Wool-pile rugs are thought to have been invented in Mid-Eastern Asia, over a vast region from the Black Sea to China. For the nomadic tribes populating these lands, high-quality rugs were a necessary invention—they needed some way to cover the cold, damp ground inside their tents to keep their feet warm. Once warm wool-pile rugs were developed, the less-durable carpets called kilims, or kelims, were put to use as tapestries and window-coverings, and eventually, as kneeling pads for Islamic prayers.

Although such “oriental” rugs, treasured for their rich colors and vibrant patterns, were made in what we know as Mesopotamia, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Egypt, Morocco, China, Tibet, and parts of the former U.S.S.R., the most popular and sought-after examples tend to come from Persia (a.k.a. Iran) and Turkey.

In these regions, the ancient traditions and symbols used in rug-weaving have been passed down over the centuries, as many of the tribes eventually settled into villages that became great weaving centers. Each village or family would develop its own unique patterns, color combinations, and style.

The European obsession with these rugs began when Marco Polo traveled to the Kerman trade center in Persia in 1271 and opened up a trade route between the East and the West. Fine Turkish and Persian rugs were prized possessions of European aristocrats for ages, but they really captured the Western imagination in the early 16th century, when a book of Mid-Eastern folk tales, “1,001 Arabian Nights,” was first published in English.

The book included the story of "Prince Housain's Carpet,” a seemingly worthless old rug from Tangu that had a secret power—it could fly. Centuries before airplanes and even hot-air balloon, the idea of a magic or flying carpet seemed truly fantastical.

Thanks to this book and the Western fascination with oriental rugs, such carpets are hardly ever seen as worthless. In fact, in Iran, families tend to invest heavily in rugs, which can always be sold to Europe and the United States, no matter how old they are. Large family homes often have rug-weaving sheds out back, and the rugs they make can be used for bartering and paying taxes. Even modest homes will have every inch of floor covered in rugs.

Historically, there was a standard rug arrangement in the traditional Iranian home. In the middle would be the central rug or “mian farsh,” which is about five-to-six yards long ...

Turkish rugs can be distinguished from Persian rugs, based on their weaving styles. Turkish rugs employ the double Ghiordes knot, while Persian rugs used the single Senneh knot. Turkish rugs generally come in five standard sizes: 60 x 100 cm (about 2’ x 3’3.5”), 90 x 135 cm (about 3’ x 4’5”), 130 x 200 cm (about 4’3” x 6’6.5”), 150 x 200 (about 5’ x 6’6.5”), and 200 x 300 cm (6’6.5” x 9.10”).

Patterns or motifs in Persian rugs tend to be more decorative, and designed based on beauty, although many of the symbols are shared with heavily coded Turkish rugs and may have meaning attached to them. Some of the most well-known Persian rug motifs are the blooming lily palmettes of Shah Abbas and what we think of as paisley, a pine or palm-leaf pattern (called “bota” or “Mir-i-bota” in Iran).

On the other hand, every design and color woven into a Turkish rug is highly symbolic, and often based on motifs used in Anatolia as far back as 3000 B.C. Even patterns that might seem abstract and geometric to the Western eye are loaded with meaning. A dot can be a piece of fruit or an eye, and a scroll an ear representing human voices.

The patterns woven into these rugs tend to have four basic themes: First, they can be wards against the superstition of the evil eye, a destructive force that can bring death and disease into a home, as well as real threats from wild animals. Stylized images of scorpions or the wolf’s mouth motif were thought to keep stingers out of the carpets and wolves away from the door.

The patterns of the number five in the border, or images of hands with five fingers, a color similar to the infinite blue of the sea or sky, crosshatch symbols representing shrubs, and even corner triangles were all though to work as talisman against the evil eye. But the most effective symbol of all was the eye itself, which could be depicted as a dot under a pointed eyebrow, or inside a triangle, square, or rectangle, sometimes divided in four by a cross shape.

