Many of the objects we think of today as decorative pieces for the home, or even as works of art, were first produced for functional purposes. Rugs and textiles certainly fit that description, whether it’s a carpet for the hallway, a framed sampler above the fireplace, or a quilt for the bed.
Woven rugs and carpets have been around for millennia, becoming synonymous with places like Turkey and Persia, now known as Iran. Persian rugs have a distinct look to them, as if a sort of ancient magic has infused their designs. Historically, there was a standard rug arrangement in the traditional Iranian home, and through most of the 20th century, Persian rugs were usually long and narrow, their shape the product of their creation on narrow nomad looms.
Persian rugs are usually made of wool, cotton, and silk, and some Baluchi tribes even use goat’s hair for the selvages at the edge of the rug. The Kashan district produces the mo...
Iranian cotton is used for the warp and weft of many Persian rugs; a cotton foundation gives the rug a firm back so it lies evenly on the floor and won’t wrinkle even after washing. As for Nomad weavers, they have been making the warp and weft of their rugs out of wool for centuries. Their wool comes from sheep of every color, from off-white to black, along with cream, yellow, and brown. This variation enriches the weaver's palette.
Beauty and symmetry rather than symbolism is most often the inspiration for Persian rug design. Patterns in Persian rugs often draw on natural subjects like trees, leaves, sprays of flowers, birds, and animals, as well as Chinese and Arabic geometric motifs. However, it is said that chrysanthemum and lotus flowers represent happiness and fertility, while the iris stands for religious liberty. To the Kurds in West Iran, a group of four roses is the sacred tree of life, representing divine power and everlasting life. And the palm tree may symbolize blessings or secret wishes granted, while a weeping willow signals sorrow and death.
In contrast, Turkish rugs are riddled with symbols and meanings—from a rug’s color to its motifs. For example, an engaged woman expressing her giddy feelings of love weaves pink hyacinths into her rug. If a woman is feeling melancholy the hyacinths will be purple, and if she wants to express her loyalty, the hyacinths are white.
Many of the motifs in these rugs and kilims are designed to defend against the evil eye, a supernatural power that can wreak death and destruction with a single look. Thus, the carpet serves as a charm often laid in the rooms of children, who are considered particularly vulnerable to this hex. For example, Yagcibedir rugs produced in the weaving district of Bergama often feature triangles in their corners to ward off the evil eye. And Dosemealti carpets, dominated by blues and whites, were frequently woven with scorpion symbols to keep the deadly animals away.
Especially prized are rugs made in the Hereke workshops, which were founded in 1891 exclusively to make carpets for the Ottoman palaces. Weavers in these workshops produced some of the finest rugs in history, often given to European emperors as gifts. Hereke carpets feature interwoven natural flowers with vines disappearing and reappearing through borders as a sign of infinity. The tulip, in particular, symbolized the Ottoman Empire.
A more recent catch for rug collectors are the Native American rugs, which became popular with tourists during the Victorian Era. These visitors to the American Southwest became enamored with the abstract patterns woven into Navajo blankets and clamored to buy them. But when they returned home, they would use them as floor coverings instead of bedding.
Picking up on these cues, the Navajos began making their patterns with sturdier materials, a heavier weave, and sold them as rugs. Eventually, their traditional geometric designs, which had featured diamonds and triangles, gave way to images of cowboys and horses. In the 1920s, these rugs experienced a resurgence of popularity that has not abated.
Quilts, blankets, and bedspreads are another area of keen interest to textile collectors. Antique quilts vary widely in design and materials, and can be hard to date definitively because they may have been assembled in phases from older quilts or blocks. Made from elaborate fabrics to scraps of old clothing and even feedsacks, quilts have both a functional and social significance. Quilts were sometimes given as a gift for a special occasion (like a wedding) or as a token of friendship. Quilts can also document a family’s history as the pieces sewn together can come from baby blankets and clothes.
Antique quilts are typically categorized by style (a broad classification) and pattern (of the individual blocks). Some notable styles include quilts with a central motif, redwork, appliqué, Colonial Revival, and crazy quilts. Individual block patterns include Sunbonnet Sue, Lone Star, Whig’s Defeat, and bowtie, to name but a very few.
