Some people are curious about the title of my new book. I’m by no means an expert on Persian carpets but I thought that it might be useful to share some thoughts about my interest in carpets.
We have an old kilim in our guest room. It’s approximately 100 years of age and has worn creases that show how it had previously been folded for moving. I’m told that this particular kilim was from a nomadic family. Patterning around the border show large hooked C shapes – or stylized waves. These indicate a wish for the sojourner to find water, which was so necessary for travelling families. The eight-pointed stars in the carpet are known as the stars of wisdom and represent the most valuable possession a man can have – his wisdom. I understand that this simple kilim was likely woven by people living and moving around the Caucasus mountains. The dyes are simple browns likely made from grasses and barks. The weave is quite primitive and would have been done on a crude, roughly constructed loom. The pattern is filled with errors and breaks indicating either an inexpert or hurried weaver. While a slight imperfection is a necessary part of a beautifully woven carpet, the types of irregularities in this kilim are numerous.
I love that this kilim makes statements about wisdom and home, and that it has its own storied history. This humble floor covering expresses my wish for all of our guests – that they will travel and find wisdom and joy in their journey, and that they find water and hospitality and peace while they are visiting in our home.
A smallish Persian carpet, vibrant with burgundies and yellows and greens, lies in our bedroom. It contains a modern representation of the historic Tree of Life motif. Surrounding the tree are bird and plants representing eternal life. The tree apparently signifies connections from earth to heaven and to the underworld. The Persian carpet in our kitchen is filled with medallions and tracery in soft pinks and blues and greys. Again, this is a modern version of a medallion carpet but the repeated image is said to indicate the eye of the All-Knowing. Our carpets are not valuable ones but they were chosen carefully and are quite meaningful to us. I believe that they contribute a quite special element to our home.
Kilims and Persian carpets are beautiful objects to be treasured. The colours are sumptuous and the patterns and motifs are beautiful, intricate and redolent with history. Carpet weaving has been a part of Persian and Iranian culture for thousands of years. We know that families of weavers pass on their skills from one generation to the next and that the weaving of a single Persian carpet may still involve many members of one family group. Although aspects of the look of such carpets can now be reproduced in factories, authentic versions are still lovingly created by households where a pattern is chosen, the wool is sourced and prepared and dyed by individuals using the old methods, and the weaving is shared. The production of one such carpet might still be an enterprise that consumes a family unit for a year, and its sale will not only need to provide income for them all, but must also facilitate the purchase of more materials to make a new one.
Persian carpets are made in many regions throughout Iran (formerly Persia). Each region is known for their own distinct versions of the carpets, with some specializing in certain symbols, colours, borders or materials. Different qualities of wool can be used. Sometimes, fine wool taken from the underbelly of a lamb is woven with silk, while at other times, coarser hair from goats or camels or horses is blended with the wool. These blended wools do not hold the dyes in the same way and so are only utilized for particular applications. The skill of the dyer is what most often makes one carpet distinct from another. Authentic dyes include those made only from natural materials only, including insect dyes. These dyes can be quite brilliant. A full range of colours can be created by dying the wool multiple times. The colour green in a naturally-dyed wool carpet, for instance, means that the wool would first be dyed blue, dried, and then dyed again in yellow. Only skillful dyers can ensure that the colours are even throughout the skeins of wool being prepared. Often, the wool is dyed several times to create the desired shade or richness of colour. Although synthetic dyes are now available, many believe that they can not replicate the vibrant colour attained by the use of multiple dye pots using natural dyes.
Authentic rugs are hand-knotted. Different knots and knotting techniques are used by the weavers, each with its own specific application. The more knots per square inch, the finer the finished product. A Persian carpet with 500 knots per square inch can take four or five weavers, working six days a week, approximately twelve to fourteen months to complete. The intricacy of the pattern and the amount of bright lighting available can also contribute to how quickly the piece progresses. The delicate fringes at the end of a carpet, often involving complex knots and tassels, are typically constructed using cotton threads from the carpet’s structural framework. These fringes are also a key feature of an authentic carpet.
When the weavers have completed the weaving of a carpet, it is not yet ready for sale. First it must be washed to ensure the loose fibres are removed and that the wool is clean. While it is still wet, the carpet is stretched and blocked to help it maintain its shape. Traditionally, a carpet would be left to dry in the sun. An artisan, skilled in the final finishing of a carpet, oversees these last stages, lest a year’s work and enterprise be ruined. Using very fine tools, the rug is clipped to ensure that the final surface is even. Then it is ironed to a fine, smooth finish with the nap of the wool fibres carefully tamed.
Many people believe that the combination of colours, motifs, symbols and borders in a carpet represent a message intended for the eventual owner of the carpet. Often these are intended to be a blessing. Tiny flaws or barely visible imperfections are woven into the carpet deliberately. This practice stems from the belief that a weaver should not attempt to compete with The Creator by producing an object of perfection.
Here are a number of sources I referenced when doing my research for the novel, Stella’s Carpet.
Black, David, Editor, The Macmillan Atlas of Rugs & Carpets: A comprehensive guide for the buyer and collector (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1985).
Black, David and Clive Loveless, Editors, Woven Gardens: Nomad and Village Rugs of the Fars Province of Southern Persia (London: David Black Oriental Carpets, 1979).
Bosly, Caroline, Rugs to Riches: An Insider’s Guide to Oriental Rugs (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980).
Eiland, Murray L. and Murray Eiland III, Oriental Carpets: A Complete Guide (London: Laurence King Publishing, 1998).
Purdon, Nicholas, Carpet and Textile Patterns (London: Laurence King Publishing, 1996).
Schlosser, Ignaz, The Book of Rugs Oriental and European (New York: Bonanza Books, 1963).
Valcarenghi, Dario, Kilim History and Symbols (Milan: Electa, 1994).