By Jan David Winitz, President & founder
Claremont Rug Company
PART 2 of 2
READ PART 1 Here
In Part One, I introduced Camelhair rugs, a little-known subgroup of antique Persian carpets that has always been extremely popular among Claremont clients. I also covered at length the two villages accounting for the greatest number of these luxurious pieces, the Northwest Persian village of Bakshaish, the creator of magnificent, evocative room size carpets, and Serab, a major center for runners and corridor carpet weaving.
In hues from blonde to chocolate brown, undyed camel hair imbues an immediate earthy quality to a rug’s aesthetic, that speaks, I believe, to a subliminal part of us that yearns for connection to the natural world. To this day, Camelhair rugs have escaped proper appreciation of their contribution to the panoply of antique Oriental carpets, because they were a minor part of the oeuvre of a small number of weaving centers.
Camels in Kurdish Material Culture
The tribal people are quite enamored of camels whether they wove with their wool or not. In some cultures, camels were symbolic of wealth and happiness — wealth for tribal people being of a very practical nature. A Bactrian (double-humped) camel can carry 450 pounds for over 30 miles a day, and can go without water for a week, losing up to 30% of its body weight in the process. A family’s flocks of sheep and goats in a drought year may starve to death, but the camels will survive.
In appreciation of their camels, Kurdish tribespeople fashion harnesses draped with elaborate tassels for them. The Turkoman tribe have a special peaked weaving called the “asmalyk” that follows the contours of the one-humped camel, a pair of which are woven by a bride for her camel ride in her wedding procession. The Southwest Persian Qashqai know each of their camels individually, and also very occasionally used their undyed wool as the base color for their rugs.
A camel’s coat, shed each spring, weighs about 25 lbs. The undercoat’s fleecy wool has been compared to cashmere but is as strong as wool. Since the 17th century it has been used in camelhair coats, and much longer for rugs. The long strands of a camel’s overcoat also provided the material for nomads’ black tents. Today it is an important element in industrial fabrics for machine beltings and press cloths. In fact, camel hair is a commodity to be invested in.
The Kurdish are a massive, widespread tribal weaving group and some of their subtribes used camel hair in addition to wool in their carpets. They were woven on the Town, Village, and Tribal levels. Kurdish Camelhair rugs have a spacious, relaxed quality about them, their designs often presenting large areas of this natural warm brown wool. Diamonds or hexagons are major devices, although they draw beautifully expressive allover fields of boteh, the sprig-and-flower motif that is associated principally with Kurdish carpets, and a rare Garden of Paradise format. Color palettes tend to be wide and soft- to mid-toned; the presence of remarkably stable and various yellow dyes is another indicator of Kurdish work. In neutral hues, often unpredictable and unabashedly uncomplicated, especially those rugs from tribal variety, Kurdish Camelhair pieces slip easily into many spots in the Western home.
The most formal, finely woven Kurdish Camelhair carpets were woven in the alpine market town of Bijar, situated 270 miles southeast of Tabriz. The town of Bijar and the surrounding countryside are populated mainly by Kurds, whose artistic sense and culture is clearly seen in the region’s grand antique carpets. Bijar Camelhair rugs often present grand visual presentations, with majestic medallions featuring broad anchor or rosette pendants extending at either end. Most often, the medallion sits on a wide expanse of undyed camel hair that is completely unadorned except for the texture created by a delicate abrash of the natural camel color. They were woven on a sturdy wool foundation, creating a particularly heavy, incredibly durable fabric.
The large village of Malayer 150 miles south of Bijar and its surrounding smaller neighbors was the final major Camelhair carpet weaving enclave. Throughout the 1800s, it was known for its exceptionally finely woven carpets. Although the all-wool carpets from Malayer are often imbued with adaptations of Persian formal design characteristics, their camelhair work is geometric and reflect tribal aesthetics.
Like Serab, Malayer rugs offer muted damask-like patterns formed from camel hair on undyed ivory sheep’s wool underlying larger chromatic motifs. Of all Camelhair rugs, Malayers are typically the most soft-toned and subdued. Until the last two decades of the 19th century, dark blue was employed sparingly, creating a panoply of subtly impactful, delicate drawn pieces in all shapes and lengths, including occasional palace-sizes.
One of my favorite parts of a charming indie-style documentary called “The Story of the Weeping Camel” chronicled a nomad family living near the Gobi desert. One day the mother needed some rope, so she asked her husband to bring her some camelhair. He grabbed a long knife and went outside to where their camel was tethered and neatly wacked off a hank of its long hair which he handed over to her. This scene was just backstory to the main events, but I was struck how integrated the luxurious fiber was in the tribal peoples’ lives.
Living with Camelhair rugs affords us the enjoyment of the exotic material close up, how it reflects the sun’s rays, how varied are the shadings, how earthy is its ambiance, and how easily it assimilates into a décor.