Some of the most popular blankets for collectors are those associated with the North American fur trade between Native Americans and Europeans. These include the Hudson Bay Company’s “pointed blankets” and Pendleton blankets. While these “Indian trade blankets” may feature patterns inspired by Native American designs, they were actually made by Europeans and white Americans to sell to the tribes.
European wool blankets were coveted by the Native Americans, who had previously worn hides, stitched fur pelts, and handmade clothes made of wool, down, feathers, shredded cedar bark, or cotton. In particular, the pointed blankets were hugely popular with Native Americans thanks to their insulating and water-repellent qualities.
Bedspreads are also collected, especially the 20th century ones made of chenille, a thick yarn spun from cotton, rayon, or other natural or manufactured fibers that was then sewn onto a base fabric, usually cotton, to create a soft, tufted material. Though the process had been around since the 18th century, it was updated in the 1890s by a Georgia woman named Catherine Evans Whitener, whose passion for chenille made her state a capital for the textile.
Chenille bedspreads produced in Georgia during the 1920s and ’30s were a hybrid of manufacturing practices and handcrafting. Companies would stamp their desired patterns onto cotton sheets (the peacock was probably the most popular), which were then delivered to the thousands of tufters who worked from their homes or in family groups around the state. Tufted bedspreads would then be picked up, shrunk, dyed, and distributed around the country. Eventually, manufacturers such as Morgan Jones and Cabin Crafts cut out the tufters, producing chenille bedspreads in their factories.
Though we admire them as folk art today, samplers were first produced by young girls as a way of learning embroidery techniques. An especially common type of sampler was the band sampler, which, as its name suggests, was made of a narrow band of fabric. Stitches captured on samplers ranged from running to back, chain to buttonhole, and cross to tent. Other more specialized stitches include herringbone and feather (used on quilts), satin (popular in Arts and Crafts embroidery), lazy daisy, rope work, sanding, and shadow work.
Embroidery was also used on quilts. In addition to quilting stitches such as the feather stitch, a type of embroidery known as redwork was popular in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Used to make penny square quilts, redwork or Turkey work as it was also called (for a while, the dye that colored the thread came from Turkey) was frequently employed to create small squares depicting scenes from children’s books, flowers, animals, and fruit. The designs for these squares were sometimes found on feedsacks.
During the Victorian Era, embroidered tablecloths, sometimes fringed, grew in popularity. Embroidery is most frequently seen in decorative florals used as accents in the corners or center of a tablecloth, or along the borders. Geometric patterns were also embraced, but so were tapestry-like tablecloths with intricate borders.
Damasks, which can be made from linen, silk, wool, or even cotton, represent the height of formal tablecloth art. Originating in Damascus, Syria, damasks utilize special weaving techniques to produce patterns that appear to shimmer above their background cloth, even if the patterns and their background are the same color (eg: white on white). Irish linens, including damask tablecloths, have been an important part of Ireland’s economy since the 17th and 18th centuries.
Just as venerable as damask linen is lace, be it of the needlepoint or bobbin varieties. Sometimes a piece of lace would be inserted into a linen tablecloth. In other cases, cutwork and drawnwork would be employed to create voids that produced lace-like patterns—the edges of the voids would often be sewn with buttonhole stitches to keep the background fabric from unraveling and to define the voids.
By the 1930s, inexpensive printed cotton tablecloths, often featuring cheerful or even amusing patterns and designs, seemed a tonic to the austerity of the Depression. Art Deco pastel patterns went nicely with dinnerware such as Fiesta, while cotton feedsacks with existing designs and imagery were recycled into tablecloths.
One of the most popular types of printed cotton tablecloths from the middle of the 20th century were those bearing cartoony renditions of U.S. states. These souvenir tablecloths were manufactured as early as the 1920s but really came into the own in the postwar years, especially the 1950s. Because greater numbers of state tablecloths were made for places where tourism was popular (there are lots of Florida and California tablecloths made by companies such as Calaprint, Startex, Hardycraft, and Simtex), ones from states such as Alabama and South Carolina are tougher to come by.