JAIPUR RUGS CO deals in decorative coverings, large or small, created by hand from one or more types of fibre. Although intended for the floor, their rugs can also be used as hanging panels. The bulk of the company’s production is made from rows of woollen knots in a combination of colours, applied to a rank of closely-placed, vertical cotton threads, set out on a loom like harp strings. These threads constitute the warp. The woollen yarn comes in a variety of colours and the knots are carefully placed to produce an often-complex pattern. Each row is separated from the next by strands of cotton weft woven through the warp and beaten down tightly. Some rugs, such as kelims, are made by a simpler flat weave process.
The creation of such rugs is an ancient craft and probably originates amongst the sheep-herding nomads of Central Asia. Vulnerable to decay, textiles rarely survive very long so details of the evolution of this technique are long lost. The knotted rug was already well advanced by the fifth century BC, the date of the oldest example so far discovered. Preserved in a Mongolian tomb by permafrost, it measures almost two metres square, bears figurative designs and, at 277 knots per square inch, is relatively fine. Both warp and weft are of wool and the techniques and dyes used are similar to those current in Central Asia into the 19th century. This tomb and others nearby also contain fragments of kelims and felt mats. Amongst these nomadic people such rugs, easily folded for transport, represented a major part of the furnishing in their tented homes. Perhaps similar knotted fabrics were already is use for saddlebags to carry pots and other utensils on their annual wanderings.
The designs favoured by these nomads for their rugs were and are largely abstract, simple, repeated motifs within a geometric border. Many are angular derivatives from plant, mammal or bird forms, but the emphasis is on easily-reproduced angular patterns. Many were quite specific to a particular region or group of people. Such repetitive forms were simple to memorise and did not require the aid of any system of chart. The weavers were probably the womenfolk, who created rugs during long winter months.
It was almost certainly from a Central Asian base that the custom of rug weaving spread across Asia. Fragments of knotted and flat weave rugs dating from the first centuries of the Christian era have been preserved by the aridity of Egypt and the Middle East. These rugs were created using techniques and dyes current in the region into recent times. Early rugs discovered on the desert fringes of China seem to have come with nomads from further west.
Rugs carried by passing nomads or brought into the bazaars must have attracted the eye of urban folk. Seeing a demand or responding to orders, local weavers started to produce their own versions, always maintaining geometric patterns. Such rugs, dating back to the 13th century, appear in Konya, the Seljuk capital of Turkey, which Marco Polo names as the source of the best carpets in his day. The European fashion for Turkish rugs is reflected in Renaissance art, many paintings featuring them amongst interior furnishings. These western pictures dating back to the early 14th century are a rich source of carpet information since few carpets survive from the period. Many are religious paintings, often showing a fine rug at the feet of the Virgin. Several of Lorenzo Lotto’s and Hans Holbein’s mid 15th century pictures include Turkish rugs, often as table rather than floor covers. The fashion knotted rugs inspired their manufacture in England (Axminister) and, more importantly, France (Aubisson and Levallois). The industrial revolution led to the mechanisation of European carpet production, but a demand remained for handcrafted rugs.
The art of hand woven carpet manufacture reached its height in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, not among the nomads but in the urban imperial workshops of Turkey, Iran, India and China. Here, floor covering became ever more sophisticated, ever larger. The patterns quit the geometric model in favour of swirls of vegetal growth, realistic flowers, birds and animals, usually surrounding a central medallion. The royal ateliers demanded finer work from their artisans, who had to cram ever more knots into a square inch, turning from wool knotted on cotton to wool on silk then, finest of all, silk on silk. To produce their complex designs the weavers needed a map, naqsha, for reference. One team member would read the map, calling out the colour of each knot. His call was confirmed by the weavers as they worked.
Here, too, art recorded this move to intricate floral designs. Turkish and Iranian miniatures often pose their subjects on fine floral rugs. These countries, joined by India in the latter part of the 16th century, took carpet design and manufacture to its highest point. Huge financial resources were required and three great dynasties: the Turkish Ottomans, the Iranian Safavids and the Mughals in India, each flourishing in the 16th and 17th centuries, had such resources. They produced large and magnificent carpets, designed to the glory of God or to decorate the imperial court. One of the finest of all, the Ardabil Carpet, dated 1539-40 and measuring 10.5m x 5.34m, was probably made in Tabriz in northwest Iran. Woven by one Maqsud of Kashan, it was almost certainly a royal commission. Its woollen pile is formed of 340 knots per sq in, and the warp and weft are of silk,
Iran has been a famous source of knotted rugs for many centuries, some fragments of pile dating back to the 3rd/4th centuries AD. Angular patterns gave way to a fashion for curvilinear plant designs and realistic flowers, which entered the country late in the 14th century with Timur’s invasion from Samarkand. The result was the eponymous Persian carpets of the 16th and 17th centuries, amongst the finest ever produced.
There were four major areas of production in Iran: Tabriz in the northwest, Esfahan and Kashan in the centre, Kerman in the desert east and Heart in the northeast, now across the border in Afghanistan. Tabriz dominated in the early 1500s, when it was the Safavid capital but, too close to the frontier, it was under constant Turkish threat. Shah Abbas the Great founded a court manufactory around 1600 in his new capital, Esfahan. This is still an important rug manufacturing city although less so than in 1964, when I remember six camels laden with rugs coming into the closed souk. There passers-by walked over light-grounded carpets being broken, lying across the street. Kashan was famous for its intricate silk pile rugs. There are literary references to 16th and 17th century Kerman rugs but few can be identified as from there prior to the 19th century. Herat, an important city in the Safavid era, was a centre of sophisticated floral carpets.
As an Afghan provincial capital, Herat specialised in angular abstract or stylised Baluchi and Turkmen nomad rugs. There have been other, more recent, developments amongst the Afghans. During the 1990s, when millions of refugees descended into Pakistan to escape war with the Russian occupiers, many settled in camps around Peshawar. There, many refugees started manufacturing rugs featuring tanks, planes and guns against a yellow ground! I know - I bought one. They also brought fine rugs with them, following a tradition my grandmother remembered. The first camel caravans descending the Khyber in the spring carried rugs, which found an easy market amongst British colonials like her.
Traditional Chinese rugs never really competed in the western market with Iranian and Turkish designs. But often it is the skill and low cost of an artisan force that creates demand. During the 20th century western dealers commissioned Chinese weavers to reproduce Iranian patterns and in the 1930s even commissioned art deco work, aimed at the current European fashion. Tibetan designs were made almost entirely for a local market, usually just for the household of the weaver. Nepal, not a traditional manufacturing country, only took up the craft in the late 20th century.
It was the Persian designs that inspired carpet manufacturers of the Indian subcontinent. They copied or adapted those designs and, finding that they sold best, have continued to do so. Although it has tried many different types of design, even including motifs copied from local wall paintings, the great majority of JAIPUR RUGS CO’s production is based on Iranian models.
Ilay Cooper 2010 www.ilaycooper.com