How rugs are made

All rugs are created on looms, either vertical or horizontal.  The first step in creating a rug is to string the loom with the warp material.  This is done with one long string, which is wrapped continuously around the upper and lower beams of the loom.  The three most common materials used here are wool, cotton or silk.  These warp cords form the skeleton of the rug, the base upon which the knots are tied.  Once the loom is strung several weft cords will be passed through the warp.  The weft cords run sinuously through the warp cords, passing over one, under the next.  If more than one weft cord is used, they will alternate.  The first weft cord will run over one warp cord and under the next, while the second will do the opposite. These secure the ends of the warp cords to prevent the first knots from falling out of the rug.  Next, the knots are tied on the warp cords.  There are two major types of knot, Persian (also called Senneh) and Turkish (also called Ghiordes).  Don’t let these names mislead you as many rugs from Turkey use the Persian knot and vice-versa.  The Turkish knot is formed by bringing both ends of the thread forward together through two adjacent warp cords.  The Persian knot is formed by encircling two warp threads, under one and around the other.  The knots form what is called the pile of the rug.  After a row of knots another row of wefts are run through the warp cords.  The number of weft cords helps determine the density of the carpet, as the wefts help to bind all of the threads into a cohesive structure.  A single-wefted rug will have a loose, “floppy” feel; a double-, triple- or even quadruple-wefted rug will have a much denser feel.  Wefts also can be manipulated in such a fashion as to force the warp cords to exist on two different planes.  A rug with depressed warp allows more knots to be tied in a given area, and therefore is usually finer.  However, contrary to popular belief, a rug with more knots per square inch is not necessarily finer.  More knots per square inch means more time spent on construction, and therefore the carpet will likely be more costly.
We can now envision a rug as an x-y-z- axis, with the warp cords as the x-axis, the wefting as the y- axis and the knots as the z-axis.

If a rug is constructed without pile, it is termed as a flatweave.  The two major types of flatweave are kilim (spelled and pronounced many different ways) and soumak.  Flatweave rugs are set upin exactly the dame fashion on the loom.  The warp cords are strung and the wefting begun at the ends.  The difference is that the weft cords form the face of the rug.  Soumak, or weft wrapping is similar to the kilim weave with an extra step added to the wefting.  The cord will pass over several warp cords, then loop back under half of them.  This creates a rug with a dense surface, rivaling a pile rug in durability.

In order to better understand rugs we need to change subjects and consider the lifestyle of the weaver.  Three major classifications of rugs, and the cultures that weave them are tribal/nomadic, village and city.  The environment that a craftsman weaves in has a significant impact on the type of rug produced.

Tribal or nomadic peoples live in portable dwellings; they herd sheep, camels or goats and seldom stay in one place for more than a few months.  Because of their mobility, nomadic weavers use a portable horizontal loom, which is placed on the ground and secured with stakes. If the tribe moves, the loom moves with them, often with a work in progress.  The weavers are usually female, and weaving ability brings status within the tribe.  Tribal weavers produce not only rugs, but saddlebags, tent bands and other important articles of daily life.  The designs are for the most part simple geometric patterns, in just a few colors, though floral and more elaborate "city" paterns are not uncommon.  The traditional patterns are woven from memory, and are varied upon from generation to generation. Constant mobility, along with the constraints in size imposed by a portable loom limits tribal and nomadic weaving to small and medium sized carpets and rugs.  It is common to see kellegi sized rugs, which are generally 3 to 5 feet wide and 9 to 15 feet long.  These sizes stem from the fact that a portable loom can only be so wide and still enable easy transport, yet the finished length can be rolled up as it is completed.  Nomadic weavers have limited access to dyestuffs, and in general they usually dye their own wool.  Nomadic weavers are limited to small batch dying.  This means is that a small batch of wool will be dyed at one time.  Due to this, a tribal or nomadic carpet will often show abrash.  This refers to swaths of different shades of the same color, each swath reflecting a different batch of dyeing.  In some tribes, most notably certain Gabbeh rugs, no dyes are used at all.  Different colors come from different natural wool colors, such as ivory, grey, brown and black.

