A Short Guide to Antique Hand Knotted Persian Rugs and Carpets
Introduction to Antique Persian Rugs
The world of antique and vintage Persian rugs is full of wonder, symbolism, and fine craftsmanship. Persian rugs have a specific style, and they are imbued with meaning and tradition through the use of geometrical motifs and patterns handed down from generation to generation. Every Persian carpet is inimitable, akin to a painting made with threads, requiring a degree of artistry and skill that elevates the carpet weaving craft to an art form.
In more ways than one, Persian rugs represent more than just a floor covering. They are also a manifestation of a certain way of life, a system of ancient beliefs and traditions. These beliefs attached meanings to geometric figures, colors, and symbolic motifs, endowing them with the attributes of protection, fertility, good fortune, or even with religious significance. Today, they inspire even artists and designers far removed from the area of Persian cultural influence.
The category of Persian rugs is a broad one, encompassing manifold styles, techniques, and influences. Both nomadic tribes and artisans in the Imperial courts of the Safavid and Mughal empires wove Persian rugs, however, the specific influences, styles, and techniques obviously vary greatly depending on the time period of the rug’s production and its origin. Since international trade in Persian rugs spans millennia, Persian rug designs have intermingled with various other designs and cultural influences. In particular, there has been an exchange of designs between East and West over the centuries, generating some of the most iconic antique Persian rugs in history.
Of course, Persian rugs are desired, above all, for their primary utilitarian purpose, which is to decorate interiors. And that shouldn’t come as a surprise, because the quality and craftsmanship of these rugs are self-evident. They maintain their beauty for hundreds of years owing to the fact that they are made of the highest-quality materials, including silk and wool, or even gold and silver threads. Due to their timeless elegance, antique Persian rugs work perfectly well in modern interiors, imbuing them with an aura of mysticism and mystery. Through them, you can hear the echo of times past even while surrounded by modernity.
At Doris Leslie Blau, you can become immersed in the universe of antique Persian rugs and learn about the myriad forms they can take. Here, you will find antique Persian carpets from various time periods and regions, all 100% authentic.
The Geographical Origin of Antique Persian Rugs
“Antique Persian Rugs” are rugs that have been made in present-day Iran, therefore they are also known as “Antique Iranian Rugs”. In addition, the Persian style extended beyond modern-day Iran’s borders to the lands of the modern-day countries of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and other countries in Central Asia. Some people use the term “Persian carpet” interchangeably with “Oriental carpet”. While this is technically correct, the concept of an “Oriental carpet” includes Chinese carpets and carpets from regions lying further east from modern-day Iran. Persian carpets were woven by nomadic tribes, in urban and rural workshops, and in royal court manufactories. Every individual point of origin represented a different line of tradition, with its own history and local culture. Many people perceive the rugs woven in the 16th-century Safavid court manufactories of Isfahan as the pinnacle of Persian rug weaving. These rugs were known for their elaborate designs and colors and are highly sought after by designers and collectors to this day.
The largest weaving centers in Persia were Tabriz, Kerman, Neyshabour, Mashhad, Kashan, Isfahan, Nain, and Qom. Each weaving center, large or small, had its own techniques, patterns, materials, and colors. For example, weavers from Tabriz used wool, cotton, and silk in the piles and foundations of their carpets, while weavers from Kashan were known for their all-silk carpets.
Types of Persian rugs
A Brief History of Antique Persian Rugs
The earliest records of carpets in general, come from the Ancient Greeks, who most likely came into contact with them through the people inhabiting Ancient Persia. Homer, who historians date back to circa 850 BC, mentioned that a carpet was used to cover the body of Patrocles in the Iliad, and the first official historical record of a Persian carpet, as such, is ascribed to Xenophon, who lived around 400 BC. Xenophon described Persian carpets as precious items, worthy of diplomatic gifts, and this also indicates that they were a valuable export from the region of Persia and its surroundings.
For the next couple of centuries, carpet weaving techniques developed mainly within small tribal and nomadic communities. Empires rose and fell, with the Sasanian Empire collapsing in 651 to give way to the first Muslim Caliphates, followed by an invasion of the Turkic Seljuks in 1040. Next came the Mongol invasions starting in 1219 and the Timurid Empire (1307-1507), and after this prolonged period of instability, the first Persian dynasties came to be, starting with the Safavid Dynasty, which lasted from 1501 to 1732.
Very few rugs woven prior to the rise of the dynasties remain, however from what little is left, we can be sure that the cultures, beliefs, and traditions of all occupants of the region up to the 16th century intermingled and were woven into an intricate tapestry that formed the basis of the Persian style of carpet weaving, which truly came into its own starting with the rise of the Persian dynasties in the 16th century.
From the 16th century onwards, up until the fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty in 1979, Persian rugs enjoyed the patronage of the court of the given sultan of the time, and great carpet weaving manufactories and workshops were established and thrived through the centuries, with every generation introducing their own designs and ideas. This evolving history of carpet weaving in the Persian region today constitutes what we know to be the “Antique Persian Carpet”.
Materials Used to Produce Antique Persian Rugs
Most Persian rugs employ sheep’s wool for the pile. The quality and characteristics of this wool varied from region to region, depending on the living conditions and breed of the sheep being shorn. Some nomadic tribes were also known to use camel hair and goat hair in their rugs.
When it comes to the warps and wefts of Persian carpets, cotton is the material of choice, as it can be spun more tightly than wool and bears more tension. It is also more durable, and hence suitable as a foundation for a rug.
