Saturday, 6 April 2013

The Alhambra And The Oasis Of Luxury That Was Moorish Spain

Interior of the Alhambra, Patio of the Lions
GRANADA, April 6, 2013 - What did the height of luxury in Europe look like in the year Colombus sailed to America?

It looked like the Alhambra, the last palace of a Moorish ruler in Spain.

Even today, the Alhambra takes visitors' breath away. It is an oasis of light and shadow, of white arches and honeycomb ceilings, of cool marble columns multiplied in reflection pools, and flowers and trees overflowing garden walls.

Imagine its sitting rooms strewn with rich carpets and pillows and it becomes everything its most famous admirer, Washington Irving, wrote in his 1829 book Tales of the Alhambra:

"The abode of beauty is here as if it had been inhabited but yesterday."

If the Alhambra is an abode of beauty, it is not by accident. The palace was the product of a culture of luxury in Andalusia that lasted from the Arab-led Moorish conquest of the Spanish peninsula in 710 to the final surrender of the Alhambra to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492.

Right from the beginning, the court culture of Moorish Spain sought to imitate and even surpass those of Damascus, Cairo, and Baghdad. The reason was in the origins of Moorish Spain itself.

Unlike many territories the Arabs conquered when the swept out of the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century, Spain at the time offered no opulent prize cities. Its previous prosperity as part of the Roman Empire had been destroyed in the barbarian invasions that brought down Rome itself and its comforts had sunk to the level of those elsewhere in medieval Europe.

Muslims in Iberia, from Tale of Bayad and Riyad 
So, when Arab generals led a horde of Berber tribesmen from North Africa across the straits of Gibraltar in 710, the challenge was to build a new civilization rather than merely adapt a pre-existing one to their tastes.

Their building efforts got a further impetus in 750 when the Umayyad caliphate that ruled the Islamic world from Damascus was overthrown by rivals who would found the Abbasid dynasty. As the usurpers established their new capital in Baghdad, a survivor of the Umayyad family fled to Moorish Spain to establish his own caliphate and vowed to outshine them.

By the tenth century, Moorish Spain had become one of the brightest stars of the Islamic world. Its capital, Cordoba, had over 300 mosques and innumerable palaces and public buildings, rivaling the splendors of Constantinople, Damascus, and Baghdad.

It also had one of the largest libraries in the world, with at least 400,000 volumes, and was a center for translating ancient Greek texts into Arabic, Latin, and Hebrew. Those same translations would later help spark Europe's renaissance by re-connecting it to its lost classical heritage.

At the same time, the great cities of Moorish Spain were comfortable. Cordoba was the first city in Europe to use kerosene lanterns to light its main streets at night. Many streets were paved. And rulers were not only patrons of the arts but led a courtly life with distinctly hedonistic tones.

One 11th century poet in Seville, Ibn Hamidis, writes of a drinking party where goblets of wine were floated along a stream to the guests who lounged along the bank:

"It is as it we were cities along the riverbank while the wine-laden ships sailed the water between us,
For life is excusable only when we walk along the shores of pleasure and abandon all restraint."

Almoravid Empire, 11th Century
Moorish Spain was wealthy because it was the European extension of a trade route that stretched from southern Morocco to the Niger valley near Timbuktu. Along it flowed camel trains bringing gold and free labor in the form of slaves -- enough of both to build magnificent cities.

The Moors introduced new crops into the Spanish peninsula, including rice, sugar-cane, cotton, oranges, lemons, limes, bananas, pomegranates, spinach, artichokes, and figs.

These exotic foodstuffs became part of Moorish Spain's profitable export trade, which also included luxury goods like ceramics, glass, and beautifully wrought leather and wood boxes.

In his 1992 book Moorish Spain, historian Richard Fletcher observes that the prosperity of Moorish Spain at its height can be gauged by the existence of a famed workshop for ivory carving in Cuenca during the middle years of the 11th century. He notes the ivory could only have come from as far away as East Africa or India, evidence of how far-reaching were the trade networks of the time.

But despite all these signs of prosperity, Moorish Spain was a fragile and tumultuous place.

That is partly because its was caught between two great forces. To the north were Christian states which grew more powerful with time. To the south were the Berber tribes from which Moors sprang and which eyed the riches of Andalusia enviously.

Yet the main reason the Moorish states were so weak was not just the strength of their neighbors but also their own constant infighting and calling in of outside forces to help fight their rivals.

Christian and Moor, Book of Games of Alfonso X, 1285
By 11th century, Moorish rulers were so regularly calling upon the Christian states of northern Spain to intervene that the most powerful Christian kingdoms like Castille and Aragon were in a position to demand tribute in exchange for protection.

