View Our Collection of Antique Souf Rugs: Weaving the Carpets of Kings
The antique Souf rugs are a special class to themselves and stand out as rare collectibles for those who are lucky enough to find one. These carpets use metallic threads and metallic wrapped silk threads in copper, silver, gold and other metals to create fine rugs that are specially made for royalty.
What does the term Souf mean?
The term “Souf” refers to a carpet that has both flat woven areas and pile areas. This creates an embossed design and texture that can be felt by the hand. Souf rugs are considered to be some of the most beautiful carpets in the world. They have colors and designs that will take your breath away and leave you awestruck.
About The Antique Souf Carpets
When you first look at a Souf carpet, you will know that you are looking at something special and out of the ordinary in Persian rugs. The first thing that will catch your eye is the use of metallic threads in combination with the sheen and brilliance of silk in saturated colors. A Souf has areas of flat weave and pile. Sometimes the areas of flat weave are brocaded and also contain a raised design. Either metal or silk can be used for the brocaded areas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a magnificent collection of antique Persian Souf rugs with brocaded areas and pile areas.
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Sometimes people will refer to Souf rugs as those with two different levels of pile areas, regardless of the technique. This use of the term can also include carpets where the pile has been carved to create an embossed design. Sometimes carved and Souf rugs may or may not involve metallic threads.
However, most of the time, Souf refers to those with metallic threads and flat weave or brocaded areas and pile areas, rather than carved carpets. It is important not to confuse them with Polonaise carpets, which refers to a different class of rugs which contained many antique rugs with metallic threads, but that does not have the “embossed” quality in the design. The use of vibrant color, heavy use of outlining and metallic threads come together to produce a carpet that is extraordinary and certainly fit for Kings and Queens.
These Souf rugs can contain wool and silk or be made entirely of silk and metallic threads. When wool is used, it is often the foundation of the carpet that will not be seen, but the silk will be used to create the rug knots and weft that will create the design.
These carpets were not necessarily intended to be used as area rugs on the floor but were typically hung on the walls of palaces or public buildings as a piece of art. Sometimes they are used in mosques and other places of religious importance. They are spectacular and were meant to inspire a sense of connection to the divine by those who experience their beauty.
Where Were Souf Rugs Produced?
Most Souf rugs were predominantly produced in Kashan, but you will also see some more recent ones from Qum at times. You may see them in a tiny group of Turkish rugs. Rarely you find them outside of these areas.
These areas were known for the production of exquisite and unique Persian carpets throughout history. They can include many traditional rug designs, including mihrab prayer designs, Persian vase patterns, pictorial rugs and other configurations. The Persian colors chosen are typically bright and vibrant, accented by the luminescence of metallic threads.
Souf carpets are known for their fine weave and high knot counts, often approaching 1,000 knots per square inch. These incredibly fine weaves allow the rug artist to produce a high level of detail and gives the fabric a soft texture.
Even though they were never intended to be handled and touched extensively, the qualities of the Persian Souf carpet with a high knot density are reflected in the visual impact of the piece. Only carpet weaving centers, such as Kashan, have the technology, skills and master weavers to create a carpet of this fine quality and artistry. The antique Persian Souf carpets were produced in the Royal workshops of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Kashan was a place of importance in the Iranian textile industry. It had access to high quality wool and silks that were produced locally. They were initially associated with the fine antique textiles of the Persian Empire, but they later shifted to carpet production as the market changed. This experience in textiles provided them with the ability to include techniques, such as brocading, in the production of Souf carpets. This brocading technique is “borrowed” from the textile weaving industry.
This combination of history and experience in textiles, and access to local materials, set the stage for the development of the Souf carpets. In the diary of John Chardin, who traveled in Persia from 1673 to 1677, Kashan was noted as the second city in the production of metal and silk rugs behind Yazd. Carpets in the 10 feet and over range are not uncommon in this area.
Initially, the wool used in antique Persian Kashan carpets were produced in the deserts surrounding the city, but later, a network for the import of fine Merino wool was established with Manchester, England.
Merino is a fine, soft garment wool, as opposed to the rougher wool typically used in weaving carpets. This access to materials and a highly skilled labor force were some of the factors that influenced the establishment of the workshop of Master Weaver Mohtashem in this city.
Souf Carpets of the Safavid Dynasty
The Golden Age of the Persian Arts began with the patronage of Shah Tahmasp I and Shah Abbas I. They established the court workshops to produce the textiles and carpets used in the court functions and buildings. In only a short time carpet weaving elevated from a cottage industry to a fine art.
