history of carpet
Persian carpets: Shimmering echoes of the land
Azerbaijan: Euclid’s dream
Situated to the north-west of Iran, Azerbaijan is a mountainous region with very fertile valleys, ideal for sheep-farming. This region is renowned the world over for the quality and solidity of its wool.
In admiring the hills and plains of Azerbaijan, the origin of carpets becomes immediately clear.
Immense, fertile plains lost in the mountains, are peppered with small villages that are cut off from the outside world half the year.
Hundreds of miles of pasturelands between these villages are perfect for sheet-farming. And sheep rhymes with wool! During this long period of forced inactivity, the peasants make blankets, clothes, etc… It is also during this wintering period that the beautiful local carpets are made.
Their main characteristic features: dense knotting, a high and thick pile, and an abundance of geometric patterns;
As in other regions of Iran, there are two different styles of carpets:
- The urban style (Tabriz, Ahar , Ardabil, Meshguin, Shar, Sarab , Mianeh)
- The rural style ( Bilverdi, Heriz, Mehraban , Gharatche ,Goravan, Bakhshayesh)
One thousand years of Tabriz
Tabriz, the capital of Azerbaijan, is situated at 1350 m of altitude and is surrounded by high mountains. The climate is very harsh: hot in summer and cold in winter. The wool from the sheep is thereby solid and resistant. This legendary solidity has underpinned the success of Tabriz carpets through the centuries. The wool from the region is rather rough, but artisans do not hesitate buying the best wools from other regions, in particular Merino wool from New Zealand.
The best qualities of wool come from the regions of:
- Maku and Khuy. These wools, most often white in colour, have a long, fine and resistant fibre, and a particular softness hat gives the carpets a specific radiance.
- Mahabad and Aromia, multicoloured wools.
- Maqan, the coarsest wools.
The wool is most often still spun manually by women. The type of frame used to knot the carpets is the vertical frame with a beam on either side, known as the Tabriz loom. This frame is ideal for large sizes, as the carpet can be rolled up gradually as it is completed, making it thus possible to produce a carpet of larger size than the traditional standard, which is equivalent to the height of the room.
The work is most often done at home, but given the size of some carpets, entrepreneurs have created workshops manned by at times some twenty artisans each.
The Turkish knot is used, with a concentrating ranging from 90,000 to more than, 1,000,000 knots per square metre.
The weft and warp are usually in raw cotton, and in the finer pieces, in silk.
The fabric is either in wool, or in wool and silk, or entirely in silk.
Style and inspiration
Tabriz, whose origins probably stretch back as far as the 9th century, has always been an important trading centre. It was known for its carpets already in the 15th century, and this long period of prosperity has developed the artisan creation and has contributed to an abundance of different styles.
Furthermore, the artisans of Tabriz have drawn inspiration from the carpets of other regions so as to take account of certain other motifs. Thus, we find in Tabriz carpets the medallion of Kerman carpets, the spandrels of Mashad, and the border of Kashan.
The usual drawings of Tabriz are:
– Floral compositions;
– The central medallion with four spandrels
– The flowers of Shah Abbas
– The Sheikh Safi motif, the most famous example of which is the Ardabil in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
– The Mahi (fish) style is certainly the best known. The central motif is composed of an oval or hexagonal medallion, and the field is scattered with Heratis.
– Hunt scenes with or without medallion. Motifs inspired from old miniatures.
– Figurative motifs, historical scenes, religious scenes, European and oriental landscapes, famous characters, etc.
– Rich carpets made of wool and silk, composed of a beige-pink background, with or without medallion.
– Carpets entirely in silk.
– Copies of paintings by European masters, such as Rubens, Rembrandt, etc.
The soft glimmer of Heriz – Heriz and its region
Being remote from large trading centres and having little contact with other towns or villages, owing to a lack in infrastructure and facilities, Heriz and the surrounding villages have retained their original authenticity and freshness. For this motif, the drawings and colours have not been influenced by outside constraints.
The production of Heriz extends to the towns of Goravan, Bakhshayesh, Mehraban, Gharache and Sarab. Heriz is the most prominent of these towns thanks to the diversity of its motifs and the softness of its colours. You just have to see the 19th century Heriz carpets to realise that they are works of art.
Among these old pieces, Heriz is famous for its carpets made entirely of silk that only very well-off enthusiasts can afford.
References and inspiration
The modern production is of coarser workmanship and brighter colours. The Turkish knot is generally used.
The warp and weft are usually in a quite thick cotton, which makes the carpet very solid.
The wool is coarse and thick, and the number of knots per metres varies generally between 6000 to 10000. In certain finer pieces, this density can extend from 100,000 to 150,000 knots per square metre. Most dyes nowadays are chemical, but there is an increasing tendency to use vegetal dyes.
The design is usually geometric, with vertical, horizontal, and oblique lines. The oblique lines are broken to assume the form of a staircase. The field usually consists of a large central medallion and four spandrels.
In line with tradition, the weavers of this region have been wont to shear the carpet, leaving the pile higher than elsewhere. This gives a high and thick wool, quite pleasant and comfortable for the feet.
Thanks to its resistant qualities, a Heriz carpet (in a good quality of wool) will last a long time, for a price often lower than a mechanically woven carpet.
Goravan, Bakhshayesh in oversheen
Bakhshayesh specialises in the production of runners. The main colours are: blue, fawn red and brick red, which give the carpet a beauty all its own.
Borrowed from the Heriz style, the design is usually composed of a large, floral medallion.