Abd Allah, the ruler of Granada, has left this description of his negotiations of protection payments with King Alfonso VI of Leon-Castlle in 1075:

"Alfonso accepted my plea after much effort on my part and I finally agreed to pay him 25,000 (gold) pieces, half the amount he had demanded. Then, as presents for him, I got together a large number of carpets, garments, and vessels and placed all these things in a large tent. I then invited him to the tent. But when he saw the presents he said they were not enough. So it was agreed that I should increase the amount by 5,000 (gold) pieces, bringing it to a total of 30,000."

At the same time, Spanish and French kings were engaging in Christendom's first crusades to constantly push the borders of Moorish Spain southwards. Their crusades -- like the better known later crusades to Jerusalem -- were motivated both by religion and the chance to plunder or conquer the richer Islamic lands.

The danger from the south was no less. To relieve the pressure of the Christian states, Moorish Spain's beleaguered rulers called for help from fellow Moors in North Africa. But they often found themselves overthrown by their own Muslim allies.

This happened most famously at the end of the 11th century when the Almoravid empire, founded by a school of fundamentalist ascetics in North Africa, came to Moorish Spain to help, were appalled by its liberalism, and stayed to rule. They in turn were displaced by an even more fundamentalist group of aesthetics recruiting followers among the wild Berber tribes of southern Morocco, the founders of the Almohad empire.

Moors playing chess, Book of Games of Alfonso X, 1285
Writing in 1377, the Tunisian historian Ibn Khaldun sought to explain the rapid rising and falling of Islamic empires in Moorish Spain in terms of a larger political theory.

In his book the Muqaddimah, he observed that Islam's great empires were always carved out by barbarian tribes of conquerors tightly knit by religious conviction. Yet after their conquests created a great civilization, their sense of purpose was sapped by luxuries and rivalries, and they in turn became prey to a new tightly knit horde of barbaric invaders.

The influx of new Muslim conquerors from North Africa pushed back the Christian states for a while. But when these new empires, too, decayed, it proved to be only a temporary reprieve. By the 1400's, steady pressure from the north had pushed Muslim rule out of all but a slice of coastal southern Spain.

The most famous of the remaining principalities was the emirate of Grenada, the home of the Alhambra, which would become the last Muslim state to fall in 1492.

How did Granada hold out so long?

Much of the reason can still be seen today. The emirate was mountainous and extraordinarily well fortified, with a chain of castles built on the average just five or six miles apart along the northern and western frontiers. It also had enormous numbers of watchtowers all over its territory to serve as redoubts -- as many as 14,000 according to one contemporary historian, Ibn Khatib.

The Alhambra was a vast fortress itself, but with an inner world of refined luxury. When tourists visit it today, they go directly to those parts of the castle no visitor in the 1400s would see, the dwelling place of the royal family. But the complex also contained a military garrison, stables and workshops. 

The Alhambra fortress and palace complex
It was only after an eight month siege that the troops of the combined kingdoms of Aragon and Castille finally took Granada on January 1, 1492.

On the following morning King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella received the keys to Granada from the new puppet ruler they had just installed.

As Fletcher notes, it was a dramatic moment:

"Curiously enough, (Ferdinand and Isabella) had chosen to dress themselves in Moorish costume for the ceremony. Among those who witnessed it was Christopher Colombus, who was in attendance upon the court in his quest for royal sponsorship of his projected voyage of discovery into the Atlantic."

That day marked the end of Muslim rule in Spain. A new era was beginning in which Europe would become rich through its mastery of the sea and Moorish Spain would be but a memory.




Sunday, 24 March 2013

Spanish Rugs: When Spain Was Part Of The Islamic World

15th century Spanish"Admiral carpet

CORDOBA, March 25, 2013 -- Among the first oriental rugs to reach Europe were carpets woven in Europe itself.

Those rugs came from Moorish Spain, an extension of the Islamic world that once reached the Pyrenees and brought medieval Western Europe into direct contact with eastern art and culture.

From the first Arab-led invasion Moorish invasion in 710 to the defeat of the last Muslim kingdom in 1492, the Islamic presence in Spain spanned nearly 800 years.

During that time, the expanse of Muslim holdings rose and fell in contests with Christian powers, but major weaving carpet weaving centuries flourished for centuries in cities including Seville, Granada, Almeria, Malaga, and in the province of Murcia.

The carpets they produced furnished the luxurious palaces of the Moorish Spain but also were exported to other parts of the Muslim world and northward to Europe, where they were highly prized.

Often the carpets moved first to the Christian Spanish kingdoms in the north of the Iberian Peninsula. There they became part of Christian court life and moved further north to the castles of France, Italy, Britain and beyond.

Just when the Spanish carpet trade began is uncertain. But as early as the 13th century, when Spain’s rug industry was fully developed, writers were already speaking of it as long established.

