Exactly when the first carpets were woven remains unknown, but it is certain that the nomadic tribes of central Asia began the technique of knotting carpets, developing the craft of weaving for both decorative and practical uses. Oriental rugs became valued in Europe primarily through Italian merchants, with Venice establishing itself as a major trading hub: Venetians spread rugs along their streets, hung them from windows and used them to decorate gondolas. By the early sixteenth century, fabulous carpets could be found in the great courts of Europe, including those of Catherine de’ Medici and Charles V, whilst Cardinal Wolsey reportedly purchased sixty Turkish carpets for his palace at Hampton Court. The Vienna Great Exhibition of 1891 furthered Western interest, with importers requesting modified dimensions, colours and designs to satisfy European and American tastes.
The basic principles and techniques of Oriental carpet weaving have changed little. Sheep and goat wool, cotton or silk were woven on vertical or horizontal looms: the former primarily for classical city carpets; the latter, more primitive and more easily transported loom typically used by nomadic people. Rugs are either knotted (piled) or flat woven (kelim) – or sometimes a combination of both, made to varying degrees of technical distinction using a variety of weaving techniques and materials. There are two fundamental styles of knot: the Turkish (also called the Ghiordes or Symmetrical knot) and the Persian (the Senneh or Asymmetrical knot), the choice of which is a matter of tradition. Rugs woven with the Persian knot are generally more accurate and symmetrical. Other types include the Spanish and the Jufti knots, which result in a fringe: the selvedge of the latter is bound or overcast with yarn for reinforcement.
Carpets can be simplified into two design groupings, geometric or floral, which can be sub-divided into town or tribal weavings. A Serapi carpet is a perfect example of a small geometric town design. Woven in the middle to late nineteenth century in North West Iran, these carpets typically feature a central medallion surrounded by an open field, bordered by a repeating palmette and vine border. These geometric designs are in fact floral motifs, viewed in cross section from above. Woven from memory and employing traditional motifs, the weaver improvised upon these themes as the piece progressed.
Usually of a finer weave, town carpets feature a more floral or Persian garden design. Some of the most respected work comes from the City of Agra, often woven by prisoners. ‘Prison’ carpets date back to the era of Mughal Emperor Akbar who, in the early sixteenth century, brought over some of the finest weavers from the most respected Persian carpet workshops to teach weaving to the inmates. Now very highly sought after, these very finely woven carpets, made in grand, oversized proportions, used the best quality wool and are therefore incredibly hard wearing.
Carpet production also thrived in small villages and amongst tribes, producing distinct designs. From the southern Persian tribes of Quashgai, to the Kurds on the western Iraq border and north into Russia over the Caucasus mountains, the particular designs of these tribes passed from generation to generation and have become instantly recognisable to the collector or admirer.
Individual dyed strands would be air dried, resulting in colour variations even between strands dyed in the same mix. Dyes were obtained from plants, animals and insects; rare yellows originated from turmeric and saffron, whilst black is infrequently seen because the dye is obtained from soaking iron shavings in vinegar, which has a corrosive effect on wool. The best weavings, reserved for courts or as gifts for rulers of neighbouring countries, could employ exotic gold and silver thread.
It is often said that all carpets are perfectly imperfect. Slight inconsistencies show that a rug was woven by hand: moreover, the weaver may make an intentional mistake, in line with the belief that only the Supreme Being can make something that is perfect.
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