The wool from the Bakhshayesh region is highly resistant and has a particular shine that has largely contributed to the reputation of Goravan carpets.
The medallion of Goravan carpets is particularly imposing, stretching to the middle of the border so as to save the balance of the design.
The foliations of Ahar
The artisans of Ahar and its environs have also drawn their inspiration largely from the Heriz style, but without copying as many other villages have done. They use deep colours, and a denser, very high quality knotting, and are thus renowned for their resistance. The motifs are slightly less geometric and geared more towards a highly stylised leafy form. They have a specific border design, that differentiates them from Heriz carpets.
The runners of Gharache
Gharache is famous for the quality of its runners of very dense knotting. The carpet and runner background is generally ruby red, and the border deep blue.
Inspired from Heriz, the design usually consists of 3 geometric forms: in the centre, a hexagon surrounded by a motif known as “seated dog” with an identical geometric form along each side.
This motif may repeat itself in large-sized pieces.
Ardabil-Ardebil: grandeur and decline
The name of Ardabil is associated with the famous carpet dating from 1539 that covered the tomb of Shah Ishmael, founder of the Safavid dynasty, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Whereas the golden age of carpet-making in Ardabil is now past, nowadays, the use of an identical, repeated motif, and the absence of a specific style for Ardabil, have deprived this production of any value.
Most of the geometric forms are direct copies from the Caucasus. Other motifs are copied from “Mahi” designs. Carpets made in the beginning and middle of the 20th century include some rare original pieces with human figures or animals surrounded by floral decoration.
Whereas the field motifs of Ardabil carpets are extremely similar to those of Caucasus carpets, the borders are decidedly more complex, and the colours used lighter and brighter.
The great odes of Sarab
Situated between Tabriz and Ardabil, the town of Sarab has specialised in large-sized carpets with the “Mahi” motif borrowed from the Bijar design.
This production is conducted on an industrial scale at times, and that is why there are such differences in prices in Tabriz Mahi carpets.
A Mahi motif woven in Tabriz may be worth 2, 3, even 4 times more than a carpet woven in Sarab, because the quality and density of the knotting are different, and an original is always worth more.
Worldly Isfahan (Esfahan, Ispahan)
Esfahan Isfahan (literally, “half the world” Nesf-e-Jahan).
Isfahan became the capital of Persia in 1598, under the reign of Shah Abbas I. Whence the palaces and mosques that were to make Isfahan the most beautiful city in the world in the beginning of the 17th century, as reflected in its name “half the world.”
Isfahan carpets are worthy of these palaces and mosques and the motifs that embellish them are largely inspired from the magnificent tiles that adorn those edifices.
The production seems to have stopped with the Afghan conquest (1722), until the beginning of the 20th century. It was only after World War I that the new production of Isfahan appeared on the world markets.
Style and inspiration
We have few indications on the quality and motifs of old carpets, except that silk was not used very widely.
The most recurrent motifs nowadays are: the central medallion that dominates an interlacing of branches covered with buds and flowers, framed by the border; the flowers of Shah Abbas; the Mihrab style; hunting scenes; animal motifs; garden and forest scenes; figurative panels with scenes of feasts and dances inspired from Persian poetry.
The usual knot is the Farsi or Persian knot; the pile is sheared very short, the warp and counter-warp are in cotton or silk, the field is in wool, wool and silk, and 100% silk. The density varies between 200,000 and 1,000,000 knots per square metre.
Whereas Isfahans are widely known as highly refined carpets, there is a common, quite sizeable production, with rather low density, higher pile and less elaborate colours. This production is obviously sold at a rather low price.
Isfahans are woven mainly in the towns of Najafabad, Falavarjan, Shahreza, Golpayegan, Nain, Ardestan, Natanz, Kashan and Vajansar, i.e. in a 150 kilometre radius round Isfahan.
There are many, very well known artists in Iran who sign their works, but the most famous in the West is Serafian, whose works go for astronomical prices.
Armenibaft: the cultural exception
Before the Islamic revolution, Isfahan was composed of 3 communities that lived in perfect harmony: Muslim, Jews and Christians. It was the Christian community, composed of Armenians, that gave Isfahan the other style of carpet, known as Armenibaft, which means “woven by the Armenians.”
Unlike Isfahan carpets, Armenibafts are woven using the Turkish knot, and the density is between 90,000 to 200,000 knots per square metre. The wool is thicker and the pile higher. There are few designs, and the main colour is usually dark blue.
Chahar Mahal-Bakhtiari: from nomad to rural
Bakhtiar vegetal carpets
The Chahar Mahal region is situated to the South-West of Isfahan, at the foot of Mount Zagros. The carpets from this region get their name from the Bakhtiari tribe, a semi-nomadic people who live in the area.
There are two different productions: a nomad production and one from the villages of Chahar Mahal.
Authentic nomad carpets are distinguished by a double and at times even triple weft (in wool), between two rows of knots, whereas village carpets have only one weft thread in cotton like the warp.
Whereas the carpets of nomads use traditional motifs, village carpets use more classic decorations, such as:
– The central medallion motif;
– The garden carpet: originally inspired by Persian gardens, the field is composed by a checked pattern of small frames containing vegetation subjects (cypresses, gardens with fountains, birds);
– The carpet with trees: the field is composed of interlinked rhomboidal medallions, where the centre contains the same subjects as the garden carpet.
