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Oriental Rugs: MaterialsBy Charles W. Jacobsen
( Orginally published 1951 )
Sheep's wool is the principal material of all Oriental Rugs. The nap in over 95% of all Oriental rugs is of sheep's wool. The other 5% (perhaps less than 5%) is camel's wool, silk and goat's wool.
The warp and weft of most Persian rugs have always been cotton. In fact, all the finely woven Persian rugs from time immemorial used cotton warp and weft as it permits a more closely woven rug. Only the Nomad tribes used wool for warp. These comprised only a fraction of the rugs from Iran (Persia). That is an unimportant point, since the nap is the part of the rugs that takes the wear, but we mention it because so many people become frightened when they notice the cotton warp. Of course, that is due to their lack of knowledge of Oriental rugs. Long before cotton ever came to America, fine Persian rugs used it as a base and one had only to look at the ancient rugs in museums to learn this. The Kirmans, the Sena, Kashans, Feraghans, Hamadans, Sarouks and most the other Persian rugs have always used cotton warp. Only the Kurdistans, which included the Shiraz, Bahktiaris, Mosuls, Bijars, Suj-Bulaks and one or two others ever used woolen warp. The old Turkish rugs, the Caucasian rugs, the Bokharas and other rugs from Central Asia did use only the woolen warp until about 1930, when most of them began to use the cotton warp. THE ADVANTAGE ACTUALLY LIES WITH THE COTTON WARP OVER WOOL AS WARP. It permits a more finely woven rug. The rug with the woolen warp has a tendency to wrinkle and to not lie flat, especially after being washed. Linen and silk have occasionally been used as warp.
The question of warp is of minor importance as compared to the quality of wool that goes to make up the pile of the rug.
The quality of an Oriental rug is based primarily on the quality of the wool and in a very old rug on the pigment with which it is dyed. Good wool means longer life and a more beautiful natural patina. Also, the fact that the wool is spun by hand-the raw wool is not torn into the smallest threads in a willowing machine as in most machine made rugs - makes for durability.
Wool in different sections of Iran varies greatly. In the desert and dry lands the sheep do not grow the thick heavy crops that the sheep of colder mountainous districts and the well - watered plains of Northern Iran grow. Also, the shearing and sorting of wool is an important item, since the quality varies even on the same animal. Sheep's wool and lamb's wool also vary greatly in quality. Wool is actually modified hair. Each fiber contains certain cells. As seen under the microscope, a wool fiber has a diameter from about 1/280 inch in the lowest quality to about 1/2800 inch in the finest grade. We might put it in a different way and say the length of the fibers are long or short and the long fibers being the finest quality.
The weaving of a rug starts with the setting up of the warp on two horizontal poles- then the insertion of horizontal lines of weft through alternate strings of warp to form what is known as a selvedge; then the actual weaving of a row of knots, followed by another line of weft. This is repeated over and over. The women, boys and girls sit in front of a loom and, day after day, tie thousands upon thousands of knots with marvelous patience. If you have seen the hands of so many of these Iranians, you would appreciate that they are an artistic people and how it is that many beautiful things come from Iran. Most of them have such thin, long, intelligent looking fingers.
In large rugs the two large wooden uprights of the looms are set up about ten feet in length and extending between these uprights is a heavy horizontal beam and a corresponding heavy lower beam - the latter may be raised or lowered. Weavers, usually three or four to a large rug, sit upon a stout plank raised from the ground. The weaving is done from below upward and, as the body of the rug increases, the plank is raised accordingly.
About the only other equipment used is a pair of shears for cutting the wool and trimming of the nap evenly, and a sort of heavy comb for beating the knots and the cross threads. There you have all that is mechanical in the making of a rug.
The looms may be small portable looms that the roving Nomad tribes take about with them and set up in front of their tents, or the small to sizable looms that the individuals have in their homes.
Most of the large size rugs brought to America today are made in so called factories. They are still all hand made. Some of the wool maybe spun by machinery and the cotton warp is probably machine made, but the knots are all hand tied and there are no difference in methods from hand made rugs of hundreds of years ago except that the making of the rug is more closely supervised. In the large weaving districts in and around Sultanabad, Hamadan, Tabriz, Kirman and Meshed, there are many of these so called factories. The main difference in the factory made rug lies in the fact that the wool for one rug will usually be on hand when the rug is begun, and thus there is less chance of the many changes of colors that occurs in so many rugs and to which the beginner or novice objects.
These factories will have a number of large looms where one master weaver, or Mirza, supervises. There may be several rugs of the same design being woven at the same time-usually three or four weaver working on the one rug at the same time. The master weaver, or big Mirza, actually paint entire designs in the exact colors which the weavers are to use. Assistants, or little Mirzas, will paint the actual working patterns, copying the enlarged sections of the design on paper of which each square stands for a knot or fixed number of knots. The minature design in colors is given to the weavers. Most of the weavers are familiar with designs used but this is an additional safe guard. Technically speaking, the rug is not woven -- it is tied.
We show a black and white picture of this in this booklet. The October 1951 issue of National Geographic shows a number of pictures in color of rug weaving in a factory in Iran.
Yes, a factory in Iran will probably have a windmill that has come all the way from the United States, since water is a scarce material in many sections of Iran. So, in a rug factory in Iran, you will find no whirring machinery, but only imposing rows of big popular posts which contain the warps of a loom. The only other material in a rug factory is the narrow wooden platform on which weavers squat or sit and which can be raised as the rug progresses.
No machines have yet been invented to tie the knots that these clever Iranian fingers tie. And, if and when one is invented, the Oriental rug will no longer be an Oriental rug, but will then be no more than our domestic machine made copies that we make in America.
But only a hand made rug can ever be called a real Oriental Rug. A machine made rug will be too regular to have the beauty and the art of an artistic hand made rug where each and every similar design in the same rug has some variation from the adjacent similar design.