Second, Turkish carpets might contain a whole story about the mythology of the Tree of Life, which stretches between the center of earth and heaven. Other symbols of divinity come in threes, like the toes of a goose foot, representing holiness, productivity, and fertility.

Third, because carpets were made by women, a weaver would often pour her romantic hopes and dreams into her rugs, usually telegraphed by different kinds of flowers. 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. A white rose stands for love, a red one passion, and a wild one yearning. A chain-like pattern of diamonds and triangles known as hair band, or a representation of an earring, means the weaver wishes for marriage.

To represent her man, she might weave in a dragon as a symbol of power and strength, an arrow to show his courage or heroism, or a ram’s horn to indicate his health and virility. If she is expecting a child, she will include an abstract human figure, while a mother might put in a hands-on-waist pattern to signify the sacred duties of child-rearing.

Finally, images are woven into Turkish carpets to bring about good fortune and abundance. Cones, wheat sheaves, the sun, the color yellow, and fruits and vegetables are symbols of fertility; four-leaf clovers, a goose foot inside a circle, and the four-pointed Wheel of Fortune are symbols of luck.

Native American rugs are also popular with collectors, even though this tradition didn’t start until the Victorian Era. White tourists taking the train 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 covering instead of bedding.

Picking up on these cues, the Navajos began making their patterns with sturdier materials, a heavier weave, and selling them as rugs. Eventually, their traditional geometric designs, featuring diamonds and triangles, gave way to images of cowboys and horses. In the 1920s, these rugs experienced a resurgence of popularity that has not died down.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

LACMA Luxury Textiles

LACMA Luxury Textiles

Textile collectors shouldn't miss this microsite from the LA County Museum of Art, a great reference on European an… [read review or visit site]



