Rug Foundation

Guide to Antique Rug Foundation

How Rugs and Carpets are Woven

All About Rug Foundations

Just as with everything else in life, a fine rug begins with a good foundation. Understanding how antique rugs and carpets are made and what goes into them gives you a greater appreciation for their artistry. It also allows you to understand how to gauge the quality of a rug you are considering purchasing. Now, let us explore a little bit about the rug foundation and how it relates to carpet quality.

What is a rug foundation?

In the context of rug making, a rug foundation refers to the base or underlying structure of the rug that provides stability and support to the entire piece. It serves as the canvas onto which the decorative elements of the rug are added. The rug foundation is crucial for the overall durability and longevity of the rug.

There are two primary types of rug foundation:

  • Warp: The warp is the vertical set of yarns or threads that run the length of the rug from the top to the bottom. These yarns are usually tightly stretched on a loom before the rug weaving process begins. The number and spacing of the warp threads determine the density and fineness of the rug’s construction.
  • Weft: The weft is the horizontal set of yarns or threads that run across the width of the rug, from side to side. These weft threads are woven over and under the warp threads to create the structure of the rug. Weft threads can be inserted by hand or using a shuttle, depending on the weaving technique.

The combination of warp and weft creates the foundation of the rug. Once the foundation is established, the decorative elements, such as the pile (in pile-woven rugs) or patterns (in flat-woven rugs), are added. In pile-woven rugs, the pile is formed by knotting or looping yarns around the warp threads, creating a raised surface. In flat-woven rugs, patterns are created by weaving different colored weft threads in specific patterns.

The materials used for the foundation yarns can vary depending on the type of rug and the weaving tradition. Traditional rugs from different regions may use materials like wool, cotton, silk, or even synthetic fibers for the foundation. The quality of the rug often depends on the materials used for the foundation, the density of the weaving, and the skill of the weaver.

The rug foundation, being the structural base, plays a significant role in determining the overall strength, texture, and appearance of the finished rug. It is an essential aspect of rug making that contributes to the artistry and functionality of the final product.

Some Initial Rug Weaving Considerations

Before we delve into the technical aspects of making a rug foundation, there are few things that you need to understand first. One of the most important factors to understand is that weaving techniques differ from region to region. What might be considered an excellent quality rug from one area may be considered a poor quality one from another. You have to understand the particular weaving techniques of the region where the rug was originally woven to make a fair assessment.

Another thing to consider is the materials. Most of the rug foundations consist of wool or cotton. Though rare, some carpets, mostly specific types of Persian rugs, use silk as the foundation. The materials used for the foundation have an inherent effect on the strength and durability of the rug. They also affect the stiffness, or handle, of the area rug. In this article, we will not go into the spinning techniques that create foundations of various strength, but we will leave that for another article. However, the fiber preparation and spinning techniques are the precursors to a strong foundation thread.

The following technical discussion will apply to both kilims, or flat weave rugs, and pile rugs. They begin the same way with a warp that is strung vertically on a carpet weaving loom. This technique has changed little since the Bronze Age in many traditional societies. The principles that applied to create a strong foundation back then still apply today. The exception is machine made rugs, but even so, the technique is relatively the same. It is faster, and it lacks the attention given by human hands. With that being said, let’s see what goes into creating a strong foundation for the weaving.

Iranian Woman Weaving Persian Rugs by Nazmiyal

A woman weaving a rug on a loom.

Rug Foundation Looms and Warping

Whether the rug is produced in one of the carpet weaving centers located near larger cities or a nomadic woman wove the rug underneath the cover of a cloth tent, the looms are essentially the same. A loom can be as simple as four sticks tied together in a rectangle, or it can be a complicated machine with various rods tied to the warp and levers for raising different groups of warp threads. Many of the same techniques used for weaving carpets are also used to make cloth.