– In some carpets dating from the end of the 19th to the beginning of the 20th century, there is a magnificent décor inspired by the Garden of Eden. The field is composed of flowers, trees of life and stylised boughs set against a plain background, usually ivory or dark blue in colour.
The Bakhtiars are easily recognisable by their vegetal colours: red, ochre-yellow, bottle green, brown, sky blue, white and orange.
The dyers of this region must be paid a particular tribute, as they have reached a rarely obtained level of perfection, and some of them have made their reputation with one or two dyes. Unfortunately, with the arrival of chemical dyes, and because the latter are easier and cheaper to use, some of the secrets were taken to the grave when the old masters died.
The weft and the warp are generally in cotton, although in old pieces they are in wool.
The Turkish knot is used with an average density of 90,000 to 120,000 knots per square metre.
The artisans of Chahar Mahal produce a limited number of Bibibaft (woven by the grandmother), carpets of a denser, more meticulous make, with softer tones than the traditional ones, i.e. the top-of-the range among Bakhtiar carpets.
Nain: Supreme refinement
Situated in the centre of Iran, 140 kilometres from Isfahan, at the edge of the “Dasht-e-Kavir” desert, Nain comprises 652 villages, whose inhabitants live from carpet-making.
Until the beginning of the 20th century, the main craft industry was the production of fabrics in precious wools, woven entirely by hand. But, the arrival of the looms and the import of Western fabrics tolled the decline of this industry.
The artisans of Nain naturally turn to carpet making, drawing inspiration from the elegance and finesse of the fabrics made long ago.
Given the success of Nains, there are numerous copies on the market made in India and Pakistan. Nains are likewise copied in Iran in Kashmar, Tabas, Mashad, Neshapur, etc. in clearly inferior wool and knotting qualities. These copies are often sold as real Nains in some shops that tout sacrifice prices or by unscrupulous peddlers.
The honest merchant will sell them to you as a Nain design made in Kashmar, Tabas, Mashad, Neshapur, etc.
Characteristics of a real Nain
Persian or Farsi knot, with a concentration that can reach 360,000 to more than 1,500,000 knots per m².
Weft in ecru cotton, very fine, generally blue warp; at times the weft is in silk.
Specialists use a specific term for Nains to designate the composition of the weft, i.e. “nohlah” (9 “lah”), “shishlah” (6 “lah”) and “chaharlah” (4 “lah”). This term refers to a weft consisting of 9, 6 or 4 cotton threads.
The pile fabric is in wool and silk, and in certain old pieces, entirely in wool. Silk is used in particular to decorate the background of flowers.
The décor draws extensive inspiration from that of Isfahan: Either animal motifs with gardens and plants depicting the Garden of Eden, or an interlacing of vegetation motifs, with or without central medallion.
The colours are typical and limited in number: for both the background and the décor: beige, cream, ivory, blue, burgundy, red and green. Rarely with a red or green background.
Dye for the wool: vegetable, mineral and chemical.
Habibian: the grandmaster of Nain carpets
The creator of the motifs familiar to us today is Habibian, who drew inspiration from the motifs of Isfahan, and especially from the tiles of the mosques of Isfahan. He sold his first carpet around 1920 for 100 tomans, i.e. 6 kilos of silver.
Habibian’s signature stands guarantee for the finest quality and the most sumptuous décor. Unfortunately, many artisans imitiate his signature, simply because they too are called Habibian (members of the same family; others to boost their profits); so the best guarantee is to buy directly from Habibian’s grandson, Mahmud Reza Habibi Naini, the guardian of the tradition.
Another important character in Nain is Mofidi, a Sufi (Muslim mystic), who expresses his spiritual values through artistic creation.
Kashan: noble origins
Situated at the edge of the Dasht-e-Kavir desert, between Qom and Isfahan, Kashan is in a region where temperatures exceed 50°C, thereby excluding all cultivation. The inhabitants have thus turned to what Iranians do best – making carpets.
Kashan is renowned throughout the world, thanks in particular to the grandmasters who have created masterpieces of wide diversity in design and colours through the centuries.
One of the most famous motifs in Iran, the Sheikh Safi design, was unquestionably created by a master from Kashan, and all Kashan carpets benefit from this renown.
This motif reached such fame, that it was adopted by numerous carpet designers, in particular in Tabriz, who want to claim it as their own.
A meticulous scrutiny of the famous Ardabil, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, points to the Kashan thesis, however.
The Ardabil is signed: Maqsud Kashani (Maqsud of Kashan).
If the carpet had come from Tabriz, it would have been made using the Turkish knot; but the carpet in London is with the Persian knot.
Furthermore, after the carpet was finished in 1539, Tabriz was invaded by the Ottomans on several occasions, and if it were in Tabriz, it would now be in the museum in Istanbul instead of London.
Style and inspiration
The production of Kashans extends to quite a vast territory that comprises the towns of Kashan, Natanz, Jowshegan-e-Ghali, Golpayegan, Mahallat, Ardestan and even Isfahan.
The artisans of Kashan managed to adapt to the demands of foreign markets, producing carpets of great finesse, in particular by introducing Merino wool at the end of the 19thcentury.
The decorative motifs are similar to those common in Iran, i.e. a large, central medallion consisting of several concentric medallions, with the inner medallion shaped as a starry cross.
The floral carpets known as Afshan or Harshang are without medallions, and are composed of a complex network of intertwined foliated arabesque patterns, set off by complex flowers and lotuses.
One of the best contemporary masters of this type of carpet is still Esphahanian, who signs all his works and at times numbers them.
