Hands at the Loom
By Jan David Winitz, President & Founder
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
…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.