Hands at the Loom

By Jan David Winitz, President & Founder

Upper: Kurdish mother and her child at a horizontal loom as she prepares the weft threads, testing them for even tension. Lower left: Persian Qashqai, 3rd quarter, 19th century, with the design at each medallion’s center replicating the iron four-pronged plate that sits over a nomadic fire for cooking. Lower right: Young Qashqai girl tending a lamb. All newborns were carried on migration.

Imagine yourself a small girl living in a Kurdish encampment in the mountains of Azerbaijan. The constant activity of the nomadic lifestyle is fascinating for you to watch, the numerous daily tasks of milking the goats, grinding wheat into flour, or carrying water up from the stream. Yet one activity is the most enchanting of all: when your mother takes her place in front of the long horizontal loom to weave.

Her fingers move deftly, effortlessly as she ties knot-after-knot out of the brightly-colored wool. Her body moves rhythmically back and forth as she secures a row of newly formed pile by pounding in horizontal weft threads with her long-handled comb. And very slowly as you watch, as days and weeks go by, a woolen garden begins to take form. Intricate geometricized flowers appear as your mother works on, chanting a continual melodic tune in harmony with the movement of her hands and body at the loom.

Upper: Sheep on migration toward summer pastures, their fleeces newly shorn to withstand summer temperatures of the higher elevations. Lower left: Kurdish, circa 1875, showcasing this tribe’s love affair with joyful colors. Lower right: This beautifully paneled Edwardian home is the perfect backdrop for a top-tier collection of antique Caucasian rugs.

From Turkestan on the east, across Persia to the Caucasus to the northwest, the tribal weaver was a master of several complex skills. First of all, she was a supreme craftsperson who could tie a knot every five seconds to create a 4×8 rug which would contain some 700,000 knots. As well, she was a sensitive shepherd and a magician at the ancient method of vegetal dyeing. Most importantly, she was a genuine artist, whose dexterity of harmonizing color and design was unsurpassed.

Caucasian Karachov Kazak, circa 1860, a High-Collectible tribal rug presenting an original rendition of age-old motifs.

Creating the finest weaving materials is synonymous with following the rugged nomadic lifestyle. Many tribes throughout the rug-making world traditionally went on lengthy semi-annual migrations, allowing their sheep to graze for a few short months on the rich grass of the highest mountain meadows. The result of the combination of this rich feed and the mild summer temperatures produced “mountain oily wool,” the most resilient and lustrous in the world. The mountain Kurdish and Luri tribespeople of Persia were known for producing wool of especially high quality. 

The making of a tribal rug took a level of patience and love of physical activity which is unknown to us. The amount of care taken in preparing the wool for weaving had a dynamic effect on the finished product. The newly-shorn wool was first washed thoroughly and then sorted for length and quality. It was carded or “teaseled” to separate and fluff the fibers before being spun. On nomadic migrations, the women were often seen spinning as they rode, a drop spindle in one hand and one or more whorls in the other.

Left: Producing the yarn that becomes the pile of a tribal rug begins with shearing sheep of their fleeces. Right: Each fleece weighs 7-10 pounds and its wool is sorted for different uses. The shoulder wool, being the longest, is kept for knotting yarn.

Left: To protect the lanolin content in the fiber, tribal weavers did not use a “degreasing element” when washing the shorn wool. Right: An elderly Turkoman tribal woman spinning very fine yarn from carded wool with a drop spindle.

Caucasian Bidjov Shirvan, circa 1850, presenting an exceptionally lively, balanced design with three mounted horses.

Finally, the wool was ready to be dyed, an art form that was as highly developed and fascinating as the knotting of the rug itself. The great majority of tribal dyes from the 1800s and early 1900s came from natural vegetal and mineral sources and were obtained only through the lengthy gathering and boiling processes. The bold reds for which tribal carpets are known were often produced from the roots of madder, a spindly bush which grows in the clay soil throughout the rug-weaving areas. Dried yogurt powder was sometimes added to soften the color into lighter hues. The deep blues came from the leaves of the indigo plant and were only extracted after a difficult fermentation procedure. It took over 100 pounds of indigo to produce a mere four ounces of the precious indigo tin dye. 

South Persian Arab Khamseh, circa 1850, presenting this tribe’s signature grand medallion and infused with a glorious color palette.

Other dyestuffs included ground henna root or the prized cochineal beetle for the deepest reds, pomegranate or the rare saffron for yellow. To create green, the tribespeople often employed the extremely time-consuming process of over-dyeing yellow wool with indigo. Rich dark brown coloring was obtained from the hulls of walnuts. Camel brown was created by boiling together pomegranate skins with the outer shells of acorns. White was the easiest color to create, as it came from the sheep’s wool left undyed.

Left: Persian Afshar, 2nd quarter, 19th century, a supple gem, its clear colors glowing with the patina of tremendous age, celebrating the boteh or “Seed of Life” design. Right: Caucasian Moghan, 4’ 2” x 6’ 2”, 3rd quarter, 19th century, exemplifying the limitless spirit and spontaneity occasionally reached by weavers of this tradition.

A Caucasian Triple Medallion Kazak contributes great warmth and harmony to this inviting sitting room.

Just as the tribal weaver employed many materials she gathered locally as dyestuffs, she also used not only wool but other available materials for weaving. Certain tribal groups preferred to use cotton rather than wool for the rug’s foundation. Often, nomadic weavers, notably the Baluche, wrapped the sides of their rugs with strong threads made from the hair of their goats. Sometimes camel’s hair was used undyed, adding a magnificent golden-brown color to the carpet’s field. 