The Sarugh design, which consists of flower bushes against a brick red background is also used.
There are four main colours: red, light blue for the background, cream and orangey yellow. These colours are known for their softness and sheen.
Up to the end of World War I, Kashan carpets were sheared very short. Afterwards, however, owing to the demand of the Western markets, the pile has been left higher, so as to be submitted to the special washing processes that make the carpets look older. However, for a better design quality, they must be short-piled.
The craft industry of Kashan is mainly family run with women doing the work. Each house boasts at least one or two looms.
The knot density varies from 160,000 to 1,100,000 knots per square metre, and the finer carpets are woven with silk or kork wool (lamb’s wool).
The warp and counter-warp are usually in cotton, but in the finer pieces they can be in silk.
Mochtashem the poet of the carpet
At the end of the 19th century a great poet lived in Kashan who was famous for his dirges, Mullah Hossein Mohtashemi. His wife, stemming from Araq, was a master carpet-maker. Together, they funded a workshop in Kashan, and replaced wool with silk.
The first carpet, made entirely of silk, to come from their shop was offered as a present to Shan Naser Aldin. The second, entirely in silk as well, was offered as a present to the Shah’s prime minister.
Thanks to these presents, the princes and nobles at the Shah’s court wanted their silk carpet too, and this was to make Mohtashem a rich man.
His fame secured, he surrounded himself with partners, and recruited from among his family the manual labour he needed so that his business would flourish. His first important orders were small-sized prayer and poshti rugs (the latter small rugs, the size of a sofa back cushion), which were sold at the Istanbul bazaar.
Thanks to the richness of his designs and colours, demand on the European market skyrocketed, and with it the demand for large sizes.
To boost sales, he produced carpets entirely in wool, that were easier to make and more reasonably priced. To that end, he used, for the first time, a wool from Manchester of a softness unknown in Iran.
Thanks to his innovations and business acumen, Mohtashem was one of the leading captains of the carpet industry, and his name has remained forever linked with Kashan carpets.
Khorassan: the rebel province
Herat: Capital of Khorassan
Herat, today in Afghanistan, was long part of Khorassan. Raised to the status of capital by the sultans who reigned over it, it went through a period when the arts, including carpets, experienced their golden age. The carpets of this period naturally took the name of Herat, and the Herati design, which originated in Herat, is nowadays found in the carpets of the towns and villages of Khorassan, and other regions of Iran. The main carpet-making centres in Khorassan are: the cities of Mashad, Birjan, Ghaen, Dorokhsh, Moud, Sabzevar, Torbat-e-Heydariyeh, Tabas and the Beluch and Turcoman tribes.
Style and inspiration
The design used at the end of the 12th and 13th century was composed of a large, central medallion against a neutral background; the balance of the composition is achieved by using a narrow border.
After the end of the 13th century, the drawings diversified, in particular through the introduction of uniform decorative, repeated elements covering the background entirely. To preserve the balance of the composition and to break the monotony produced by these repetitive elements, the border was of Herati flower motifs or flower bushes inspired by Cashmere designs.
The most widely used colour for the background is red verging on coffee, and most of the colours are based on vegetal components.
The central medallion is often turned circular or rhomboidal, depending on the size of the carpet, and these carpets often feature a border in calligraphy with poems by the greatest Persian poets, such as Hafez.
The themes featured most often in Khorassan carpets are animal fights and hunting scenes, the preferred occupation of sovereigns, that show gazelles, wolves, foxes, lions, leopards, goats and birds.
The wool is soft and shiny, with a medium-length pile, but when the wool is sheared in autumn, the down is shorter.
Pilgrimage to Mashad / Meshed, a sacred city
Situated in the North-West of Iran, the country’s second city, Mashad, is one of the main holy Shiite cities, because the mausoleum of Imam Reza attracts many pilgrims from the world over. Mashad also boasts the tomb of the poet Firdowsi who lived there some 9 centuries earlier.
Thanks to the expanse of its pasturelands and prosperity, Khorassan has become a major centre of sheep farming. The artisans of Mashad have naturally taken advantage of this choice of very high quality wool, and their carpets have become world famous.
Style and inspiration
The colours of “Mashad” carpets also acquired a solid reputation for stability. The main colours used for the background are dark red and dark blue.
Green, yellow, orange and white are used in lesser quantities.
The rather fine warp threads are made of mechanically spun blue cotton threads, whereas the coarser, thicker threads are spun by hand.
The pile of the carpet is sheared quite high to give a soft impression to the touch.
With the exception of the Beluch and Turcoman tribes, geometric designs are not used in the Khorassan region. The designs that are used, aside from the central medallion, are the Afshan motif, i.e. a simple background without medallion, studded with a network of intertwined foliated arabesque patterns, set off by flowers, against usually a clear grey – at times cream – background.
Whereas there are still some original artisans who create very fine, valuable pieces, in silk or in wool and silk, most of the artisans limit themselves to copying the designs of other regions.
The most copied carpets are “Nains,” especially in the towns and villages round Mashad, i.e. Kashmar, Tabas, and Neshapur.
Whereas owing to the design and use of – often artificial – silk, these carpets can often be mistaken for Nains, the quality of the work and the wool is often mediocre.
However, the Tabas Nain carpets are worth mentioning, as some of them could pass for real Nains.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the European markets opened up to Persian carpets, and orders started pouring in. To meet the demand of these new markets, a small number of merchants in Tabriz had the idea of creating numerous workshops in the cities of Mashad, Kerman, Araq and Kashan. That is why the Turkish and the Persian knot are both found in these carpets almost in the same proportion.
