Tribal Rugs

Most traditional Tribal rugs having been made on small portable loams are limited in size and a large factory made design may need to be purchased in its stead can measure ‘14×10’ large Persian tribal rugs do exist but in a room perhaps rarely used the genuine article may last through your children’s life-time and a factory made one will be less expensive and last only two generations!

The term ‘tribal rug’ is properly used for a rug which has been made by people who live in a tribal society, and where it is primarily used as a floor covering or associated furnishing.

The nomadic lifestyle of the tribal rug makes it undertaken in harsh environments; high day time temperatures and freezing at night. This is commonly known as a large range of diurnal temperatures. The countryside is dry and the supply of water relies on the melting snows form the mountains to drink, wash, grow crops and water their livestock. Settlements have sprung up around the its where water rises to the surface, oasis. the greater part of the population is nomadic moving from one seasonal pasture to another. with their sheep, goats, camels, horses, yaks etc. these herds provide the basis of their economy supplying meat, milk and wool, traded as raw wool or woven into rugs, carpets, bags, ornaments for horses and camels etc.

Their lonely life style has encouraged tribal cultures which are particular to each tribe and are expressed in the art form of their weaving more than any other aspect of their daily lives these nomadic peoples have an inherent love of patterns and colours, quite a contrast from the barren landscape in which they live. This inherent love of patterns and colours is reflected in their artistic skills in weaving of harness, saddle cloths, large pannier bags and carpets! Their patterns’ elements are very similar over a large area or country but each tribe has its own interpretation of the basic elements. Some families have their own symbols unique to them and some tribes have colour combinations solely of their own. The tents are usually black but the interior walls and ceilings are usually decorated with their designs and colours. The floor is usually covered with plain felt and their rugs and carpets are placed over the felt.

Inside the settlements’ dwellings’ the carpets and rugs fill the floor with smaller rugs for family and friends to sit on. These artistic soft furnishings have great importance in every household as rugs are not just part of their history but a vital part of their everyday life. The rugs’ designs and colours form a unique dual function not only as an art form but they also have a utilitarian function and are as important is the 21th century as they were centuries ago.

Children begin their apprenticeship as early as aged four where they help their mother to spin the wool and prepare the loom – usually a portable one; inside their tent in the bitterly cold winters and outside in the heat of summer. At the age of six the youngster, usually girls, are ready to produce small rugs. Most children in the west begin to play a musical instrument or play a sport. When a girl reaches eleven or twelve they would have made a fine rug which will be used to prove her worthiness during her marriage negotiations. As a married woman, the lady will make rugs for her home, a bed is usually a pile of rugs and so is the table. She will weave her parents’ tribal designs but her husband’s tribal preferences will also influence her work, especially if he is from another tribe. Often a married couple weave a rug together and the tighter knots of the man’s hands are identifiable from his wife’s softer approach. These variables can be spotted especially when a rug appears to have a longer side that the other. The shorter side is usually the husband’s contribution and the longer side is the lady’s weave. There are only two basic modes of knotting technique by which the origin of the rug or carpet can be identified. Often these nomadic people do not have access to banking facilities but they keep the rugs until they need to exchange them for cash. It is not unknown that the storage of these rugs may be up to 10 years, or longer and then they will be taken to a nearby settlement’s bazaar where they are displayed and sold. The sale of a rug may well come with conditions and to break the conditions invites a curse.

Alongside these homemade rugs, handmade rugs are also produced in workshops but the size, designs and colours are specified by the demands of the market place. These workshops only have 2 or 3 looms because the master rug maker can only supervise this number of looms at any one time. The quality control is closely monitored and in large workshops the ratio of one supervisor to two or three looms is maintained. The master weavers are also based in the town but they weave in their own homes or workshops and produce the finest examples of rugs and carpets, which command the highest prices.

The work may take years to complete and modern economic pressures are forcing these fine craftsmen and women to seek employment, which pays better wages. The tribal weavers are not influenced by these urban living pressures and are usually self sufficient in accommodation, food and materials to weave their products.

The western way of life is beginning to influence their nomadic life-style but still the wool carding and spinning is as much as a household chore. The wool is still dipped using plant materials gathered on their travels, together with animal and mineral dyes. Liquefied sheep manure was traditionally used as a mordant to fix the dye in the wool and make the colours brighter and extend their longevity. In the towns’ workshops, nearly all the wools are now dyed synthetically. The use of man-made colours is only one of a few technical advancements in a craft practised for more than 2,500 years. Original hand-made rugs are usually viewed as an investment. Machine made rugs are cheaper than handmade ones with the pattern obscured on the reverse side and the warp threads can be easily extracted with the aid of tweezers. They do not stand the passage of time like a handmade rug and have little investment value.