The foundation of the carpet is the warp threads that are strung vertically on the loom, regardless of what the loom looks like that was used to produce it. The warp threads must be strong because they will be under tension and strain during the rug weaving process. Sometimes a single-ply thread is used, called “singles,” but more than likely, warp threads consist of two or more single strands that have been plied, or twisted, together. During the weaving process, it is possible to repair a broken warp thread with something called a weaver’s knot, but most would rather avoid this and only use warp threads that are suitable to be put under such strain. Therefore, in most places, the warp threads placed vertically on the loom are more than one ply.

In many cases, particularly with nomadic tribes, there is not a wide choice of materials for the warp foundation of the piece. For the most part, they must contend with what they have available locally. Aside from being strong and less likely to break as the weaving progresses, the warp must also be smooth and not likely to fuzz as it is being worked and beaten down. As with strength, this factor also has to do with the technical aspects of preparing the fiber and spinning them.

Rug Foundation | Nazmiyal

An example of the foundation of a hand knotted rug.

Kilims Rug Foundation

The warp must have different characteristics than the yarn or thread used for the weft. The weft is the horizontal yarns worked in an over and under pattern on the warp threads. The weft can serve two different purposes. In the case of a kilim, the rug foundation’s weft is the design element and the foundation of the carpet all in one. The design is created by changing the colors of weft yarns according to the pattern. A kilim is what is called a “weft-faced” piece of weaving because the weft threads are what shows and creates the pattern. This is achieved by using a weft yarn that is a larger diameter than the warp threads.

Most of the flat weave carpets are similar to tapestries that are also weft-faced weaving. For comparison, you also might be interested that there are weaving techniques that create what is called “warp-faced” weaving. This is where the warp threads create the pattern, rather than the weft threads. One example of this is the inkle loom weaving of European and Scandinavian countries.

When creating a kilim, the weft threads will be a larger diameter than the warp threads. Strength is still important for the weft threads because you do not want the carpet to show wear easily, but they are also fuzzier to create a loftier and airier yarn. Because they are not placed under the same tension as the warp threads, the weft threads used for a kilim foundation can be single ply. Sometimes this is done if there is a shortage of materials available. In a kilim rug foundation, the warp has more of an effect on the strength of the carpet than the weft material that is used to create the pattern.

Weft Faced Weaving | Nazmiyal

An example of weft-faced weaving.

Pile Carpets Rug Foundation

In knotted pile carpets, both the warp and weft are used to create the foundation. The process begins the same as producing a kilim or any other piece of cloth. The warp threads are strung onto a loom under tension. Usually, the weaver will include a few rows of regular weaving before beginning the pile design. This is to add stability and even out the warp threads across the loom. Also, they will often end the piece with the same number of regular weaving rows for stability purposes. These are often called “header rows.”

After the header rows, the weaver begins creating the design with a series of knots. The hand tied rug knots form the pile and the design of the rug. There are only a few different types of knots used, but they can be tied in different ways. Regardless of the knot used, the principle is that the knot is tied around one or more sets of warp threads. An entire row of knots is completed, and then one or more rows of regular weaving weft are performed to anchor the knots in place.

The number of weft rows placed between each row of knots differs from region to region and among different qualities of carpets. Typically, these weft threads are produced similarly as warp threads and must be strong and smooth. They are not meant to be seen when the final rug is completed and will be hidden by the pile, but they must be strong to create a carpet that will last for a long time.

Once a set of knot and weft rows have been completed, the rug weaver will then take a heavy comb and beat them down to pack them in tightly. The more tightly the rows are beaten down, the firmer the carpet will be and the less likely it will be to unravel. This beating process is essential for creating a rug foundation that is strong and durable.

Hand Knotting | Nazmiyal

Hand knotting the wefts on a warp on a loom.

These are the basics of creating a strong foundation for a carpet. The materials used will also affect the durability and strength of the foundation. In general, silk fibers are the strongest of the materials available. Next, come cotton and wool. However, the ability to create a strong foundation thread for weaving depends more on the processing and spinning techniques than on the fiber itself.

Now you understand a little bit more about what goes into creating a strong foundation for a carpet. Feel free to look around and search our rugs online to find beautiful carpets made using these techniques.

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