Although these workshops have an identical structure and common culture, differences in style and colour distinguish one region from the other and help define better the origin of the carpet.
All these workshops vied with each other, trying to outdo their rivals. This competition stimulated production and gave rise to grandmasters such as Maxmal Baf, Fekur, Qazi Khan, Saber, Amughli, Jalilian Vareste, Sheikh Purangi, etc.
Amughli, the Iranian Rubens
Originally from Azerbaijan, after a pilgrimage, his parents settled in Mashad to work as weavers. In the footsteps of Tabrizis, Amughli developed numerous workshops in Mashad and its suburbs, and surrounded himself with numerous companions who were masters in their own right.
Amughli specialised in very large carpets (you can see, in one of the Shah’s palaces, carpets of 100 to 150 m²) and of extreme finesse (2 to 4 million knots per square metres).
He attached great importance to colours and used only vegetal and organic dyes.
Esteemed very highly in Iran, he worked mainly for the mausoleum of Imam Reza, the various palaces of the Shah, embassies, etc.
After his death in 1938, the production of Mashad carpets declined gradually and was never to regain the lustre of yesteryear.
I had the opportunity to see, in a merchant’s shop in Teheran, a magnificent Amughli carpet of just 6 square metres. He had bought it for €120,000 and wanted €250,000 for it. I went to see my merchant eight days later, and the carpet had been sold to another merchant for €210,000.
The finesse of Birjan – Birchan
Birjan is a very ancient centre of carpet-making, and differs from “Mashads” thanks to the originality of its designs: different medallion, very fine Mahi design, boteh (bush)motif.
Although most carpets are woven using the jufti knot, excellent finesse and a long lasting quality are obtained thanks to a fine, tight warp. But there is a poor quality “Birjan” knotted with wool sheared in autumn, which is less resistant than spring wool. In such a case, the carpet will be worn rapidly.
The colours used in “Birjan” are of the same quality as those of “Mashad.”
They are identical, except that dark blue and cream colours are used more extensively for the background, and orangey decorative motifs are used alongside fawn and light red decorative motifs.
Dorokhsh: a rare pearl
A village situated some sixty kilometres from Birjan, Dorokhsh has a long history in the art of the carpet. The most beautiful Khorassan carpets probably come from this region.
The particular features of “Dorokhsh” carpets are moreover a great density, quite a large “medallion” design or a design composed of parallel lines with a simple, repeated motif which appears in all its splendour, highlighted by pinkish red and fawn colours. These motives are generally either the fir tree or the ‘boteh” (bush).
Alas, current production is practically non-existent. And the golden age of these carpets is jealously kept in museums, great private collections or on the antiques market.
Mood: an interesting diversion
“Mood” carpets are certainly the most typical production of Khorassan, with great workmanship finesse, a Persian knot with a density varying from 360,000 to 700,000 knots per square metre and a traditional design equivalent to that of the “Mashad” carpets. The motif without medallion is quite common. The background of the carpet is covered from end to end by a repetitive pattern of flowers surrounded by leaves, which originated in the old “Herat” carpets.
The pile is sheared relatively short, and is thus lighter than the “Mashad” as there is less wool. The wool used is very soft and of good quality. The main colours are dark red, dark brown, light and dark blue. The weft thread is in finely spun blue cotton.
Kashmar: for everyman
Kashmar is a very sizeable production of downmarket carpets. The artisans limit themselves to imitating the production of other regions such as “Mashad” or “Nain” but in a lesser quality so as to sell cheaper. To this end, they use a coarser wool, and the double knot, which uses up less wool. The average density is about 90,000 knots per square metre. The wool thread is weaker and the carpet is sheared with a rather long pile (short shearing is possible only with fine quality wool).
Some artisans nowadays make carpets of a density between 360,000 and 500,000 knots using a better quality wool, but they continue to imitate the motifs of other regions.
Whereas some regions produce small-sized rugs and carpets, the artisans of Kashmar produce carpets in all possible sizes.
Khorassan tribal carpets
Khorassan has been inhabited by nomadic tribes, in particular Beluchs and Turcomans who, in summer, had their flocks graze in the mountains near the town of Ghouchan, Shirvan, and Dargaz, wintering in the planes of Maraveh Tappeh, Gonbad-e-Kavus and the regions of southern Khorassan.
Beluch carpets: acts of grace
The designs of Beluch carpets have been influenced by the motifs of the neighbouring Turcoman and Caucasian regions.
All the motifs: trees, boughs and animals are stylised in geometric forms using vertical, horizontal, diagonal and broken lines.
The entire carpet, including the border, forms a geometric whole.
Among the most common motifs, is the gol copied from the Turcomans, the boteh, a typically Iranian motif, trees with heads of animals and repeated S’s in the borders.
In the prayer rug known as “Mihrab,” the border is an integral part of the form of the niche.
In the upper part of the prayer rug, there are hands, in abstract form, placed on either side of the prayer arch, indicating the place where the believer must place his hands according to the ritual.
The colours are generally dark and the ones most used are red and dark blue, and to stress the design, the lines are usually in black.
Turcoman carpets: the 3 horizons
Tekkeh – Yomud – Guklan
Tekkeh, Yomud or Yamut, and Guklans, are the three major Turcoman clans that lived to the south-east of the Caspian sea. Three tribes among these clans were known for carpet making: the Atabai, Jaafarbai and Tekkeh.