Most watched eBay auctions    

Mint Superb Antique Kurdish Bijar Exquisite Hand Made Persian Bidjar Rug CSigned C 1900 Superb Antique Persian Tabriz Exquisite RugAuthentic Antique Sarouk Rug Ca 1910 Elegant Rust Wool Beauty! 11.6 X16 NrC 1900 Stunning Persian Serapi Bakhshaish Heriz Hand Made Exquisite Rug 13Antique Lilihan Superb Exquisite Stunning Cr.1930 Hand Made Persian RugAuthentic 1970's Hand Woven Konya Turkish Art Rug 6x9 Bold Wool Beauty NrAntique C 1930 Exquisite Qum Persian Rug Stunning Hand Made Qom GhomAuthentic 1920's Antique Chinese Rug Art Deco Hand Woven Blue Wool Beauty! Nr Afghan Rug, Baluchi Rug 117 X 214 Cm Handmade Sheep Wool Rug Tribal Rug #889Stunning Antique Kurdish Bijar Exquisite Hand Made Persian Bidjar Rug H CAntique All-over Design Heriz Serapi 7x10 Persian Oriental Area Rug Wool Carpet Antique Caucasian Kazak Shirvan Tribal Oriental Rug CarpetSuper Super Vg Dy Persian Oushak Chobi Tabriz 8x10 Caucasian Turkish RugAuthentic Antique Chinese Art Deco Rug Ca 1910 9x12 Shabby Chic Ivory Beauty!Pre 1900s Antique Caucasian Star Lezghi Shirvan Rug 4.2x6.3 Highly CollectableAuthentic 19th C Antique Turkish Prayer Rug - 1890's Yellow Base Konya? Wool Nr8x10 Exquisite Hand Made Wool Persian Chobi Mahal Oriental RugStunning Superb Kurdish Exquisite Hand Made Persian Rug C HSuper Super Vg Dy Persian Oushak Heriz Tabriz 8x10 Caucasian Turkish RugStunning Antique Qashqaei Shiraz C 1930 Exquisite Persian Rug HC 1900 Stunning Persian Serapi Bakhshaish Heriz Hand Made Exquisite Rug 13Stunning Superb Kurdish Exquisite Hand Made Persian Rug C SSonqur Antique Kurdish Exquisite C 1930 Stunning Hand Made Persian RugCr.1930 Stunning Antique Persian Exquisite Hand Made Nahavand RugC 1930 Stunning Antique Persian Exquisite Hand Made Tabriz Rug11x14 1900's Authentic Hand Knotted Well Worn Antq Saroukk Farahan Persian RugSuper Super Fine Turkish Veg Dye Oushak Tabriz Caucasuan 8x10 RugStunning Antique Qashqaei Shiraz C 1930 Exquisite Persian Rug SAntique Lot No. 1272: Original Antique Mid 19 Century 150 Year Special Yomuth Antique Lot No.1273:antique 1890's All Wool Ivory Field Double Seychur MedallionSuper Super Vg Dy Persian Oushak Heriz Tabriz 9x12 Caucasian Turkish RugAuthentic 19th C Antique Tribal Rug - All Wool Vegetal Dyes - Solid Worn Nr 10x14 Spectacular Fine Hand Knotted Ivory Plush Wool Indo Tabrizz Oriental RugEarly 52 X 78 Caucasian? Tribal Rug, Bright Colors, Geometric Field, N Res11x13 1920's Museum Masterpiece Fine Hand Knotted Antique Bakhtiar Persian Rug8x10 1960s Authentic Fine Hand Knotted Rare Plush Wool Tibetan Oriental RugSigned Exquisite C 1920 Stunning Antique Persian Kashmar Hand Made Rug HSuper Super Vg Dy Persian Oushak Chobi Tabriz 8x10 Caucasian Turkish RugAntique Kashan Rug, Fine Old Decorative Persian Carpet, Worn Patina -estate FindAuthentic Semi Antique Karastan Machine Made Rug 1950's Wool Beauty Nr 9x12 Very Elegant Hand Made Wool Persian Heriz Serapi Oriental RugAntique Circa Pre 1900s Museum Age Caucasian Shirvan Rug 4.2x5 No ReserveAntique Lot No. 1260:antique World Class 140 Y. Yellow Flame Field Sauj BulaghSigned Exquisite C 1920 Stunning Antique Persian Kashmar Hand Made Rug HInscribed And Dated (pre-1883) Antique Caucasian Kuba Rug. A+ Dyes & Condition Nr 1970-80s Original Afghan Ussr War Rug Baluch Tribe Kalashnikov Ak-47 TanksAntique Circa Pre 1900s Colorful Design Caucasian Kazak Rug 4x7.5 No ReserveAntique Lot No.1268:antique 1880's Squarish World Class Sumakh With Yellows ! !9x12 Amazing Masterpiece Hand Knotted Reproduction Antique Serapi Persian RugAntique Persian Single Saddle Bag Flat Weave Hand Woven5x8 Authentic Hand Knotted Ivory Wool Room Size Sino Tabrizz Oriental RugAntique Lot No.1245:original Antique 1900's Wool Collectors Caucasian 4'2 X 7'4Super Super Fine Turkish Veg Dye Sumack Oushak Chobi Tabriz Caucasuan 9x12 Rug12x15 Exquisite Hand Made Wool Persian Heriz Serapi Oriental RugAuth: 19th C Antique Baluchistan Tribal Yastik Pillow 1870's Collectors Pc. Nr Super Super Vg Dy Persian Oushak Heriz Tabriz 9x12 Caucasian Turkish RugSuper Super Fine Turkish Veg Dye Oushak Tabriz Caucasuan 9x12 Persian Rug6.2x6.2 Round Breathtaking Hand Made Wool Persian Heriz Serapi Oriental Rug Great Looking Vintage Navajo Rug 31 1/2" X 22 1/2"Antique Vintage 4 X 7 Pre-earthquake Handmade Turkish Hereke Silk Oriental Rug