Upper left: Detail of one of our “walls of yarn” in our Restoration Studio, highlighting the subtle variations of vegetally dyed woad. Upper right: Woad, that yields a lemon yellow color, grows throughout the Oriental rug weaving regions. Middle left: When nomads settled, the men often took over the dyeing process, here stirring a vat of madder dyed yarn. Lower left: Dye pots and the dyeing process are an age-old part of almost every culture. Lower right: Harvested indigo from which the leaves will render numerous hues of blue.

The descendant of a millennia-old tribal people of great historical import and a rich, highly admired rug tradition, this little Turkoman girl plays on her toy loom.

Left: This Southern Persian Afshar mother will someday pass on to her baby girl the unfathomable set of skills required to weave an Oriental rug. Right: Detail of a circa 1850 main carpet from the Beshir subtribe of the Ersari Turkoman people of Central Asia, known for their exquisitely woven, supple weavings.

For the most part, the art of tribal weaving was handed down from the looms of mothers to those of their daughters. It was a tradition transmitted solely through oral and visual means. The elaborate designs of a particular tribe were learned by repetition from an early age and could be executed entirely from memory. No plan of the complete carpet was drawn out beforehand and it was understood that the weaver was free to interpret the traditional patterns spontaneously. This was an art form that literally unfolded as the weaver worked day-after-day for periods often spanning over one year.

Left: South Persian Qashqai, 3rd quarter, 19th century, capturing an indomitable, joyful observation of nature expressing the nomad’s perspective. Upper right: Commonly seen in tribal rugs, goats with their unpredictable personalities add entertainment on the trail. Their milk is preferred to this day in Iran over milk from farm-raised animals. Lower right: Kurdish nomadic woman breaking camp, packing different sizes and shapes of handwoven bags that carry everything from salt to bedding.

A view the weavers would have enjoyed of the star-filled sky above 15,453 ft Ushba Mountain in the Caucasus upper range.

The key ingredient to the weaving process was inspiration, and the weaver’s nomadic lifestyle provided an ample supply. The nomad artist was blessed with an intimate connection to the rhythmical flow of nature. For her, each day was a complete unit unto itself. She experienced the first rays of morning sunlight in full activity, as she was already in the midst of her daily chores. A multitude of stars blanketed her camp each evening as she sat near the fire, drinking spiced tea and listening to age-old stories. 

Caucasian Karachov Kazak, circa 1850. Examine its continually changing motifs closely to plumb its complex, resonant and balanced design that evolved over several months, perhaps woven between summer and winter migrations.

The nomad had full opportunity to study the multiple layers of the earth’s landscape, to watch the bees busily gathering pollen, to witness a trickling brook swell into a furiously rushing stream after a sudden rainstorm. The cumulative impression of all these daily experiences provided the material which she expressed in the rugs she wove.

What makes tribal carpets truly unique is that they are a sort of visual diary, and as we learn how to read their symbolic language, we are rewarded with an intimate view of both the rugmaker’s experience and that of tribal life as a whole.

Left: While passing on migration a towering cliffside such as this in the northern Caucasian province of Dagestan, a sensitive weaver would no doubt be inspired to portray its magnitude in her rugs. Right: A female “Icarus” butterfly lands in an Iranian field of flowers, another natural influence for an artist weaver.

Persian Afshar, a minimalist ode to the butterflies that decorate each of its medallions, with colors remaining clear over one and a half centuries from a process of letting wool sit in a cold dye bath for over a month.

Throughout tribal weaving, whether the particular design is from the Qashqai, Turkoman, Kurdish, Caucasian or other tribes, the various aspects of the human experience are expressed through a universal, earth-oriented symbolism. For instance, the zigzag pattern of “running water” flowing across a rug’s borders marks times of spontaneity and plenty, while the repeated triangular pattern of “the Mountain” depicts periods of stability and contemplation.

The bounty of the earth often decorates the central field of tribal rugs. Rows of stylized flowers are seen, perhaps resembling fields of enchanting blossoms implanted in the weaver’s memory from the previous spring. The paisley-leaf-shaped “boteh,” which resembles a seed sprouting, reflects the artist’s respect for the creative force of life. Embracing a lifestyle more than two millennia old that found meaning in daily actives spent close to the earth, tribal people collectively looked at the seed as reflective of their own potential for inner growth.

Left: A wildflower, the Wild Clove, sharing the same spicy fragrance as its sister, the cultivated carnation, seen here grows throughout Europe and the Middle East. Right: Detail of an expressive Qashqai Long Rug with an elegant main border portraying the boteh design with a complete plant inside each one.

Left: Close-up of a Persian Afshar, circa 1875, depicting a field of wildflowers, with all the individualization and color shifts seen in nature. Right: Oriental poppies here growing on the slopes of Mt. Damavand in Iran near the Caspian Sea were another flower that the weavers depicted in their rugs.

…One day, as you sit beside her, your mother is finished. She silently cuts off the balls of yarn dangling from the carpet’s end, stands up and steps back a few paces. After eyeing the completed rug for a brief moment, she again kneels down and expressionlessly begins to cut the loops that have held it to the loom.

Gently, she stretches the newly completed rug out on the ground, and for the first time, you sit on it, feeling its uncut pile seemingly alive beneath your body. Your mother takes her iron shears, squats beside you, and bending down close to the carpet supporting you both, begins to cut its deep red pile close and smooth. As her body finds the new rhythm of cutting, she once again begins to sing.

Left: Detail of Persian Bakhtiari “Bibibaff” or “Grandmother’s weave”, late 19th century, so named to indicate that such fine knotting and pinpoint detail work was only achieved after many decades of weaving. Right: Elderly Qashqai weaver working on a rug several yards long, undoubtedly a major work for her.