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What is a Rug Cartoon and How is it Used?

How Do They Create Those Intricate Designs Using a Rug Cartoon?

The complex, awe-inspiring designs of Oriental carpets contain a level of detail that is sometimes almost too much to comprehend. The works of master weavers such as Ustad Mohtashem and Haji Jalili use magnificent color combinations and intricate details on every square inch of the piece. You may be wondering how the weaver sitting at a loom looking at a wall of string can produce such a masterpiece. The secret is in the rug cartoon, which is the blueprint for the design.

Rug Cartoon Weaving | Nazmiyal

A man weaving on a loom using a rug cartoon.

What Is A Rug Cartoon?

Simply put, a rug cartoon is a paper pattern that contains the instructions for the colors in the design and where they should be placed. Now, it is typically produced on graph paper, and the design is adjusted to the number of knots per square inch in the piece. Each square on the graph paper represents one or more knots, depending on the scale of the piece.

The rug weaver places the cartoon either behind the weaving, or it is mounted above them at eye level. The weaver works the pattern row by row, changing colors as indicated on the pattern. This is similar to patterns used for knitting, crochet, needlepoint, or cross stitch. This is necessary because the weaver cannot always see the entire design as it is completed and rolled onto the rods.

Some rugs take over a year to produce, so it is unlikely that the weaver would be able to accurately recall the pattern from the beginning of the rug without the cartoon. In addition, because many rugs and carpets are symmetrical, the pattern can easily be flipped to produce the quadrants of the design. It also allows a form of shorthand to be used for patterns that repeat. The designer only has to create the design once and the weaver can simply repeat the pattern.

rug cartoon

Rug weavers using a rug cartoon.

The Rug Cartoon and the Evolution of Rug Design

The cartoon is like a rug design map, but it has not always been a part the weaving tradition. Prior to around the 1500s, most of the rugs produced were similar to those that are still produced by remote tribes today. They were traditional designs passed down through one-on-one teaching, but the designer and the weaver were the same. Often, the same person also spun and dyed the fiber too. Each rug was an expression of the individual choices of the one who knotted the rug.

In the 1500’s, the traditional rug weaving process would be transformed into the same method that is still used today. It was during that time when the Safavid rulers began to see the lucrative opportunities that existed in the Persian rug industry. At that time, they were producing exquisite pieces that had become a favorite commodity among the wealthier classes in Europe. A thriving export market had developed. In addition, Persian weavers now had access to locally produced silk and superior dyestuffs through the trade routes along the Silk Road.

The Safavid rulers decided to hire artists to produce carpet designs to be taught to the weavers in surrounding villages. They used cartoons to transmit these designs, which allowed the production of standardized designs, according to the tastes of a market that was hungry for these brilliant works of art. The process of carpet design and the actual weaving of the piece were now separate phases of the process. In addition, separate guilds developed for the spinning of the fibers and the production of the colors for the rugs. Each part of the process became specialized and high standards of quality were developed.

The designers were now freed to simply create and oversee the production of their designs. The weavers were highly trained, as schools began to open in centers such as Tabriz, Tehran, Isfahan, and Kerman. Rug designers were often cross trained in other arts such as miniature painting, sculpture, and tile mosaics. The rug designers became artists, where the weavers became more of craftsmen or tradesmen. The weavers were provided the design and were instructed to follow it verbatim.

rug weaver cartoon

Cartoons act as a reference for rug weavers.

Do All Rugs Use Cartoons?

The advantage to using a rug cartoon is that it allows the designer to accurately transmit their idea to the weaver. However, a cartoon is not always used, as is the case with many tribal rugs. In rugs produced in rural villages or tribal cultures, the designs are typically handed down orally and passed from generation to generation. After years of practice that begins as small children, the motifs and designs are reproduced from memory. While this allows for the creation of beautifully inspired individualistic designs, they lack the consistency and precision that sets carpets produced in the weaving centers of cities apart.

The introduction of the rug cartoon into the weaving process transformed the carpet industry from a folk art to a highly sophisticated and standardized art form. It allowed designers the ability to repeat a variation on designs that proved to be successful in the market. It allowed designs to be accurately reproduced by weavers located far from the established rug schools. This allowed designers access to more labor and production looms. Eventually, the production would become more centralized and additional rug weaving looms would be built in the weaving centers.

This same design process is still used today where a master weaver is actually the designer, rather than the actual person who ties each individual knot. The production of a larger carpet typically requires several weavers working for full days to create the final piece. The master weaver is the designer and oversees the process to make certain that the final work is as they envisioned.

This is the process that began in the 1500’s and is still much the same today as it was then. At least, this is the process that is used for carpet production in the cities. However, there are still some remote tribes that do not use cartoons and that still produce their designs according to traditions that have been handed down. Sometimes the patterns of tribal rugs are passed down through the use of songs or chants, as these cultures do not read or write.

The rug cartoon is necessary for the production of perfectly symmetrical, highly intricate designs. There is no doubt that some of the most beautiful modern and antique rugs in the world are produced this way. However, for some, there is still an undeniable charm in those that are produced by tribal and nomadic cultures without the use of a pattern. Village weavers take a great amount of pride in their works produced according to the ancient customs of their people.

rug cartoon woman

A weaver references a rug cartoon.

Whether you prefer the formality and elegance of rugs produced using a rug cartoon or the rustic appeal of the tribal weavers is a matter of personal preference. Both have their own unique sense of beauty. Regardless of which you choose, the artistry of the designers and craftsmanship of the weavers will permeate the rest of the room, as these carpets have ability to transform a space into something magical.

We have carpets to suit almost every taste and style, from sophisticated to nature-inspired tribal designs. We encourage you to look and around and explore our collection. You just might find the perfect piece that you have been looking for to complete your room.

This rug blog about the rug cartoon was posted by Nazmiyal Antique Rug Gallery in New York City.

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