Finally, Persian carpets are also made from silk, which was reserved only for works of the highest quality. Silk is used in both the piles and warps of Persian rugs, sometimes mixed with cotton, sometimes by itself. Antique Persian carpets made of silk are the most luxurious and feature the most intricate and elaborate designs.
The Colors of Authentic Antique Persian Rugs
Antique Persian rugs are also distinguished by the use of natural dyes in their production. This reliance on natural raw materials, which varied according to location and region, resulted in a predominance of specific colors in Persian rug design. For instance, the color red was derived from madder roots, yellow from plants like chamomile and onion, black from oak apples, acorns or tanner’s sumach, and blue from indigo. Colors like orange or green were made by mixing red and yellow or blue and yellow, respectively. Insect reds like carmine and cochineal dyes were also used.
Interestingly, color variations often occur in many antique Persian rugs. This is due to the fact that the dying process was a very imperfect science, and only small batches of wool were dyed at a time, especially if the weaver was based in a small workshop with fewer resources. Hence, color variations within a single Persian carpet are actually a mark of authenticity and are valued by collectors and designers alike. This phenomenon is referred to as “abrash”, and it is typical for rugs woven in tribes and villages.
Colors also carry symbolism in the design of Persian carpets. For instance, green is the holy color of the Prophet Mohammed, symbolizing hope, renewal, life, and spring. In turn, red symbolizes beauty, wealth, courage, luck, joy, and faith, while blue area rugs stand for power, force, or solitude. Gold represents power and wealth, brown fertility, orange humility and piety, and white purity and cleanliness.
Knotting Techniques in Antique Persian Carpets
Antique Persian rugs are almost invariably hand-knotted – with the notable exception of flat-weaves. There are two primary types of knots used in the art of Persian carpet weaving: the symmetrical Turkish, or “Ghiordes”, knot and the asymmetrical Persian knot. Different rug weaving centers had their own original knots, and other knots include the Jufti knot, which was woven around 4 warps instead of 2, as in the case of the Turkish and Persian knots. However, knots woven around a number of warps less than 2 result in carpets that are less resistant to wear and less durable due to the lesser amount of material used.
Generally speaking, the symmetrical Turkish knot is better suited for regular, rectilinear designs, while the asymmetrical Persian knot facilitates the implementation of more fluid, curvilinear designs. The above statement should be taken with a grain of salt, however, as rugs from the town of Senneh, for example, were quite well-known for elaborate, curvilinear designs made using the symmetrical knot.
Persian carpets are typically hand-knotted, however, Kilim rugs are an exception, as they are flat-woven. Other forms of flat-weaves also exist, such as Herati, Jajim, Maleki, Sirjan, Soumak, and Suzani. Kilim rugs were traditionally woven by nomadic tribes and were very utilitarian in nature. This means that they are quite durable and were used for various functions: floor and wall coverings, horse saddles, bags for storage, bedding, and cushions.
Designs and Motifs in Antique Persian Carpets
One of the most timeless and thought-provoking aspects of Persian carpets are their designs and motifs, all contributing specific symbolism to every carpet. Persian carpets can be symbols of abundant fertility or austere sacrality, and their designs and motifs are the vehicles for expressing their overarching meaning.
Generally speaking, Persian carpets have the following basic design elements: the main border, with an exterior secondary border and an interior secondary border (there may be a greater number of secondary borders), and the main field bearing a central medallion and pendants, as well as four corners. There are various designs and patterns within the Persian style of carpet weaving, each indicative of a specific weaving center. Patterns that seem more irregular typically indicate a tribal rug or a carpet from a smaller workshop. Carpets from royal manufactories and larger workshops were better planned out and typically have more intricate designs. Designs typically consist of floral and geometric motifs, as well as ancient motifs derived from religious tradition, such as the “Tree of Life”, which symbolizes a direct path from Earth to Heaven.
Antique Persian rugs feature a vast array of motifs, each bearing distinctive symbolism. For example, star motifs symbolize spirituality and good luck, peonies symbolize power, lilies stand for purity and spirituality, and the famous boteh motif, or paisley, symbolizes flame and the universe. Leaf motifs symbolize endless regeneration and are frequently used in repeating patterns on the main fields and borders of Persian carpets. Pomegranates often serve as the central medallion motif, and they symbolize fertility. Diamonds are also frequently present on antique Persian carpets, as well as a motif known as Herati, which is made up of smaller design elements arranged in a specific, rhombic pattern.
It is important to remember that the religion of Islam prohibits the depiction of animals and humans in a profane context, and this includes carpet weaving. This explains why floral and geometric elements are predominant in Antique Persian carpets.
Where to Find Authentic Antique Persian Carpets
The art of Persian carpet weaving is time-honored, illustrious, and astoundingly complex in its variety of designs, motifs, and styles. This article is merely a modest introduction to the wide world of antique Persian rugs, and the subject can and has been studied over the span of many lifetimes, with much literature being published on the topic over the centuries.
Antique Persian rugs can be found all around the world, but among the world-renowned galleries offering antique Persian carpets today, Doris Leslie Blau, based in New York City, is one of the most well-established, with a rich and diverse collection of rugs of all shapes and sizes. If you want to learn more about antique and vintage Persian rugs and browse the unique collection DLB has to offer, pay a visit to the Doris Leslie Blau Gallery at 306 E 61st St 7th Floor, New York, NY 10065.