Village production reflects the permanence of village settlement.  Through the Middle Eastern carpet weaving countries, village life is centered on agricultural production.  These people are farmers in addition to keeping herds.  The villagers grow various crops including cotton, which is a natural choice for a cheaper and more consistent warp and weft material. Due to their permanent settlement, village weavers can set up permanent looms and weave for longer periods of time.  This gives village weavers the ability to produce larger pieces.  The larger social community engendered by inter-village trade exposes the village weavers to patterns from other areas.  Design influences converge in villages, as many nomads settle in villages and bring their tribal decorative sensibilities with them.  The elaborate floral motifs of larger city production also influence village weavers.  Village production tends to be sturdily knotted and of medium knot count.


An Aside: Using the Koran to understand Oriental Carpets

Sheikh Lotfallah Mosque, Isphahan, Iran

Antique Koran Cover

    An understanding of oriental carpet design demands a basic understanding of the Koran.  The Koran holds deep meaning for millions of people and is a complete mystery to millions of others.  The text is particularly difficult for Western minds.  Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish essayist and historian writes, "It is as toilsome reading as I ever undertook, a wearisome, confused jumble, crude, incondite.  Nothing but a sense of duty could carry any European through the Koran."  However, the text of the Koran itself claims: "We have made the Koran easy to remember, but will any take heed?" (54:17).  Is the Koran a "confused jumble", only appreciable to a relative few, or is it as accessible as the book tells us?
    Language and culture are important to an understanding of the Koran.  English is not the original language: "We have revealed the Koran in the Arabic tongue that you may understand its meaning" (43:2).  No matter how good the translator, idiom and meaning can be lost in translation.  The reader of the original Arabic has an advantage, as does a reader who is from an Islamic culture.  These readers, due to their familiarity with the Islamic religion and culture, will find the Koran more approachable and meaningful than an outsider would.  This does not necessarily mean that the Koran is inaccessible to all outsiders.  Rather, outsiders will have to work harder to understand it.  Further pitfalls await those who would try to read it in sequence.  One cannot approach the text as a novel or a history.  The original editors of the Koran arranged the chapters solely by order of length.  Attempting to impose a chronological sense onto the text would detract from the flow of language.  In fact, the first several chapters hold the greatest complexity and presume a familiarity with the Islamic faith.
    The Western reader will find many familiar names and events in the Koran: Joseph, Jonah, Mary, and Moses among others feature prominently.  The stories of Lot and his wife, Noah and the ark, Adam and Eve, and the birth of Jesus are there as well.  The wording is different and some events take place in a slightly different way, but the heart of these stories is present.  This common ground provides a base from which the Judeo-Christian reader can embark on further explorations.
    Even through the filter of translation, the language and imagery is beautiful and evocative.  We see this in the Chapter, Light: "As for the unbelievers, their works are like a mirage in the desert.  The thirsty traveler thinks it is water, but when he comes near he finds that it is nothing" (24:39).  Not only is this an interesting image that furthers the message of the text, but it is firmly grounded in location.  For the Islamic reader it will have relevance, reminding him or her of the location in which these events occurred.  For the outsider it is a window into a different place.  Another example comes from The Winds: "We let loose on them a blighting wind, which pounded into dust all that swept before it" (51:43).  This is another strong image for anyone familiar with desert sandstorms.  This statement puts the wrath of God in terms that are particularly poignant for a desert dweller.
    The images of paradise hold relevance for any reader: "As for those that believe and do good works, God will guide them through their faith.  Rivers will run at their feet in the Gardens of Delight" (10:4).  Another section promises that "For those that fear the majesty of the Lord there are two gardens planted with shady trees...Each is watered by a flowing spring...Each bears every kind of fruit in pairs" (55:50).  These are appealing images for any reader, particularly for someone who lives in a desert climate.

    A short amount of time spent familiarizing one's self with the structure and forms of the Koran will demonstrate that much is available to the Western mind. The more time one spends reading the Koran, the more familiar its conventions become.  Reading passages almost at random and appreciating the rhythms and repetitions will allow more of the text to sink in.  The Koran is not a book of mysteries.  For a non-Muslim to appreciate and understand the text requires a willingness to part with conventional methods of reading.  Mr. Carlyle should have paid attention to the opening verse of chapter 20: "It was not to distress you that We revealed the Koran, but to admonish the God-fearing."

Copyright Estate of Anthony Vail Sloan 2009