dynasty, there were twenty-seven types of atlas weavings by Uygurs in Xinjian. The Yarkand Khanate became renowned for almost ten different styles of atlas in the 16th century. Today a only a few types of atlas survive in the village of Jia near Khotan.

Silk adras ikat and silk velvet ikat
Silk adras ikat and silk velvet ikat

Although the warp is silk in ikat weaving, the weaver may use a simple cotton weft or, for a more luxurious fabric, a silk one. She can also add a supplementary silk weft to form loops that are later clipped to create a pile of velvet ikat – a ‘bakhmal’ fabric.


Ethnic & Tribal Hats

Uzbekistan, Margilan Skull Caps market
Uzbekistan , Shahrisabz hat selling lady in Aq-Sarai and Margilan Skull Caps bazaar

Hats are convenient to wear, practical, protective and attractive. In some cultures, women wear hats, and in others they do not, but wear scarves instead. Or in some cultures, they wear hats with long tails that cover their hair, which is braided into pigtails. Hats are made in many different shapes, with many materials, from animal skin, felt, woven tapestry, camel hair, embroidered silk, cotton and even from handmade paper. Tribal people recycle all kinds of things. Many of their hats are made out of recycled clothing and fabrics. In pastoral societies people never waste anything and always find a way of using their worn and surplus materials. A dead child’s hat is never passed on to a living one. To kill evil spirits, metal and other important ornaments are removed before it is destroyed.

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Turkmen hats

The diversity of forms (conical, four-sided, round, dome-shaped – skullcaps, richly embroidered, with a delicate, large-scale or carpet texture), and the variety of colors ( from simple black and white, to bright multi-colors) make Central Asian headwear universal. In Central Asia, Anatolia, and probably other regions making hats and embroideries, girls are expected to prepare up to hundred embroidered, woven, and knitted items, including scarves, shawls, wall hangings, animal trappings, tent decorations, ceremonial weavings, cushions, and vanity bags as well as prayer mats and scull caps – hats for future husbands.

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Lakai silk embroidery hats – Various Turkmen hats

The upper part and cap-band of a skullcap are embroidered with geometric flower patterns against an entirely embroidered background of figured medallions or flowering plants. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, local peculiarities of embroidery of skullcaps in  different regions were so precise that they identified the birthplace of the owner. For instance, in Uzbekistan several styles of embroidery were used. Prominence was given to selecting stitches and detailing. Large surfaces were filled up with three different stitches: 1) the one sided “basma”, satin stitch, forming a close, slightly-raised texture,  2) a small half criss-cross “Iroqi” (atanaq in Turkmen) stitch, conveying a granulated appearance to the surface of the pattern, and 3) a “Yurma” (ilme – ildirme in Turkmen), chain stitch which thanks to the exact calculation, impresses one with a richness of hues similar to the playful effect of precious stones. Each of the three stitches cited above had a great number of versions in various centers of embroidery and preference was given to one or other method, which was influential in creating a local style. These skullcaps can be ornamented with silk, glass beads, ivory buttons, shells, metallic yarns, and even the small bones of animals, and feathers of birds of prey.

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Turkmen Tekke, Chodor and Yomud hats

In Central Asia, the head of a person is considered the most important part of the body. It is the place where  the five senses are used and where one’s existence is affirmed. People loved hats because of their protection against sun, heat, cold and rain, to impress others with their importance and authority. They also identified their clan and ethnic origin. Most importantly, hats impress the opposite sex. Some hats are only used on ceremonial days and they are well-kept and handed down to future generations. Some are also worn for religious purposes and express the status of the  wearer. Muslim men in rural areas wear hats both indoors and outdoors in every situation. In remote villages and rural areas along the Silk Road, most men own a variety of hats and skullcaps for different occasions, even night caps. Thin, flexible embroidered and hand-knitted skullcaps made of silk, cotton, or wool are worn while praying.

Chodor Turkmen hats
Anatolian beaded hats, Chodor Turkmen hats, Afghanistan beaded hats

There is considerable variety in the style and patterns used in skullcaps in different regions. Some hats are like regular rugs that have a border and field design. However, designs are usually not related to larger embroideries or other textiles produced by the same people. Rather, designs have important meanings for tribal people. Curling ram’s horns for instance, represent the importance of sheep and goats in tribal society. Representations of flora and fauna celebrate nature and the life-giving function of plants for both man and animal. For man cannot survive without animals.

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Embroidered Azerbaijan, Persian Dervish and Yemen silk hats

Skullcaps and various types of hats are still being made and worn in many places in Central Asia. The Fargana Valley in Uzbekistan is one of the major places  where hats survive. There is even a hat market in town of Margilan where  ladies bring  their home-made hats to sell there once a week.

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Khorasan hat seller – Kirgiz bride – Samarkand hat seller

ATTRIBUTIONS:

Oriental Rugs – A new comprehensive guide – Murry L. Eliand, 1993

Oriental Carpets – Michele Campana – Fratelli Fabri, editori Milan Italy, 1966

Oriental Carpets – Giovanni Curatola – Simon and Schuster. Italy, 1963

Hats on the Silk Road – Russell Fling – Ohio – Columbus , 2015

About Textiles edited by Peter Umney-Gray

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Tribal textiles, weavings and objects of art