An Overview of the History of Rugs
This blog is based on a post by Wilbur Pierce called “Antique Carpet DNA“, originally published on July 15, 2011.
To learn more, visit our Guide To The History Of Oriental Rugs
Take a moment and imagine that it is 100,000 years ago. Picture a Neanderthal couple, living in a cave. The couple is decorating their home with paintings on the walls, drawing with charcoal from their fire and red rocks containing iron. They are among some of the first artists in all of humankind. What they wouldn’t know then is that many generations into the future, art would develop and change and eventually, we would make art out of floor coverings, which we now have as antique rugs.
The History of Rugs as a Functional Pieces
Imagine that generations later, some great-great-great-and-so-on grandchild of this Neanderthal couple is now a woman in Central Asia. In the 5th century BC, a carpet now known as the Pazyryk carpet was woven, probably in Siberia. It is the oldest known carpet, and our first glimpse into the beginning of the art of weaving and rug making.
Still hundreds of years later, the women of Persia, Turkey, and the Caucasus were weaving blankets to protect themselves from the cold of the desert at night. These people wove saddlebags for camels and blankets for the caravanserai (or a “roadside inn” along the Middle Eastern Silk Road). Meanwhile, in China, caterpillars were being coddled and bred for the fine fiber they produced, more valuable than gold. This silk fiber was spun into blankets and woven into rugs for the Imperial Palace and traded along the trade routes of Asia Minor.
In the 8th century, when the Moorish commander Tariq crossed the Pillars of Hercules into Spain, he carried with him a vast selection of carpets. The route he crossed was later named “Gibraltar” and by this invasion, Tariq opened the way for the Iberian carpet industry which eventually migrated into France. Here, religious and ethnic groups would weave their cultural and religious symbols and stories into rugs. They wove their prayers in Kufic script, images of their mosques, flowers, and cedar trees into their rugs.
The History of Rugs as an Art
People should view rugs as art. The craft of weaving for functionality soon began to evolve into an art, and the textiles began to be used for decorations on the floors of tents and the halls of palaces. The cave designs you pictured before transformed into hunting scenes on rugs, creating a picture of what daily life was like, and what people’s hopes and aspirations were. Specific designs became associated with different tribes, cities, towns, or villages. Even today we can recognize a Khotan, Kerman, Bakhtiari, Aubusson, Agra, or Peking.
Fast forward to Europe’s medieval period. Now drafty castles needed heavy, insulated wall hangings to insulate the royals from cold winds. The stone they were built with offered protection against arrows and stones, but not against the cold and damp. Thus, the tapestry was created. Nobles showed their wealth by weaving gold into their wall hangings. At the same time in France, a weaver at the Savonnerie created designs on plush carpets to decorate the palace at Versailles. While the king had plush rugs decorating the palace, the merchant class lived with flat weaves. Aubusson was founded to provide carpets for the bourgeoisie.
Eventually, European carpet entrepreneurs like Ziegler sent designs to the weaving tribes of the Middle East to satisfy the demand for European styles. Ziegler made it possible so that speaking French was not necessary to decorate your home with a rug of sophisticated design.
From this point until the Industrial Revolution, weaving carpets was women’s work, save for a few men who rose to prominence in signing their carpets (such as Manet, Monet, DaVinci, Utrello, Titian or Kermani). Design was favored over quality and machine made replaced handmade. At first it seemed that the automated weaving machines of Axminster would eliminate the hand weaving industry, but instead all it did was make rugs and carpets available to all classes of people. It brought carpets to the homes of rich and poor alike.
However, a dichotomy began to develop. With each new invention that made weaving easier, there was the ability to make mass market carpets to overtake decorator carpets. It presented an entrepreneurial opportunity for many, but for those with refined taste, the holy grail of carpets still remains the hand-woven designs and production that spanned a few centuries and now bear the title of antique.
Now rare, these carpets have a pedigree and an aura about them that exudes quality, history and art in each knot. Even to the untrained eye, the difference between a true masterpiece and a mass-made reproduction should be clear. Take a look at some beautiful antique rugs for yourself, and now that you know the history behind them, hopefully your appreciation for them will be immense.