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Weaving Stories: Origins

Weaving stories

Weaving Stories: Origins

While the exact origin of knotted pile carpets remains unknown, they are believed to have first developed around theCaspianSea or on the plains of Central Asia several thousand years ago. They were born out of necessity, with tribal groups needing protection against the freezing cold winters and something that could easily be transported as part of their nomadic lifestyle.

While there is evidence of goat and sheep wool being spun andwoven as early as the 7th millennium, the oldest known surviving pile carpet is the Pazyryk. Dating from the 5th or 4th century BC, it was discovered in a burial mound in the Pazyrk Valley of Siberia’s Altai Mountains in 1949. Found frozen in a block of ice, it was beautifully preserved and is now exhibited at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

While several cultures have claimed the Pazyryk as their own, this richly coloured carpet is believed by experts to have hailed from Armenia. This is supported by the writings of Herodotus, who explained how the inhabitants of the Caucasus were revered for their beautifully woven and brilliantly coloured rugs. The Pazyryk carpet measures 183 x 200 centimetres and consists of a ribbon motif, with deers and warriors on horses depicted along its border.

Tribal creations to status symbols

Initially, carpets and rugs were designed purely as functional pieces, helping to insulate the floors of both temporary and permanent dwellings. Over time, they evolved to become more decorative and incorporated tribal designs that were passed down through the generations.The dyes were made from natural materials, such as indigo and the rind of pomegranates,so the shades varied slightly. As a result, many early carpets exhibitslight gradationsin colour where a new batch of wool was used.

Tribal designs were known for their bold colours, geometric designs and symbolic motifs, as well as having an untamed aesthetic due to the use of portable looms. In their simplestform, loomsweremade using two wooden ribsthat were secured to the ground, making them easy to transport from one camp to the next. This tribal aesthetic is beautifully exhibited in rugs woven by Morocco’s Amazigh people and the Kazaks of Central Asia, both of whom still craft rugs today.

While most Persian carpets were originally produced by nomadic communities or in small villages, they soon caught the attention of affluent residents living in urban environments. In response, manufacturing workshops were established in larger towns and cities and the designs began catering to the tastes of buyers who had disposable wealth. Over time, the purchase of a rug became a status symbol and a reflection of the owner’s social standing. 

While some village weavers continued to make rugs that incorporated their cultural beliefs and folk art traditions, others began organising themselvesinto workshops and catering to commercial buyers.As a result, tribal designs also changed to appeal to the whims of the wealthy, with bolder and more rectilinear motifs. The size of the rugs being produced also increased to suit the larger spacesthey were being designed for.

From Persia to Sweden

The oldest known carpet that can be accurately dated hails from the town of Ardabil in modern-day Iran and is now on display in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Inscribed on one edge is the date 946 in the Muslim calendar, which corresponds to around 1539 AD. Also featured on the rug is the name of a court official who was responsible for making the carpet, Maqsud Kashani. The Ardabil carpet is believed to have been commissioned for the shrine of Shaykh Safi al-Din Ardabili, who died in 1334, with his tomb later becoming a place of pilgrimage.

Ardabil Carpet

At the heart ofthe design is a large, yellow medallion surrounded by pointed ovals and swirling floralmotifs. The carpet is densely knotted and coloured using natural dyes, with the intricacy of its design suggesting it was made by a team of highly skilled weavers over the course ofseveral years. It reflects the characteristics of early Safavid dynasty design, which was embraced across theCaucasus and Central Asia.

Earlier still, however, istheMarby rug, which has been radiocarbon dated to around the 14th century. It is named after the Swedish village in which it was found cut in two and is one of the oldest Oriental carpets discovered in the region. Its animal inspired motifs are typical of Anatolian carpet-making traditions from the early Ottoman period,with two red birds positioned on either side of a tree. Its discovery is particularly notable asit indicatesthatCentral Asian rugswere being exported to the Baltic region and not just as far as France, as was previously thought

Marby rug

By the 16th century,Francewasspending so much on importing rugs that Henry IV decided to establish a carpet factory in his palace, specifically to cater to the French market. Asit turned out, many of these rugs remained exclusively for royal use and never made it outside of his residences. Hissuccessor, Louis XIII, eventually funded an external workshop to createwhat would become known as“French Orientals” and this marked a significant shift in the industry.WhileEuropean-made carpets proved successful, many buyers still preferred the authenticity and exoticism of Middle Eastern and Central Asian creations.

A manufacturing shift on the horizon

The following centuries would see the carpet manufacturing industry completely transform with the arrival ofthe Industrial Revolution. Mechanical innovations and the production capabilities of powered looms saw a reduced need for intensive, manual labour, making rug prices well within the reach of the middle classes

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