history of rugs
Rug weaving is an ancient art that reached its pinnacle with the hand-loomed Oriental and Persian rugs of 16th-century in Turkey, Persia, and central Asia. By the 17th and 18th centuries, French and English rug designers were producing a variety of innovative styles and textures. The impressive European rugs were woven by hand until 1841, when Erastus Bigelow introduced the power loom. While some rugs are still hand woven, most contemporary rug producers utilize modern machinery and equipment.
Our Persian and Oriental-style rugs combine the quality of ancient rug makers with a wide selection of classical and modern designs, all the while offering you a choice between natural or synthetic materials.
Rug weaving boasts of both a vibrant and ancient history. Since the earliest civilized societies, humans have utilized various forms of rugs. In the Garden of Eden animal hides were used as clothing and, without a doubt, these same hides soon became floor coverings in the most primitive homes. Soon, people began making crudely woven rugs from reeds and other vegetation.
Not unlike in today’s homes, a good rug or hide was heralded as one of the family’s most valuable possessions, and was thought to distinguish people of high stature. Researchers have found several references to the art of rug weaving in a variety of ancient scriptures and classical writings, allowing us to establish a timeline in the history of rugs and the use of certain rug-making methods and materials.
Based on fragments found in Mesopotamian and Egyptian tombs, we know that various types of flat weaving were well developed more than 4,000 years ago. Other evidence collected by historians indicates the weaving of pile rugs was present in the Middle East and parts of Asia long before 2,000 B.C.
In Asia, nomadic wanderers were likely the first groups to create rugs in mass quantities; this is likely due to the domestication and raising of sheep as a tribal profession. Shepherding was a traditional occupation for the nomadic wanderers, and rug weaving was an effective and valuable way to utilize their wool. Initially, the thick wooly covering of the animal hide was used to protect against the cold. Most likely, the craft of weaving wool into rugs and other items was developed to replace rough animal hides and indicate prestige.
In 1949, an important event in the history of rugs took place. While unearthing a burial site in Siberia, a Russian archeologist, named Sergei Rudenko, discovered what is now known as the “Pazyryk” carpet. This is the oldest known surviving rug. It was long frozen in ice, which preserved the carpet’s fiber, color and design, and dated it back to the 5th century BCE. This amazing find features rich colors, striking details and a hand-knotted technique—namely, the Ghiodes (Turkish) knot—that is still popular and in use today. The rug had an average of 200 knots per square inch!
The Pazyryk carpet was a major discovery and engendered new interest in the history of Persian and Oriental rugs. The Pazyryk carpet is highly regarded as an outstanding work of Scythian art. Most Persian rug experts familiar with this piece believe that the nomads who wove it came to Siberia from the region now known as Mongolia. However, there is general agreement that even if the Mongolians first wove pile rugs, it was the Persians who took the craft of weaving and rug making and developed it into a true art form.
A rug called the “Spring Carpet of Chosroes” (also spelled Khosrows) belonging to the King of Persia was the oldest known Persian rug prior to the discovery of the Pazyryk carpet. The king’s hand-woven rug, which dates back to about 550 BCE, was made of wool, silk, gold, silver and precious stones. This ornate rug was hand-knotted and measuring 400 feet by 100 feet in size. The Spring Carpet of Chosroes was estimated to weigh several tons! This massive rug featured many scenes of springtime including birds in flight, flowers in bloom, ripening fruits and a green meadow around the border. At one time the boarder was believed to include solid emeralds! There were stories of the king taking many walks on this rug during the winter to enjoy the colorful depictions of spring.
Sadly, the Spring Carpet of Chosroes was shredded into many pieces when Arab armies conquered Persia. The invading forces destroyed the rug to collect all the precious jewels that were woven into the pile as spoils of war. Some of the stones and jewels are still in existence and can be seen in museums around the world.
Not until after 1000 CE, beginning in Spain, did pile weaving take hold in Europe. As trade routes continued to develop with Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Persia the art of weaving was brought back and established all across the European continent.
According to the known history of Oriental and Persian rugs, the use and distribution of pile rugs throughout Europe related to historically significant events such as the presence of the Moors in Spain, the Crusades during the 11th to 13th centuries, the travels of Marco Polo in the late 1200’s as well as the spreading influence from the embassies of Venice from the 13th century onwards.
When Eleanor of Castile married Edward I of England in the year 1255, she brought with her many fine hand-woven Spanish rugs, which probably came from Cordoba or Granada. While the royal couple enjoyed the comfort of area rugs, they were largely the exception. Most residences in England, including palaces and large houses belonging to land owners, made use of rushes (a stiff marsh plant) and hay strewn about for their floor covering until the early part of the 17th century. Accounts of the daily activities during that time reveal that many lords and other royalty had their hay “rugs” replaced every day.
A German traveler by the name of Paul Hentzer wrote in his journal that in 1598 at Greenwich Palace, he personally saw fresh hay being strewn about on the floor of Queen Elizabeth’s chamber. Over the years, more and more British people of wealth and influence began using pile rugs in their homes. Eventually, rugs became almost as popular in England as in other parts of the world.
