A Brief History of Rugs

In case you’d like a quick introduction to the wonderful history of rug-making and use, we’ve provided this micro-profile, largely written from a Western European perspective. There are many web-sites and books devoted to this topic, so if you want to know more, please see the links at the end of this article.

You can also go straight to the Traditional Rugs section to see some current examples of classic rug designs and types: Traditional Rugs Department

Ancient Times

Rug making is one of the great ancient crafts. Rugs were certainly in use by early Neolithic times (New Stone Age, starting around 7000BC) using fleece from the growing practice of keeping herds of sheep and goats. A rug thought to be some 2,500 years old was unearthed in 1949 by Russian archaeologists excavating a tomb in the cold Siberian wastelands of southern Russia. (Known as the Pazyryck rug, it is the oldest in the world, and can be seen in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.) The craft must have been already old by the time this rug was made, yet the techniques are essentially the same as those used in making traditional rugs today.

The first rug-making method was flat weaving, in which the rug is created via simple vertical (warp) and horizontal (weft) weaving. This technique is still use to make flat-surfaced, ethnic-style rugs such as Kilims and Dhurries. A further development involved knotting strands of wool on to a skeleton of warp and weft to create a thicker pile on the surface, and again rugs to this day are made by hand-knotting.

Lying close to the heart of the first civilisations, with an expansive terrain suitable for sheep-herding and cold winters in its mountains, Central Asia developed as an early driving force in carpet-making. However, it was Persia that eventually emerged as a centre of excellence in the fine art of hand-knotted carpets. It’s important to realise that most of these regions do not apply the usual Western distinction between Fine Arts and Crafts to carpet-making. At the top quality end, intricate hand-knotted rugs represent an art-form, with associated high prices.

The Pazyryk Rug
The worlds oldest rug was made around 500bc. It was found preserved in the Siberian ice. Its now in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

The two main types of rug knot are the Gordian (Turkish) and Senna (Persian). It was in Gordion (modern day Turkey) that Alexander famously "cut the Gordian knot."

Introduction to Europe

Marco Polo brought back samples of Oriental carpets to Europe in the 11th Century, and other Western European explorers followed, as trade with the East took off in the Age of Exploration. By the time of the cultural flowering of the Renaissance, Persian and other fine carpets were highly prized in the Courts and wealthy homes of Europe. Several of Hans Holbein’s paintings, for example, including the famous Ambassadors, depict exquisite imported rugs in European interiors.

Around the same time, the Moghul princes then ruling large parts of India brought carpet weavers from Persia to India, thereby introducing the art of hand-knotted pile carpet-making into the country. Although Persian models were copied at first, an indigenous Indian tradition soon developed.

The craft of weaving also expanded in Europe, especially in France, where towards the end of the 16th century Aubusson carpet production began in Beauvais, and a carpet factory was set up in the old Savonnerie soapworks in Paris. One of the earliest carpet factories in England opened in Wilton in the 1650s. Later in the century, French Protestants, or Huguenots, fleeing religious strife in France, settled in England, bringing their weaving skills to amongst other centres, Wilton and London’s Spitalfields. A generation later, the Earl of Pembroke is reputed to have smuggled weavers from the Savonnerie factory out of France in wine vats, bringing them to Wilton to teach their highly prized methods.

Later, in the 1750s, one Thomas Whitty adopted techniques he had seen in a French carpet factory in London to set up carpet-making in his native town of Axminster, and Axminster carpets were soon gracing the floors of prestigious buildings all around Britain.

Oriental rugs made a big impact in England in the 16th Century - famously captured in this Hans Holbeins'painting. Today you can buy "Holbein" reproductions for your own floor.

Industrial Revolution to the 20th Century

The Industrial Revolution in the UK saw textile and carpet-making rapidly shift in the early 19th century from a cottage industry to mass-production in factories. Some of the great names of Britain’s early industry provided new loom equipment and engines to create a mechanised and booming textile industry. From France came the Jacquard system of punched cards to mechanically reproduce complex patterns, and from America a series of power looms to further the industrialisation process.

At the start of the 20th century, the Brinton carpet factory in Kidderminster was the first to develop powered Broadlooms, capable of producing the wider width carpets that people wanted to cover more of the floor. Broadloom enabled the creation of “wall-to-wall” carpeting, whose popularity eventually spread from the wealthy to virtually every home around the country.

By the early twentieth century, textile manufacture also became one of the main industries taken up by the world’s emerging economies. Even Ghandi famously visited the factories of the North of England in the 1930s, in preparation for the development of textile manufacturing in independent India after WWII.

In the nineteenth century, hand looms were joined by a booming mechanised carpet industry

Tufted Carpets

One major new innovation to appear at this time was Tufting. The method had its origins in a handcraft technique revived by one Catherine Evans, who lived near Dalton in Georgia, USA. She used it to make Chenille bedspreads, which proved hugely popular throughout America, and resulted in thousands of women around Dalton working on their production. By the 1940s, the process had been mechanised and applied to new products, especially rugs and carpets. Their success created a major new industry around Dalton, which still prides itself as the Carpet Capital of the World. Tufting took over American carpet-making in the second half of the 20th century, and today the world carpet industry is dominated by Tufted carpets.

Contemporary Rugs

In recent decades, tastes in interior design have shifted from fitted carpets to hard flooring such as waxed or polished floorboards, ceramic tiles and laminates. Where carpets are maintained, they are often of a plain natural fibre such as Coir or Jute. These foors are seen as more natural, easier to clean and less likely to attract dust. The overwhelming use of central heating around the home has also reduced the attractions of thick pile fitted carpets. Rugs have therefore gained renewed popularity in offering a softer, warmer and more colourful addition to a hard floor.

Rugs today are generally classified between hand-knotted, hand-tufted and machine-made. Hand-knotted and hand tufted rugs mainly use natural fibres, mostly wool or silk, while machine-made rugs are made from natural or man-made, synthetic fibres. The best, and most expensive, traditional-style rugs are hand-knotted, and the leading producers are in Iran, Turkey, India and China. High quality contemporary rugs are mostly hand-tufted, with India in particular being a key source of hand tufted wool rugs in contemporary designs.

The world's largest rug is reported to have been completed in Iran in 2007 and is now in a mosque in Oman. It used some 38 million tonnes of wool and cotton (the wool reportedly coming from Iran and New Zealand) and is larger than a football pitch!

Further Information

Some people who begin with just a simple wool rug purchase eventually get drawn to the world of handcrafted antique rugs. It's a fascinating area with the same appeal, and learning curve, of any antiques and collectables area. Academic research can really help here, as well as keeping an eye on trends in the leading auction houses.

The oriental rug really made its mark in Britain in the Victorian home. There are plenty of period lifestyle magazines around to help you get the look. But to see them fully in use, try the period rooms in London's Geffrye museum. Or for an example of a really rich, lavish use of rugs in late Victorian times, see Freud's rooms at the Freud Museum, also in London.

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