The origin of the handmade rug begins, by one theory, in the nomadic tribes of Central Asia. The theory is that the nomads were unwilling to kill valuable livestock (in order to make floor coverings from their hides) so they used goat, sheep or camel hair to design rugs with hair like pile that mimicked animal hide. Others argue that artistic expression like that shown in early rugs could only have been be developed in a prosperous settled environment. However the handmade rug came into being, it has flourished since then as a decorative art form and a practical home furnishing.
Early mention of rugs, or an early form of them, is found in the play "Agamemnon", written around 500 BC, were Clytemnestra spreads out fine carpets for her homecoming husband. Not willing to walk on them he said:
"Great the extravagance, and great the shame I feel, to spoil such treasures and such a silver's worth of webs"
The earliest physical evidence of the history of rug making is the Pazyryk carpet. This rug was discovered in 1949 in a royal tomb in Siberia. The rug had been frozen in perma frost which allowed it to survive until present day. The Pazyryk rug is remarkable for it's age and craftsmanship. It was made in a style of knotting that is still used today. It has a delicacy of the design that indicates a craftsman from a long tradition of weavers.
Another remarkable rug of antiquity is the Spring Carpet of Chosroes. According to legend when the Persian King Chosroes I defeated the Romans in the conquest of southern Arabia, this rug was woven in commemoration of the event. The rug lasted longer than his success, as the Muslims conquered the Persians shortly thereafter in the year 641. The rug was described as weighing several tons and measuring 400 feet by 100 feet. The rug was inlaid with precious gems and gold thread, the design was interlaced with paths which it is said the king used to stroll along to admire the scenes.
With the advent of Islam in the 7th century carpet weaving techniques had been developing for over two thousand years. Under Islamic rule it would continue to flourish ,branching out into ever evolving styles and artistic expressions . As the lands under Muslim control expanded, the unified Islamic rule fostered an environment of peace and prosperity were the arts and learning flourished.
Rug Making reached perhaps its highest form during the reign of the Safavid dynasty, in Persia, during the 16th an 17th centuries. One of the most famous of all Persian carpets dating from this period is the Ardebil. The Ardebil was one of a pair of rugs, which came to England in 1893. The poor condition of the rugs was remedied by using the one rug to repair the other. It now resides in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London as a stunning example of the work of that era.
In the Middle East carpet making was traditionally a home industry. Individuals would make rugs for their own use and in their spare time make extras to sell at a later date. Some were used as payment for other goods or services. Carpets were readily accepted for payment of dowries, to buy livestock or to pay off taxes. To this day the Iranian Inland Revenue will accept payment in rugs, since they are easily sold for cash and increase in value over time.
Chinese handmade rugs were essentially ornamental, made for those of high stature and wealth who could afford to purchases them or have them made. Chinese designs were largely symbolic, influenced by Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian thought. Whereas the Middle Eastern tradition was heavily influenced by Islamic thought resulting in geometric and arabesque motifs.
Indian rug making was even less functional than Chinese, in that rugs were almost exclusively for the Mogul rulers and did not penetrate into the daily live of the common people.
East Meets West
With the advent of the Crusades Europeans, through the acquisitions of the crusaders, were introduced to the rugs of the Middle East. Their fascination with these rugs led to a great demand in wealthy homes as status symbols. The appeal of these rugs is testified to in their increasing appearance in European art. So much so that the repeated appearance of a type of Turkish carpet in the paintings of Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) resulted in the style becoming popularly know as a "Holbein". In European representations the rug was clearly a mark of status and wealth. At that time frame they were tremendously expensive and accordingly very rare.
In France the purchase of these rugs was so heavy that the flow of wealth out of France affected the economy. So much so that in 1608 Henry IV took it upon himself to start a carpet factory in his palace at the Louvre to create rugs for the French market. in order to keep wealth within France's economy. Unfortunately the resulting rugs, made in the Oriental method but with French motifs, so pleased him that he reserved them for royal use and they never made it to his subjects. His successor Louis XIII started an outside workshop to create these "French Orientals" which came to be known as "Savonneries" (after the old soap factory they were produced in) and were Europe's first original carpet designs. The French designs had some success but the Middle Eastern rugs were still the preferred choice.
The continuing demand spurred entrepreneurs to journey into the producing lands to commission the making of rugs for the European market. In this commissioning process European designs, with pastel colors and sweeping floral designs, replaced the bold colors and sharp geometrical designs that were the traditional venue of the Oriental rugs produced in the Middle East. Some Europeans even had their coat of arms or or national symbols woven into the rugs. At this point, demand effected design, rug weaving had truly become an industry as we know it today.
This large scale production slowed in the eighteenth century to rise again in the 19th with the advent of the Victorian era. But this time the bold colors and designs of the traditional weavers was what was desired to compliment the dark heavy style of Victorian furnishings.
At this time workshops began to be created where weavers worked on a weekly bases to be paid not by the rug, but for time worked. Thus the industry shifted gears from one of a strictly cottage industry to a commercial one.
Entrepreneurs rushed to purchase rugs for The European market. No attempt was made to catalog the rugs, where the rugs came from, and who the rugs were made by. They came to be categorized by similarity of design features or whatever limited information was available on the original rug. Therefore today place names given to rugs like "Persian" or "Turkish" may actually have no relevance to the rugs actual origin or maker.
Our fascination with handmade Oriental rugs continues to this day with many fine rugs available from reputable Oriental rug dealers. The key to purchasing a good Oriental rug is to be well educated on the subject and know what you are looking for and how much you are willing to spend.
The rug weaver designs his rug to be a work of art to cherish and you too should choose a rug that appeals to you so that it is more than just an investment but a deep expression of artistic appreciation.
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