The Story of Arraiolos Rugs From Portugal
Arraiolos rugs represent the epitome of the Portuguese textile industry, but their origin dates back to a place far from their namesake. To understand what makes these sought-after rugs so special, we must look back at their rich and interesting history. In so doing we will discover how lucky we are to still be able to see these amazing artworks being made today.
The Arrival in Arraiolos
It is commonly thought that the best and most beloved carpet designs originated in Persia centuries ago. So how did the Arraiolos rug get its name from a town in Portugal? The answer involves digging into the political shifts that occurred in Iberia from the 14th to 16th centuries. The Moors dominated the culture of this area for hundreds of years, until their defeat in 1492 at the hands of a newly unified Christian Spain.
During the time of Moorish rule, the culture of the Middle East, including Persian textile techniques, traveled easily to Iberia. It is speculated that this is in part because Moorish nobility would often travel with skilled rug-makers in their entourages. These nobles and their artisans dwelt in the town of Evora for more than 400 years, and during this period these textile masters would have taught their skills to local craftsmen.
In 1492, Queen Isabella expelled the Moors from Spain, and some of them fled west to Portugal, settling in the town of Arraiolos. In 1511, Portugal expelled the Moors as well, but the locals had already absorbed the knowledge of embroidery and carpet-making.
Characteristics of Arraiolos Rugs
Arraiolos rugs are now sought after around the world thanks to their handmade design that is a result of days, weeks and sometimes months of patient work. If you take a trip to Arraiolos you can see the needlewomen sitting in the shade, often working as groups to complete these masterpieces. Arraiolos rugs are truly the epitome of Portuguese needlepoint weaving, which is a technique where the designs are embroidered one stitch at a time onto the canvas, typically using wool thread.
Back in their heyday in the 16th century, Arraiolos rugs still mostly featured Turkish and Persian designs. Over time, more Western and characteristically Portuguese motifs began to dominate the Arraiolos carpet pieces. This may be a result of the increasing popularity of these rugs among the Portuguese nobility through the 18th century. However, historical records indicate a darker truth behind the shift in design elements.
A Long Journey From Then to Now
For a while after the expulsion of the Moors, there remained in Portugal strong and enduring aspects of Moorish culture. However as the continued persecution of remaining Moorish populations increased in intensity, Middle Eastern and Islamic cultural elements began to disappear from Iberian society. At the height of Moorish rule in Iberia, Lisbon alone had more than 100 carpet workshops. By 1551 the number had dwindled to only six.
Despite the disappearance of the Moors, local artisans continued to produce these magnificent designs, with most of them relegated to Arraiolos. Many of these workshops were based out of convents, where Portuguese color schemes and folk motifs began to predominate. This is the style that most of the Arraiolos rugs were being made in by the time the 20th century rolled around. In 1916 a workshop opened in Evora, and its success led to the revival of Arraiolos rugs in popular society. Nowadays a professional organization and a museum where patrons can see the original 13th-century dyeing pits ensure the continued success and manufacturing of these fine works of art.
The Development of the Arraiolos Style
It is clear that the style has evolved over time, but how did these changes look, and what exactly can you find in the characteristic Arraiolos rugs today? Portuguese aristocrats in the 16th century wanted copies of Persian rugs, true, but when the industry moved to workrooms in convents, the designs started to mimic what was popular elsewhere in Europe. Arraiolos rugs from this period demonstrate themes popular in the Savonnerie (brown, black or blue grounds featuring rinceaux, bouquets and medallions) and Aubusson (vignettes of birds perched on plants and foliage over a verdure background) styles.
Today you are more likely to find an Arraiolos rug with Moorish tiles, though more popular still are flowers, leaves, birds, animals and hunting scenes all embellished in a multitude of colors, sometimes numbering over two dozen different shades.
Bring Beautiful Portuguese Rugs and Needlepoints to Your Home
If your curiosity has been stimulated, there is no better way to see Arraiolos rugs than by going firsthand to witness the needlepoint rugs crafting in action in Portugal. For a select few specimens, though, you do not need to travel nearly as far. The gallery here at Nazmiyal Antique Rugs boasts vintage needlepoint designs that are indeed the real deal. View the Portuguese rugs section of our website, give us a call or come see our gallery yourself.