by Lucy E.M. Black
My parents had an old, threadbare Persian carpet in our living room when I was a child. I remember playing on it and tracing the intricate patterns with my fingers. There were pale golden birds floating in the borders, and glimpses of luscious colors remained in the worn wool fibers. I was not impressed when the carpet was replaced with beige wall-to-wall carpet. That early exposure to Persian carpets somehow imprinted on me and made them a lifelong interest of mine.
Kilims and Persian carpets are beautiful objects to be treasured. The colors 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, colors, 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 used 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 colors can be created by dying the wool multiple times. The color 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 colors are even throughout the skeins of wool being prepared. Often, the wool is dyed several times to create the desired shade or richness of color. Although synthetic dyes are now available, many believe that they cannot replicate the vibrant color 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 the 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 fibers 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 who is 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 fibers carefully tamed.
Many people believe that the combination of colors, motifs, symbols, and borders in a carpet represents a message intended for the eventual owner of the carpet. Often these are intended to be a blessing. In addition, 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 produce an object of perfection. The legacy of history and skill and art embodied within these carpets is a rich, storied, and beautiful one. It is legacy intended to be shared and enjoyed by future generations.
If you’re interested in learning more about carpets, I recommend the following:
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).
Photo credit by: Lucy Black | Now or Never Publishing Co.
Lucy EM Black is the author of The Marzipan Fruit Basket (Inanna Publications), Eleanor Courtown (Seraphim Editions), and Stella’s Carpet (Now or Never Publishing). Her award-winning short stories have been published in a number of literary journals and magazines in Britain, Ireland, the US, and Canada. She is a dynamic workshop presenter, experienced interviewer, and freelance writer. She lives with her partner in a small lakeside town north-east of Toronto. The Brickworks (Now or Never Publishing) will be released in the Fall of 2023.