The Atabai and Jaarbai were part of the Yamut clan and the Tekkeh were the descendants who lived on the other side of the Caspian sea.
Carpet making among these tribes stretches far back in time, and was the work of women who used a frame that was easy to dismantle, and thus horizontal.
The wool came directly from the flocks and the dyes were also made by the women.
Style and inspiration
For their motifs and designs, the Turcomans use symbols drawn from ambient natural elements.
The designs – geometric all – were reproduced from memory, without tracing or model.
The motifs used in the carpets had both a spiritual and material meaning, and a direct relation with their entourage or their nomadic life.
Various symbols are used: the spearhead represents the combative power of the tribe, the knucklebones are the preferred game of Turcoman children, whereas the stars point the way to the Bedouins at night, and the comb the implement needed for the women’s beauty treatment.
The animal motifs include: the swan, the horse, the bird beak, the ram, the yellow scorpion which is deemed to keep evil spirits at bay.
Gol – Tamgha
The repertoire of geometric motifs featured regularly on the field includes in particular the gol (flower, in Persian), and the tamgha, i.e. the clan brand for livestock used by the Turcomans.
The gol is of such importance that there are hundreds of different variations of this motif, the best known of course being the gol tekkeh, often confused with the Bukhara. The Gol is one of the rare motifs not to have undergone any fundamental change through the centuries, save for some motifs owing to the annexation of a tribe defeated by another one on the battle field.
Style and genres
The weavers of the vanquished tribe were required to weave carpets with new tamghas that featured the totem of the victorious tribe. This act of submission was the official recognition of the victor’s superiority.
Both the Persian and the Turkish knot are used.
When the Turkish knot is used, they draw a weft thread every other row of knots; whereas, when the Persian knot is used, they draw a weft thread after every row of knots. .
A distinction must be drawn between two types of Turcoman carpets corresponding to two different periods.
The first period corresponds to a nomadic way of life, and the second period to the end of that nomadic life and a certain adoption of a sedentary lifestyle.
During the first period, warp, weft and pile are in wool; at times the pile is in camel’s hair, and the carpets were for the personal use of the family or the tribe.
These carpets and kilims were used as:
- floor carpets to decorate the tent;
- asmalyk to cover the sides of the camel that opened the bridal procession;
- curtains for the entrance of the yurt;
- bags for clothes, salt and bread.
Each young girl had to weave two carpets of great finesse as part of her dowry.
In the second period, which is after 1930, the warp and weft can be in cotton, and the motifs are less diversified.
Nowadays, very cheap Turcoman carpets can be found, produced in workshops with wool from dead animals.
Kurdistan carpets: the most familiar
Kurdistan is a predominantly mountainous region where life is still very harsh. The main towns are Sanandaj, where the world-famous Senneh and Bijar carpets are made, which are very well known to the Belgian public. The population is of Kurdish origin.
The famous carpets and kilims of Senneh
The production of Senneh carpets has many similarities with the carpets of Bijar and other nomadic regions and is known for its quality and resistance. But the knotting is finer and the designs more refined.
The fame of Senneh is due to the quality of its old carpets made to order of merchants in accordance with the taste of customers. The main characteristics of a Senneh carpet are a cotton — instead of a wool — weft, shorter shearing to obtain a clearer design (and therefore very good quality wool), and a density ranging from 420,000 to 750,000 knots per square metres.
Senneh kilims are as famous as its knotted carpets.
Style and inspiration
Given the origin of the Kurdish population, one could suppose that the Turkish knot would be generally used, and yet most carpets are woven with Persian knots, whence the name of Sennehbaf (or knotted with the Persian knot).
Apart from the prayer rugs with the “mihrab,” which features the tree of life surrounded by multicoloured birds, most of the motifs are geometric.
The main motif is a hexagonal medallion that covers practically the entire field of the carpet. Inside this hexagon, there is another, smaller hexagon, where each tip ends in a spearhead or anchor. The main colours are cream, dark red and dark blue. The background of the carpet is decorated entirely with the Herati or the “Mahi” (fish) motif. The border is also often decorated with the Herati motif.
Some, quite rare carpets, are decorated with the “boteh” motif. All these boteh are interlaced by a vine foliated pattern.
The quality of Senneh carpets has declined considerably nowadays, and the number of knots has dropped to 200,000 per square metre. Moreover, they use only chemical dyes and the designs are always the same. In short, artistic quality and craftsmanship are both lacking.
Bijar: the Belgian carpet
Bijar is certainly one of the carpet-making centres best known in Europe, as carpets from this region decorated nearly all Belgian interiors round the middle of the 20th century.
Situated in one of the most fertile regions of Iran, Bijar artisans took advantage of the quality of the wool, which makes carpets last.
Carpets are made not only in the town of Bijar, but also in the surrounding villages, and they resemble Senneh carpets. Dense knotting and a coarse, thick wool are two reasons why these carpets are long-lasting. This durability is also due to the use of a double weft, unlike Senneh carpets where a single weft is used. Whereas only the Turkish knot was used in old Bijars, the Persian knot is common nowadays.
Style and inspiration
Among the most common designs are the “Mahi” motif as well as the Shah Abbas design, and in particular the Herati motif and the lotus flower, plus geometric designs too. The colours tend to be dark, although some use light tones.
The designs of Bijars are very similar to those of Sennehs, with a central diamond-shaped medallion in the field, and dark blue, red and camel’s hair colours. The border is composed of dark red, green, yellow and blue, though this does not mean that other colours are not to be found.
