Hands at the Loom (Part 2)

By Jan David Winitz, President & founder 
Claremont Rug Company

Part 2 of 2 Parts  |  Read Part 1 Click Here 

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. 

In Part 1, I examined a number of steps that lead to the actual hand-knotting of a carpet, involving the preparation of the wool from cutting the sheep’s fleece to creating yarn. I briefly described the skills needed for shearing, carding, sorting, spinning and dyeing. Each step of preparation could be an article in itself.  

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.