Carpets produced by these court weavers were used as diplomatic gifts and to increase the status of the Persian rulers. Unfortunately, we do not have any of the early carpets produced still in existence, but we do have representations of rugs in paintings and other artwork.
It is estimated that approximately 2,500 to 3,000 carpets from the later Safavid period still exist worldwide. Among them are some incredible examples of those with combinations of brocaded flat weave areas, pile areas, and an abundance of metals and metallic silk threads. These are the category that we call Souf carpets today. We do not know when the first Souf carpet was produced, but it was more than likely during the later reign of Shah Abbas I.
In 1603, one of these antique Persian Souf carpets was gifted to the Venetian doge Marino Grimani to strengthen diplomatic relations. The production of Persian carpets brought great wealth to the Persian Empire. However, the creation of these fine carpets also brought a wealth of new weaving techniques, dye techniques, and innovative designs to carpet production. Many of the rug designs and patterns that are now considered traditional came into being during this period in history.
The carpets of the Safavid Dynasty reflected the world around them. The medallion rug designs were representations of the architecture and courtyards. The center of the medallion represents the reflecting pool at the center of the garden or grand entrance to the palace. The flowers and vines that fill the field and border are another reflection of the world around them.
The overall design is a Sufi influence, with the design mirrored horizontally and vertically, growing from the spiritual harmony at the central point of the carpet. The mirroring represents the reflection of the material and spiritual worlds. The inclusion of metallic threads is a connection to the light and brilliance of the divine. As you can see, the exquisite details of the antique Persian Souf carpets represent a connection to the sublime.
Creating A Souf Rug
Earlier, it was briefly mentioned that the term Souf could refer to any carpet that has higher and lower places in the pile, but this is a modern interpretation of the word. Now, when people talk about Souf carpets, they include those where the pile was created as a regular pile carpet with the pile even across the surface. Then areas are cut out or sheared much lower to give certain areas of the design an embossed appearance and texture, but these are not what is typically meant by an “embossed” carpet.
An actual embossed carpet is the result of careful planning and skill. These “carved carpets” are not the same and will bring a lower price in the market than a real woven embossed rug.
Let’s explore what goes into creating an actual Souf carpet.
The production of a Souf carpet combines two different techniques. It combines traditional hand-knotted pile weaving techniques and flat weaving techniques that are similar to textile weaving.
These are the only two techniques used in more recent Souf carpets. However, some examples from the late Safavid Dynasty also combined a brocade weaving technique and hand knotted pile weaving. These carpets that combine areas of pile and areas of brocade were worked on what is called a “drawloom.”
To create a Souf carpet on a drawloom, the process begins much the same as a pile carpet. The carpet consists of a row of knots that are secured by two or three rows of regular weaving. In a Souf, the knots are only tied on individual threads according to a pattern to create the pile portion of the design. If this were the only technique employed, the carpet would consist of raised areas of pile in a pattern and areas of plain, flat weave.
To create a brocade in between the pile design areas, a special weaving loom is used that contains the rug foundation weft but also incorporates an additional weft that carries the design. There is a foundation weft and a design weft. The brocade is created by “floating” the supplemental weft across the top of more than one warp thread.
The structural warp is necessary because the supplemental weft is for design only and does not add to the support of the carpet. This creates a design that has the appearance of a piece of embroidery.
Using areas of brocade between the regions of pile creates a three-level embossed design, rather than just two. Instead of only a high and low area of design, there is a high, middle and flat area of design. This adds another dimension to the design and allows for higher creative expression.
The drawloom is used to create brocade and was the primary technique used historically to create brocade textiles in China, Persia, Turkey, and Northern Italy. The combination of the pile sections into the brocade techniques is an invention of the Court weavers of the Shah Abbas I period. When this technique is combined with the use of metal and metal wrapped silk threads in this technique is what we now know as the Souf carpets of today.
The production of Souf carpets is complicated. The drawloom requires two people to operate. One person creates the pile and structural weft of the rug, while a second person works the secondary weft and creates the brocade areas.
When you incorporate the use of metallic threads, it adds another step in the process of creating the metal-wrapped metallic threads. Souf carpets are even more extraordinary when you have an appreciation for the incredible skill and sophisticated techniques that went into creating them.
We hope that you will enjoy our extraordinary collection of Souf carpets. We are sure that you will be amazed by their fabulous colors, designs and the visual impact of the metallic threads. We encourage you to attempt to see one in person because even the best photography does not do them justice. They are indeed an artistic marvel that must be experienced in person to be fully appreciated.
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