Persian – or Oriental or any kind of hand-knotted rug – are made employing varying techniques, the most usual using the Persian or Turkish knot to build up the design row by row. Rugs are made this way from Eastern Europe through Turkey, the Caucasus, Iran and in almost all the countries on the road to China.
Weaving rugs by hand has been a practical, as well as beautiful art form for at least 5,000 years, and as far as we know, through conjecture, hearsay, and scant concrete facts, has remained unchanged in the basic process.
Many rugs are what we categorise as Tribal or Village and are often woven from memory, the designs, colour, and sizes having been made over decades or centuries. Therefore, the first step of designing is not necessary, unlike the City/Workshop rugs, which have a higher knot density which demand much more detailed motifs. Rug designers draw one quarter of the rug on graph paper to a 1:1 scale which is then reduced to another ‘cartoon’ for the weavers to refer to as they tie each knot by hand. Many now use computer software instead of hand painting. Alternatively, the knot arrangements are written in a code which the weaver reads, or a master weaver chants
Traditionally, before the invention of manmade chemically derived fibres, the raw materials for rugs grew with silkworms or on the backs of sheep, camels and goats.
The wool is cut to a yearly date, depending on what quality is needed. There is a very fine yarn derived from an early Spring cut which is sold at a premium for use in the highest quality rugs. As with so many tasks in Asia still, the washed wool is sorted by hand before spinning. Hand spun wool is used for rugs demanding less finely twisted fibres, so if seen in Tribal and Village rugs for the most part.
Now dyeing can take place. Ever since the discovery of the art of imbuing materials with colour the precise ingredients and process has been a closely guarded secret, handed down from father to son and all within the framework of Guilds. These master Dyers, respected and well paid members of the community, knew how to extract colour from a vast variety of plants, roots, leaves, petals, bark, animals, and minerals to mix with fixates to create glorious colours. (See next Blog on Colours). In 1872 the process of making chemically derived colours from coal tar was discovered, leading to the adoption of cheaper and less light resistant dyes. However, today manmade or artificial dyes are excellent in the round, but it remains to be seen if they will mellow as beautifully as vegetal versions.
There are two types of looms – horizontal and vertical. The former, also called ground looms, were and still are utilised by nomads practising transhumance across Asia- although many of the tribes have been forcibly settled by governments wary of their independence and fighting prowess. They are cheap to make, light to transport and require no upright wall or heavy frame. Today we see the almost complete dominance of vertical looms which enable larger, more detailed rugs to be made.
The weavers use three knot types – the Turkish, Persian and Tibetan (see Blog 4) – to build up the rug, one row of knots after the other. Cheaper ways to make rugs are to use a handloom, hand-tuft, or power loom. A hand-knotted rug can take from 2 weeks to 2 years to complete, depending on the size and number of knots needed in each square metre to realise the complexity of design. Once completed it is cut from the loom.
Now the rug is secured at the end with final locking weft threads the sides are given a wrapping around two or more warp threads to give the rug the outer strength for durability. On lower quality rugs the sides, or selvedge, are pre-made and simply sewn onto the rug.
The rug has a large amount of excess material, dust, and general dirt trapped within it so is put in a large revolving metal drum to allow all this detritus to gall out. Now the rug is ready to have its rather vague and woolly pile cut to a uniform length to reveal the design. This is a highly skilled job, traditionally performed with large and very sharp steel scissors but now done with power clippers.
The penultimate stage is washing, which is performed by hand using soap and lots and lots of water. The rug is repeatedly soaked and the excess water driven through and out by paddles.
The washing and clipping stages are interchangeable, and it depends on the preference of the manufacturer as to which is done first. Now you can see the many processes of rug making I hope you agree it is still an inexpensive artform.