Collapsible looms are used by the nomadic tribes which allow the unfinished rug or carpet to be rolled up and taken to the next camp site. The ladies who kneel to weaver use one of two knots “The Turkish or Ghioroles” and “The Persian or Senneh knot” The choice used does not influence the products’ quality or indeed its value. The titles of Turkish or Persian knots are used widely in the rug and carpet producing regions of the Middle East. The volatile history of the area with the victims of war being willingly or unwillingly mixed with the victors own people, the traditions of rug making have been spread far and wide over the centuries. The knots, although of the same two types mentioned above, are exposed to slight variances from tribe to tribe and from region to region. These variations are perhaps only recognizable to experts but may provide the necessary evidence of the origin of a particular rug or carpet. The patterns are produced from memory by the tribal and village weavers and are transmitted from mother to daughter by word of mouth and no doubt interpreted by the recipient according to her taste and ability. Designs included in the work no doubt reflect the nomad’s environment and include chickens, birds and dogs which are significant features of tribal life. Each family has specific motifs which will also be included in their designs.

These variations in design result in singularly unique rugs and carpets which the weaver will vary from rug to rug, no doubt how the mood takes her!

In the larger towns, the looms in the workshops are permanent fixtures and of a more substantial construction. Unlike the nomadic rugs, cotton is usually used for the warp and weft threads as it is stronger than wool. The method of weaving is the same except that the colours and designs are followed from painted diagrams supplied by professional artists for the factory or from the bazaars. These designs can cost as much as a month’s salary. Often the artists assist the weavers to choose the shades of yarn to be used. However, once the weaver has begun her rug, it is not unknown that she adds some colour or a design modification of her own. Hence the rugs from the same diagram or cartoon, when woven by different persons, will not be identical and the variations maybe continued by the same weaver.

After many months of hard work, the rug will be soiled and it is placed in a fast flowing stream where the grime can be washed away, it is then placed flat for the rays of the sun to dry it out. When it is completely dry, it is then ready for the shearer. The master shearer with his very sharp blade gives the rug or carpet a shave making certain the pile has a smooth and even finish. One carless slip and many months of work would be ruined. Once shaven, the rug is pressed with a large flat iron and the rug has its wrinkles smoothed out and its pile made flat using damp cotton cloths. Flat woven rugs are known as kilims or what is commonly known as “the slit-tapestry method or technique” and much associated with tribal rugs or small village made rugs.

The Kilim rugs are thinner and not so warm or hard wearing because they are not knotted; they are however, much quicker to make and easier to produce. Such rugs are usually used as wall hangings, bed covers, bags and cushions.

The “Sumakh” is another flat-woven rug, which has no pile, but they are more tightly woven and hence more durable. Their construction prohibits them being non-reversible unlike the kilims, since the reverse side is comprised of a thick shaggy mass of wool, which forms an insulated layer, and hence they are warmer than the flat-woven rugs.

Do you buy a rug as an investment or because you want it to enhance the decor of your home and because you like it? These are important questions which really only the purchaser can answer. However if the budget is tight it is better to buy a fine small rug than a larger “alsorand”  If the budget permits, then buy a rug which ticks all the boxes; it is an investment, it will greatly enhance the quality of your decor and obviously you like it. Light toned rugs and carpets soil easily and staining is more pronounced, hence the value will be undermined. In a rug shop the lighter coloured specimens are rarely left on the floor but hung up out of the reach of dirty shoes and hands. A really expensive investment needs to be valued and insured and included in your household policy. A rug which is cheaper will be liked, used and will compliment your decor to your satisfaction; it will do its job and you know it is not an investment but what the hell, you like it and it is affordable. Go for it then!

A buyers’ guide for tribal rugs is perhaps useful. The term tribal is used in general terms, not only for those rugs, made by ethnic groups but also to rugs mad in the designs and colours of genuine tribal weavers but also by non-tribal weavers who work in settlements and towns in workshops and factories using the styles of the nomadic tribes. Other tribal artefacts woven in the tribal traditions are also classed as tribal rugs. Hence there is no precise definition of a tribal rug and dealers use the term in general and not specific terms. The Kurdish town of Bidjar in Iran is renowned for its Kurdish rugs which have evolved in character based upon their urban existence and not on tribal aesthetics. Some dealers include South, Central and North American woven blankets under the broad heading of tribal rugs, and Uzbekistan tapestries are also included under the same heading as their origin is from a rug weaving area. However, Indonesian rugs are excluded from this definition; do not ask why because I have failed to discover a reason! Hence the term tribal ring must be viewed as a general term or an arbitrary classification, which does not appear to be very helpful at this juncture.

The first difficulty arises with the spelling and pronunciation, which to the Western tongue and ear appear alien unless you speak the necessary local language, with the necessary local dialect! We are therefore reduced to translations which are strictly phonetic; most of us of an advanced age were taught to spell in this manner.

We have briefly introduced ourselves to the different types of rugs earlier:-

Pile rugs are simply rugs made by trying or knotting small pieces of coloured yarn around the warps to create the pattern.

Flat weaves are made by interweaving the individual warp and weft strands to create the design and structure of the rug. The term covers any flat woven rug no matter weaving technique, where it was produced and by whom.

