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    

Auth: Antique Caucasian Rug Ci 1900 Armenian Variant 4x7 Collectors Beauty Nr C 1930 Bijar Kurdish Antique Persian Bidjar Exquisite Hand Made Rug SLg 9x12 Antique Art Deco Nouveau Era Persian Rug Flower Estate Fresh Wool CarpetC 1900 Stunning Persian Serapi Heriz Hand Made Exquisite Rug Superb SAuth: Antique Caucasian Rug Famed Karaba 4x10 Wool Beauty! Iconic Birds Nr Auth: 19th C Antique Kurdish Veramin Tribal Rug 5x11 Collectors Star! Fine NrAuth: 19th Century Antique Kurdish Rug Fine Rare Nw Collectible Amazing 4x6 NrAuth: 19th C Antique Caucasian Collectors Piece Rare Shasavan Tribes 4x11 Nr Antique Lot No. 1691: Original Antique Large And Salmon Serapi-heriz DesignMarvellous Antique Turkoman Yomud Area Rug !!! ****hg****Cr.1920 Antique Stunning Persian Kashmar Hand Made Exquisite Rug 106x9 Antique Hunt Tabriz Bird Lion Snake Deer Tree Old Persian Rug Wool CarpetAntique Lot No. 1690: Original Antique Large Wonderful Medallion Heriz Carpet Outstanding, Large, Bold, Antique 19th Eagle Kazak Caucasian Rug@nr. Dehati.1Auth: 1930's Antique Rug Striking Wool Weaving Bakhtiari Heirloom Art 8x11 NrAuth: 19th C Antique Sarouk Farahan 1870's Shabby Chic 5x7 Collectible Art NrCr.1900 Stunning Persian Serapi Heriz Hand Made Exquisite Rug Superb HSuperb C 1900 Antique Persian Malayer Stunning Exquisite Hand Made Rug HAuth: Antique Greek Islands Sparta Christian Variant Kasem Ushag Kazak 7x11 NrC 1900 Stunning Persian Serapi Heriz Hand Made Exquisite Rug Superb 10Ca 1930s Veg Dyies Persian Antique Karacheh Kazak Heriz Serapi Rug 10x13.4Auth: 19th C Antique Chinese Rug Ming 16th C Drawing 10x19 Wool Masterpiece NrFine Antique Persian Turkish Veg Dye Oushak Chobi Serapi Heriz Caucasuan 10x13.6C 1920 Antique Stunning Persian Kerman Hand Made Exquisite Rug SAuth: 1940's Lavar Kerman Famed "mille Fleur" 1000 Flowers Wool Beauty 10x14 NrC 1930 Persian Qashqaei Khamseh Stunning Exquisite Antique Hand Made Rug H8x11 1940s Incredible Hand Knotted 70+yrs Fine Antique Wool Kashann Persian RugWonderful Antique 1880 Af Shar Bagface *****hg****Vegetable Dyed Antique Persian Sultanabad Sarouk Mahal 9x12 Serapi Heriz RugCr.1920 Christian Armenian Antique Persian Exquisite Hand Made Ekbatana Rug HC 1900 Khorassan Baluch Antique Persian Tribal Exquisite Hand Made Rug 10C 1900 Khorassan Baluch Antique Persian Tribal Exquisite Hand Made Rug HNo Res -- Beautiful Antique Baluch Small Rug Carpet PillowCr.1920 Christian Armenian Borchelo Antique Persian Exquisite Hand Made Rug HVintage Worn Oriental Persian Caucasian RugNo Res -- A Very Nice Antique Baluch Rug Carpet Runner Kilim TurkmenCa 1930s Veg Dyies Persian Antique Karacheh Kazak Serapi Heriz Rug 9x12C 1930 Bijar Kurdish Antique Persian Bidjar Exquisite Hand Made Rug HGorgeous Antique Luri Bachtiari Sumack Long Sofreh ! Flatweave ****hg***C 1920 Kurdish Serab Antique Persian Stunning Exquisite Hand Made Rug SAuth: 1930's Semi Antique Sivas Rug Champagne All Over Hand Made Wool Beauty! NrCa 1930s Veg Dyies Antique Persian Lilihan Sarouk 9x13 Armeniyan Serapi RugCr.1930 Hamadan Antique Persian Stunning Exquisite Hand Made Ekbatan Rug HNo Res -- Antique Caucasian Soumak Khorkin Shahsavan Armenian Bagface Jaff Rug10x12 1940's Museum Masterpiece Hq 70+years Antq Mashayekhi Tabrizz Persian RugNo Res -- Antique Chinese Nichols Peking Art Deco Ocre Color Rug Carpet 4x7C 1930 Persian Qashqaei Khamseh Stunning Exquisite Antique Hand Made Rug SAuth: 1940's Antique Kurdish Runner 16' Tree Of Life Lustrous Wool Beauty! Nr Ca 1930s Veg Dyies Persian Antique Karacheh Kazak Serapi Heriz Rug 8.6x11.7Cr.1920 Antique Persian Tuiserkan Stunning Exquisite Hand Made Rug SC 1930 Antique Persian Tuiserkan Stunning Exquisite Hand Made Rug 10Vintage Colorful Persian Shiraz 4'x8' Handknotted 100% Wool Pile Rug Pk2133Vintage Persian Rug-classic Baluchi; 5' X 39''. Brick Reds,brown, Dark Blue. N.r9x13 1940's Spectacular Hand Knotted 70+yrs Antique Wool Kashann Persian RugAuth: 1950's Semi Antique Isphahan Rug - Elegant 10x14 Red Wool Beauty! Nr Ca 1940s Veg Dyies Antique Persian Signed Lavar Kerman 10.1x13.4 RugWonderful Antique Estate Heriz Serapi Rug Hand Knooted Persian Carpet Rare Ca 1930s Veg Dyies Antique Persian Lilihan Sarouk Rug 3.4x9.108x12 1940's Museum Masterpiece Very Fine 70+years Antique Tabrizz Persian RugAntique Caucasian Shirvan Kuba Kazak Rug 5x10ft Ca 1890