The tribes of Kurdistan
These tribes are composed of small families that live in the vicinity of the towns and villages of Kurdistan. Most of them are farmers or livestock breeders and some of them lead a semi-nomadic life. Some, who do not have enough income owing to the limited number of livestock or lack of employment during winter, generate additional revenues from carpet making.
These seasonal artisans produce coarser rugs with coffee- or chestnut-coloured wools, and at times with camel wool. These carpets are known as village Bijars and are more primitive looking.
Kerman – the fine fruits of the desert
A city of the “ Kavir-e-Lut” desert in the south of Iran, Kerman is one of the most destitute towns of the Iranian plateau.
The lack of water and a desert landscape explain why most of the inhabitants have looked for work other than livestock breeding or farming. They naturally turn to more artistic trades, and in particular carpet making.
A proud tradition
Kerman has been known since ancient times for its silk shawls enhanced with gold or silver threads. In the 13th century, Marco Polo described Kerman in the following terms: “The women and young girls work the needle, embroidering silk and gold. They produce a wide variety of colours and motifs, birds, animals and many ornaments, all with great taste. The embroideries are used for curtains, bedspreads or cushions in rich families; these works, made with so much taste and skill, cannot but elicit our admiration.”
Although carpets are not mentioned at this time, we can suppose that there must have been a small production of rugs alongside the fabrics.
With time and mechanisation, carpet production developed, supplanting embroidery definitively in the 19th century.
The development of carpets in this region is once again due to the merchants of Tabriz who, not being able to meet the demand of European and American markets, created workshops in the towns of Kashan, Mashad and Heriz. They were soon followed by English and American merchants who founded their own workshops.
Palette and particular features
The Kerman region produces a very fine quality of wool which is sold entirely to the merchants of Isfahan. As a result, Kerman artisans are obliged to buy wool from Mashad, Sabzevar, Kermanshah, Tabriz, and even Afghanistan.
The wools from these different regions are obviously mixed, resulting in a final product which is not always of good quality in terms of durability and finesse.
As in many other regions, the warp and weft are in cotton.
Although the weft of the carpets usually consists of one or two threads, in modern Kermans it is customary to use 3 weft threads: a thin, generally blue weft, that is seen on the back of the carpet and two thicker, “invisible” wefts.
The Persian knot is used in towns, whereas in the villages both the Persian and the Turkish knot are used in equal proportion.
In the last 50 years, a large proportion of artisans use the jufti knot, whereby three warp threads are wrapped instead of four. This type of knot requires less wool, and the carpet can be completed more rapidly. By way of example, whereas a carpet weaver can finish 20 rows of knots in one day, the same weaver, using the jufti knot, will complete 40 to 45 rows.
Kerman dyers are world famous. Their palette extends to some thirty colours, most obtained from natural substances.
They include purple red and pink obtained from the cochineal; also, ruby red, walnut stain, pomegranate peel, henna, and grape leaf.
Three great periods
As the production of Kerman is very old, it is normal that the style has undergone profound changes through the years.
We can therefore classify the development of Kermans in three periods.
An initial period that comprises the 19th century up to the end of World War I, which can be called to old period.
A second period, between the two wars, which could be called a revival period, as artists drew inspiration from Safavid motifs.
And the third period, which extends from the end of World War II to the present, or the modern period.
As in other regions of Iran, the decorative composition most often encountered during this period is the multi-foiled, nearly oval or rhomboidal central medallion, which dominates the centre, with four spandrels at the corners.
The figurative style is also in fashion, in particular historical scenes, both Iranian and European. A large number of carpets have a decoration composed of lush vegetation, accompanied by animals in a hunt or drinking. In this type of carpet, “the tree of life” is a motif used with all possible combinations.
The “Zil-i-Sultan” and the “boteh” motifs at this time are of a quality unparalleled nowadays.
The carpets of this period adorn most museums.
2.Safavid revival period
During this period, artists drew inspiration from motifs of the Safavid period, in particular the Shah Abbas motif, or the Ghab Ghorani, which in Persian means “Koran binding,” and naturally the famous central medallion.
A large quantity of more elaborate designs appeared at the end of this period, with scenes of spring gardens inundated with greenery and animals.
After several economic crises, artisans out of work started exploring what could be sold in the West. They turned to a production tailored to American and European tastes. This is the period of imitation Aubusson and Savonnerie carpets.
This foreign influence would transform the border decoration completely. In fact, the frames are no longer straight and regular, and often the design of the border imbricates in the field. In other words, the field is no longer delimited by the border, but by the edges of the carpet.
The production nowadays is confined to lush vegetation with animals and Aubusson and Savonnerie motifs.
Some carpet-making concerns have embarked on a modern production to the order of large international firms.
Kerman Laver – Kerman Raver splendours
These magnificent carpets are identical to Kermans, but made with very fine qualities of wool and with superior finesse. They are woven by artisans in the village of Raver, 140 km to the north of Kerman. The suffix Laver is a deformation of Raver.
The heart of Central Persia
Araq (Sultanabab): shooting stars
Araq has always been an important carpet-making centre, and the merchants of Tabriz gave it a new impetus in 1878 by creating numerous workshops to meet the needs of Western markets. In 1886, a famous English company from Manchester established itself there under the name of Ziegler & C°, to produce carpets according to European and American tastes.
This production was sold under the name of Ziegler carpets. This company was unable to survive the great depression, and closed its doors in 1929, but remains part of the history of the Persian carpet.