Kilims is a term usually only applied to flat weave rugs which have their origins from the Oriental rug weaving regions. So a kilim made in Kidderminster is very probably a fake! Reliable signs or this type of rug are gelim from Iran, Palas from Caucasus and bsath in Syria and the Lebanon. In Europe they are merely referred to by their Afghan (kelims) and Turkish (kilim) names. The term kilim is restricted to rugs made in these areas and not flat woven rugs from elsewhere in the world- Usually.

The relationship between pile rugs and flat weavers has been mentioned above

Rugs, carpets and runners may be familiar to many and denote size and shape. A carpet is a rug whose surface area extends to over 4.4 square metres and the length is less than 1.5 times its width e.g. 9ftx6ft or 2.74mx1.82m. These dimensions appear only to the UK and the commonwealth countries and are applied to pile rugs but large flat weave rugs/carpets may be referred to as kilims or flat woven carpets. A runner is simply a long narrow rug whose length is 2.5 times its width and is used for pile rugs and flat weave rugs.

Often local names define size and shape by local weavers e.g. dozar and qashga’i dozar. Local names for the type of weave technique e.g. a kazak item produced by the soumak technique may be for sale as a kazak soumak. The word soumak replaces the word rug.

Tribal names to the Western ear are perhaps incomprehensible and their origins equally obscure and possibly are derived from their ancestors. E.g. the Uzbeks from Turkey; or from their ancestral homeland e.g. Firozkohi=the mountains of turquoise.

Occupation and life style names are particularly common amongst nomadic tribes e.g. Kara Qoyonlu and refers to black sheepherders. An important tribal group found in Iran and the Americas derive their names from their characteristics, their appearances and even allegiances e.g. Aztecs means crane people who wore crane feathers in their head-dresses; the Iranian name khamseh is the Persian word for the number five which includes the five tribes of the Khamseh confederacy. To make life more interesting there are sub-tribes or clans as we discover in Scotland and to confuse us even more, the Western tongue creates its own versions of tribal names which usually has a town name preceding it often named by former colonial rulers.

Rugs receive their names from a number of sources. The weaving tribe e.g. the Belouch rug is made by the Belouch confederacy. This is the most common method of naming a rug; the second most popular method is obviously its place of origin and a third method is a combination of methods one and two above. The name can also be a double tribal name, the weaving technique, the marketing centre, generic names etc.

Tribal rugs originate from mainly the following countries:

North Africa-Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia

Middle East- Turkey, Iraq and Iran.

Asia Miner- Lesghistan, Daghestan, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Central Asia- Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kirghizstan, Tibet, Nepal, Mongolia and Xinfiang Uighur (Sinkiang Province) and of course China (see Chinese rugs)

North America- Athapascan, Tlingit (Canada), Salishan.

Central America-Olmec, mivtec, Toltec, Aztec, Mayan (merica)

South America- Paracas, Inca, nazca (Peru) and in those states bordering the Andes mountains e.g. Bolivia, Peru, Chile, Ecuador

Indian Sub Continent- India and Pakistan

It is surprising how many different colours, designs and styles can be discovered from these areas which them can be sub-divided into tribal areas e.g. The Navajo Reservation of the USA has 12 regional weaving centres alone, 7 in north Africa and 11 in Iran alone.

As the old saying goes “You make your choice and it pays your money.”Information on Chinese rugs is also worth a read.

To assist you to make your considered choice but before you pay your money it is worth looking at the range of tribal rugs you may find an offer. Many of the tribal rugs’ designs and colours are produced by the nomadic and semi-nomadic people of the areas discussed below. Europe and America are the largest markets for this merchandize we have called, Oriental Rugs. The West is fashion orientated and business influences in Iran are exploiting this natural out, to supply the demand from the west many hundreds of workshops and factory looms have been established particularly in Hamadan, Tabriz, Sultanbad, Kirman and elsewhere to satisfy the trade in rugs and carpets. The design, sizes and colours have been “doctored” to satisfy the Western demand. Unfortunately the intricate and delicate characteristics of the weaving which takes a long time to achieve, has been dispensed with. Wool is no longer spun by hand but by machine which produces a fine even thread hence, no variances, vagrancies and anomalies are evident on the reverse side of factory made rugs. The same is true of dying; the colours achieved by the old processes used with herbs and dyes, have been replaced by chemical dye which at times lack the vibrancy of handmade dyes.

However, these factory / workshop rugs make excellent floor- coverings. The rugs use top quality wool, the colours are indeed beautiful even if they lack the subtle range of shading which is found in genuine tribal rugs. The designs are Persian and maintain interest but they are neither an artistic or a cultural record of the weavers. Like clothing, fashion dictates the range; it moved from Sarouks to pastel Kirmans in the 1970s and today it just depends on what the choice is for the future. Furniture has moved to the “funky range” and it will be interesting to see how the art of rug making which is as old as civilization itself, can accommodate modern tastes. There is little doubt that this art will not flail because in this modern age there is something appealing about a handmade product.

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