It is interesting to note that rugs resembling Oriental rugs can be seen in old European paintings. This supports the belief that Europeans were importing Oriental or Persian rugs long before they learned how to make their own hand woven rugs. Most of Europe, England, and the Scandinavian countries were producing rugs of their own by the mid-18th to 19th century. However, handmade rugs from these areas are rare today because they're not able to compete with the high quality and low cost of labor for Oriental and Persian rugs.
Some European countries, especially Belgium, developed a major machine-made rug industry after World War II. They concentrated on what they could do well and left the making of hand-made rugs to those in a more favorable position to do so.
In the United States, we have our own form of “Oriental Rug”. Native Americans, the Navajos in particular, have a notable history dating back to around 1700, when the Navajo were believed to have learned the craft of rug-making from the Pueblo tribe. This theory is supported by stories passed down from tribal elders as well as examples of Navajo rugs dating back to 1700 that are a close parallel to rugs made by the Pueblos. The main difference between rugs made by the two groups is that Navajo rugs were made with wool, while the Pueblo rugs were made with cotton.
The Navajo Nation is located in the western part of the United States. The Nation occupies much of the land in an area called the four corners. This is where the borders of four states meet, namely, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. There are still Navajo rug makers in that area that weave these rugs in the traditional handcrafted way. Navajo rugs, one of many types of Southwestern rugs, cover a wide range of intricate patterns and designs, with an emphasis on geometric lines and shapes. The rug design may include a family emblem, have religious overtones, or display appreciation for one or more aspects of the environment.
Dyes to color the rugs were derived from a variety of plant sources until the mid-1800s, when the Navajo started using dye sources introduced by Europeans, predominantly German and Spanish dyes. Toward the end of the 1800s, some of the Navajo rug makers started using commercial yarn rather than preparing their own wool from their sheep. The Europeans also introduced the Navajo to other designs, such as Oriental rug patterns, that could be incorporated into the Navajo rugs.
Although often called "rugs", most of these flat-woven creations were used for blankets or worn on the shoulders of the tribal chiefs until the 1880s. By the late 1880s, the trading posts began asking for more pillow covers and blankets to meet the demand of visitors wanting to decorate their homes. At first, the items were of an inferior quality, due to so many being made in a short time period. The rug-makers realized they needed to be true to their craft and quality took precedence over production time. However, many people wanted floor coverings instead of more traditional blankets, and, as a response to demand, the making of Navajo rugs truly began.
Near the end of the 1800s there was a huge increase in the number of rugs made and the economic significance of rug making due to the demand from trading posts and white tourists. Beginning in the 1890s, the Santa Fe railroad made it possible for more and more visitors from all around the United States as well as Europe to visit the Southwest region. They loved the Navajo rugs and valued them as original works of art rather than simple souvenirs.
Regardless of the type of rug you own, whether just one or a varied collection, the art of rug making chronicles much of human history. All handmade rugs are unique works of art and should be treated as valuable heirlooms and assets. In the modern world, there are many less expensive copies that are manufactured for a fraction of the cost, they can still offer a very similar look and can be quite valuable. Some more so than others, but the concept is still the same. Modern designer rugs are often made of tufted carpet products as well as woven goods.
Carpets have held magical appeal since Scheherazade first told the story of Aladdin and his flying carpet. For thousands of years, Oriental carpets have inspired literature, art and music. Since its inception by the nomads in Turkey and Mongolia, rug making has developed into an art that has survived political and religious upheaval. The art of rug making is one of the common threads that tie cultures together through the centuries.
- Nomad tribes start weaving together rugs to warm earthen floors. They weave the hair from their camels, sheep and goats to craft rudimentary rugs.
- Approximately the time the rug of Pazyryk is thought to be made - the oldest known carpet. At 300 knots per inch, rug making is well-established.
- The Greek classic "Agamemnon" mentions rugs.
7th- 8th Century
- The carpet-making process has already been in development for 3000 years.
13th and 14th Century
- The Crusades bring the appreciation of carpet weaving to Europe.
- In 1277, King Louis IX spreads rug popularity through France.
- Rugs are custom woven “to order” in the Middle East for European customers.
- Owning an Oriental rug in Europe is now seen as a great status symbol.
- Noblemen and women have their portraits painted with their Ottoman or Turkish rugs in the background.
- The height of rug making in China begins during the Manchus Dynasty, also known as the Qing Dynasty.
- Rug making flourishes in the Middle East during the rule of the Safavid Dynasty.
- Encrusted with jewels, the Ardebil carpets are the most famed of the time. Today, the Ardebil carpets now reside in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
- The Persian rug-weaving industry becomes nearly obsolete in 1722 when the Afghans invade Persia.
- The Mongul emperor, Akbar, starts rug making in India by bringing Persian weavers from Kashan, Isfahan and Kerman.
- Rugs are now considered too precious to put on floors; instead they are used to adorn tables, chests and walls.
- In 1570, rug weaving is introduced in England to replicate Persian carpets.
- In 1608, Henry the IV sets up carpet production at his palace at the Louvre in Paris.