The merchants then abandoned the bazaar of Araq and turned to the bazaars of Teheran and Qom. As a result, carpet-making gradually disappeared.
Today, carpets are still being made only the towns of Sarugh, Farahan, Mahal and Saraband in the Araq region.
Sarugh the magnificent
According to connoisseurs, the best carpets in the region are made in Sarugh. Moreover, the Sarugh had their heyday with a production intended for the American market and known as American Sarugh, which reached its zenith around the 1920s.
These carpets are highly appreciated by enthusiasts in search of the very warm brick red or pink red colour and sheen that these carpets have acquired with time.
The most common sizes for these carpets are 100 cm x 150 cm, 350 x * 250 cm or 400 cm * 300 cm. Other measures are more difficult to find.
Mahal – Meshkabab: faded glory
In the old days, Meshkabab was the market of Farahans which are very famous.
After the destruction of the town of Meshkabad, a new town was built, Sultanabab, which gradually recovered the market of Farahans and is of no interest nowadays.
Old Meshkabads usually feature various floral designs with large flowers. These include: Gol Hana (stylised henna flower) and Mina Khani, against a dark background.
The dominant colours are blue and dark green. Border colours include: coffee, red, light blue, green and yellow. The design of this border often alternates between flowers and a tortoise motif.
Mahal carpets have more or less the same particular features as the Farahans. Both were very famous before the 1920s, but fell into cruder ornamentation and workmanship afterwards.
Saraband carpets, known under the name Sarugh Mir are of equal quality and workmanship as the Sarughs. The difference between the two is the use of the Boteh Miri motif, i.e. a lain background studded with a hundred or so very small botehs, between 5 to 10 cm.
Lilian: Armenian radiance
Woven in villages inhabited by Armenians, Lilians have a lot of similarities with Hamadans. They are characterised chiefly by the beauty and radiance of the colours, chiefly brick red – proof of a good quality wool.
The design of the field is a large, stylised flower with four branches, from which garlands run that surround a thick, stylised flower on the top and bottom.
The border décor repeats the flower motifs that compose the field.
Lilians are usually made in small sizes.
Qom – the holiest of cities
Situated 150 km to the south of Teheran, Qom is a holy city and place of pilgrimage for Shiites, home to the mausoleum of Fatima, the sister of Imam Reza.
The production of Qom carpets is quite recent, dating from the 1930s. This tradition explains why at the outset, the artists drew inspirations from designs from other regions. The “boteh” motif, inspired by Mir, the hunting designs inspired from Tabriz and Isfahan, the flower motifs borrowed from Isfahan and the central medallion of Kashan; square-based motifs inspired from Bakhtiari carpets.
Qom artisans made a name for themselves very rapidly, by perfecting their technique to becoming the most famous carpets of Iran.
The weft and warp are in cotton and in silk. The pile is in wool and silk.
Many pieces are made entirely in silk.
The Persian knot is used with densities exceeding one million per square metre.
Chemical dyes are widely used for silk, but a contemporary artist, Nury, differs from the others in using vegetal dyes for his silks, with fabulous colours as a result, and densities of 1,400,000 knots per square metre.
The ancestral region of Shiraz
Qashqa’i: animal motifs
A weft dyed in red and an ivory warp suggest a Qashqa’i origin.
The main motif is the lion, inherited from the Lur carpets; also the peacock, which is likewise found in the Lurs and the Khamseh confederation.
Two-headed animals found in folk nomadic and village art have assumed this form that dates from the first millennium BC.
The Gabbeh style
The term Gabbeh refers to a style of carpet rather than a tribe. A decree of Shah Tahmasp, dating from the 16th century, contains the first known reference to gabbehs.
It would appear that gabbeh carpets are of Lur origin, and that the Qashqa’i weavers have drawn inspiration from them. At the outset, weavers worked only for their own needs and those of the tribe, but since around the 1970s, when the gabbehs were discovered, they have worked exclusively for the export market, and today they work for large international groups that provide the designs for them. Needless to say, these designs and motifs have nothing to do any longer with the traditional motifs, even if they feature this or that stylised animal or character from time to time.
The name Shahsavan nowadays refers to a group of Turkish-speaking tribes that live mainly in the north-west of Iran. In Turkish Shahsavan means “those who love the Shah,” because they were the faithful servants of the Safavid dynasty.
It is only from the 1970s that references are found to carpets and fabrics woven by the Shahsavan. Before that time, these objects were known throughout the world, and even in Iran, under the erroneous name of “Caucasian,” because they were very similar to Caucasian carpets, to such a degree, that it is difficult to tell them apart, especially the old pieces. This is altogether understandable, because up to the beginning of the 20th century, the southern parts of the Caucasus were part of Shahsavan territory, and the tribes crossed them regularly.
The clans that constitute the Shahsavan tribe are known by the name of the region where they live: The Shahsavan of Moghan, Hashrud, Mianeh, Khamseh, Bijar, Qazvin, Saveh and Veramin. There are also Shahsavan in Fars province, and among the Bakhtiari tribes.
According to the Islamic tradition that considers that the design or reproduction of any form faithful to nature is a sin, the Shahsavan weavers adopted geometric forms and used numbers. The basic motif is the square with a vertical, horizontal or diagonal division. This gives a white and a black unity, while the entire construction gives positive and negative values, inspired from the concepts of good and evil, black and white, hot and cold, etc…
The main motifs of these assemblies are: the star, the flower and bud, the dragon and animals.