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Antique Carpets

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THE most convenient coverings of couches and floors would in early days be the easily procurable skins, the products of the chase. The use of the spinning wheel was one of the peaceful arts, and involved the expenditure of much labour. In early days the floors of the houses of the common people were of beaten earth or clay, and must have been cold and damp. In Anglo-Saxon times sand scattered over the surface was deemed a sufficient covering, but there was no warmth about it. Then came the " unmade " carpet of strewn rushes, which served until Tudor days, when wooden floors were first introduced. It is said that the Spanish envoys who came over before the arrival of Eleanor of Castile brought with them woven floor coverings, and from that time onward it would appear that the wealthier English nobles favoured woven floor cloths, at any rate for state purposes if not for common use. When Cardinal Wolsey furnished Hampton Court (the Tudor portion of the Palace) he bought sixty Damascus carpets. In those days Englishmen were dependent for their supplies of luxuries upon shipments from the East, and the art of weaving carpets had not then been taught to English craftsmen.


Very beautiful indeed were the carpets worked in eastern countries, where the art of weaving had been known in quite early times. Although the carpets which we deem antiques today are not contemporary with those brought over by Cardinal Wolsey, they are sufficiently old to create admiration at the advanced art of the Persians and other eastern peoples who have so long excelled in textile weaving. In eastern countries, from whence so many of the beautiful antiques come, carpets and rugs were originally used for sitting and reclining upon, one of their most important uses on the floor being when their owners knelt in prayer. The earliest importations of antique rugs to this country, and to the chief continental cities, were for the purpose of adorning ecclesiastical buildings, and they were placed before altars in churches, and subsequently in front of chairs of State.

The carpets of ancient Egypt which have been studied by learned authorities are said to have been woven like modern textiles with woollen threads upon linen strings. The chief beauty in these rugs is the wonderfully effective admixture of colours, and the almost barbaric designs which, although so difficult to follow, produce such remarkable effects. Some of these oriental rugs were grand in their conception and in the materials of which they were composed, like the tapestries of Baghdad " inwrought with gold and silver threads." Such carpets were copied by European high-born dames in mediaeval days who worked rugs and throne carpets, and emblazoned them with heraldic designs.

Even still old carpets which have been used in oriental countries as prayer rugs are collected and brought over after long journeys by caravan routes. " The arts of eastern nations," says a writer on the subject, " have been valued in this country (England) from the days when Phoenician traders landed on the shores of Britain, and tempted British women to buy art draperies."

The villages around Smyrna are searched yet for choice rugs and carpets, but the choicest Persian rugs come from Tebriz, where they are collected from many villages, each of which is noted for some special peculiarities in the products of its looms. There are Muskabats, Guevends, Kurmans, Sorouks, Mossouls, and Hamadans, most of them having seen service as prayer rugs and carpets.

The existence of fine Chinese rugs was almost unknown until the demand of collectors caused energetic agents to search for them, with the result that quite a number of sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and eighteenth-century rugs of the Ming and Keen - lung periods were brought to light. Many of these textiles were the work of weavers in Eastern Turkestan, and have done service in ancestral shrines, temples, and monasteries. Another delightful class of textile fabrics consists of Kashmir embroidery and curtains, many of which are reproductions of old Jacobean needlework ; to these must be added some gaudily embroidered Persian covers for ottomans and cushions.


The collection of carpets acquired by the first Duke of Montagu at Boughton, and shown recently at the Victoria and Albert Museum, illustrates the varieties of woollen pile carpets of oriental makes with which furniture collectors can enliven their antique furniture galleries. In that collection are several carpets from India, probably of early seventeenth - century make. In one of these the palmette pattern is on a red ground, the border consisting of palmettes and flowers on a deep greenish - blue ground. Another handsome carpet of Persian design presents a bold pattern of conventional floral stems and cloud forms, mostly in yellow, blue, and green on a red ground, flanked by a narrow inner border with a counter-changed cresting in pale blue and yellow, a second border consisting of a repeating leaf and flower pattern in colours on a dark green ground. A Persian seventeenth-century carpet of very remarkable design shows strong Chinese influence. The design consists of panels containing fine figure subjects, such as a falconer on horseback, a standing figure giving drink to another, three - seated figures, peacocks and phoenixes, and other devices. The back, which is red, is covered with lions, tigers, stags, and goats, intermingled with trees and foliage. The most prominent features of the border are intertwining dragons on a dark blue ground.

In this remarkable collection of oriental carpets and rugs is a heraldic carpet, obviously woven specially in Asia Minor, bearing date 1584. The pattern consists of panels of deep blue on which there are floral stems, and upon three lozenges the arms of Montagu. In this famous collection are included woollen pile rugs, some bearing dates in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Some were woven in Asia Minor, others in Persia. Those from the latter country in silk, gold, and silver are in arabesque patterns with leafy ornament upon a blue ground. A few embroideries exhibited along with this collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum included old bed hangings, and some seventeenth-century curtains of woollen rep, together with covers of quilted silk and wadded applique designs.


The continental weavers were famous for their art productions, French weavers early gaining a reputation, especially so those who worked the looms set up at the Savonnerie works under the direct patronage of Louis XIV., as the result of an invention of two French-men, Jehan Fortier and Pierre Dupont, who claimed to be the originators of a process enabling them to make carpets similar to those woven in Turkey. Not very long ago some of these carpets were loaned by the French Government to the authorities of the Victoria and Albert Museum, where they were on view for some months. Among those shown were many examples taken from the old palaces in France. It was at the Savonnerie works, which were founded in 1626, that so many carpets were woven for French kings. The method of producing those wonderful carpets has been compared with the building up of a mosaic by an arrangement of coloured cubes, which in the carpets are represented by the tufts of wool. The method is described in detail by an expert as follows : "Parallel warp threads were first arranged close together on the framework or loom, upon them the outline of a pattern was then roughly sketched. A weaver had near at hand a large cartoon showing the details of the pattern and the colours to be employed. He made the knots by hand on the warp threads, interlaced with the warp at right angles during the progress of the work. The pile produced by the knots was afterwards cut to an even level."


The story of the Flemish weavers who came over to this country and taught Englishmen how to make the most of their native products has often been told. They were successful in planting an important industry in England, and most of the carpets used as floor coverings when antique furniture, such as was made in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, was used, were mostly made under their direction, or as the result of their instruction. The first impetus was repeated again when Flemish weavers settled in England, and received charters in 1701, enabling them to profitably make carpets at Axminster and Wilton. Some famous carpets were made in those towns ; Whitty, of Axminster, and Jeffer, of Frome, came into notoriety as the result of weaving carpets as large as 27 ft. by 17 ft.

Efforts were made to establish weaving in several places. The Mortlake factories were used chiefly for tapestries. In 1751 one Peter Parisot established a pile carpet school in Fulham, and many French weavers worked there. Brussels carpets, so-called, were introduced into Kidderminster by a Belgian weaver about 1750, the fabric being very heavy. The distinguishing marks were the same as in Brussels carpets to-day. They were formed of a ground and pile warp, the ground warp being made up of two sections, a small chain or linen thread and a " stuffer" warp of jute. Brussels pile warp is of two, three, or more layers of worsted thread, and in commercial parlance the varieties denoting quality and texture are described as 3-frame, 4-frame, and 5-frame; the higher the quality the greater number of frames. A Wilton carpet is described briefly as a Brussels with the pile loops cut to form a velvet face. Indeed the Wilton pile is but a replica of a velvet pile, the older carpets being all cut by hand.

Needlework carpets had some encouragement in the eighteenth century, when an effort was made to improve textile arts, and the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce offered premiums in 1758.

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