Spain under Umayyad califate in 8th century
A poet named al-Shakundi, writing in Cordoba, long the capital of Moorish Spain, notes that rugs made in Murcia, were already being exported to foreign countries a full century earlier.

When Eleanor of Castile, the wife of Prince Edward of England, arrived in London in 1255, chroniclers noted that rugs, presumably from Murcia, were ceremoniously displayed in the streets and at her lodgings at Westminster.

And even today, in the Palace of the Popes in Avignon, one can see a fresco from the first half of the fourteenth century that almost certainly depicts a Spanish carpet.

Who wove the Spanish carpets and what did they look like?

The weavers are generally believed to have been Moors, the Berber population of North Africa, and were part of a skilled artisan class in direct contact with contemporaries in other parts of the Islamic world.

The weavers were both aware of, and much influenced by, trends in the other great Islamic art centers of the time, including Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad, and catered to a courtly culture that was largely the same across the Islamic world.

The emphasis was on luxury and classical elegance but also novelty and designs were freely exchanged between the fields of architecture, book illumination, and textile production as artistic trends came and went.

Here is a photo of the interior of the famous mosque in Cordoba, whose construction began around 784 to 786. 

Not surprisingly, earlier Spanish carpets or carpet fragments show the geometric forms associated with early Muslim art.

They include six- and eight-pointed starts, circles, triangles and cartouches and, often, borders with religious inscriptions in highly stylized and geometric Kufic script.

But in the fifteenth century, Spanish rugs changed dramatically.

By that time, the powerful kingdoms of northern Spain had pushed far to the south in their centuries-long effort to evict the Moors from the peninsula.

The important rug weaving center of Murcia fell into Christian hands and the Moorish weavers who stayed worked for European masters interested only in the European market.

The change created one of the most distinctive features of Renaissance-era Spanish rugs: their odd proportions. They are usually very long in proportion to their width, suggesting they were deliberately woven for the long, vaulted halls of churches, monasteries, and castles.

One thing European noble families desired most was carpets that could serve as highly personalized status symbols. Specifically, they wanted carpets that displayed their own family coat of arms in center field, in the place where a medallion usually might be.

The Spanish rug industry responded to the demand by producing “armorial carpets,” a curious hybrid product that was both Western and Eastern at once.

Mildred Jackson O’Brien describes armorial carpets nicely in her 1946 work, “The Rug and Carpet Book:”

“Fifteenth century rugs show western heraldic emblems and coats of arms curiously combined with Oriental decoration. Birds and animals begin to appear, floral forms, and a more rhythmic flow of line. This is probably the greatest period of Spanish rug weaving. Often there are many elaborate borders and the field is divided into diamond-shaped panels or covered with large wreaths or circles. The influence of Italian Renaissance silk and damask patterns with their pomegranates, acanthus leaves and ogee panels is apparent.” 

Interestingly, the angular stylized birds and animals that appear in the Spanish carpets of this time recall similar figures in early Anatolian rugs.

Another rug expert, M. S. Dimand, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, notes that Anatolian animal rugs were clearly well known in Spain, as evidenced by the fact they appear in several paintings from the mid-fifteenth century.

He notes that among the Muslim element in some of the armorial rugs is “an inner border with a lozenge diaper containing a swastika – a motif that may be found in Anatolian rugs of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.”

Such eastern elements often competed for space in the border with bears, boars or wild men in a tree landscape that were clearly elements of European inspiration.

Among the oldest surviving rugs of this kind are the "Admiral carpets," so-called because their fields are overlaid with the coats-of-arms of the fifteenth-century admirals of Spain.

But there are indications the practice of commissioning carpets bearing owners' blazons originated still earlier, with some inventories mentioning such rugs even in the fourteenth century.

The Admiral carpets are surrounded by three to seven borders and on some carpets the human figures even include women in low-cut European-style dress.

Apart from armorial carpets, the Spanish looms also produced a group of geometrical rugs often called Spanish Holbeins and whose field is divided into large squares enclosing octagons.

The rugs are named Holbeins after the early sixteenth European painter Hans Holbein the Younger because they closely resemble a type of Anatolian rug he depicted in a number of his paintings.

Dimand notes that the Spanish Holbein’s design “recalls Eastern Islamic marquetry decorations of wood and ivory,” again showing the cross-borrowing between different fields of Islamic art so characteristic to classical rug design.

It is perhaps inevitable that Spain’s Moorish weavers, once isolated from the rest of the Islamic artistic world by the Christian Reconquista, would eventually lose their creative momentum.

The fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – known as the Mudejar period to refer to Moorish craftsmanship under Christian authority – produced many handsome rugs.

Among them are the so-called Alcaraz carpets, called after the city of the same name, which were unabashedly European Renaissance in their style. Here is an example of an Alcaraz rug, available from Nazmiyal Collection in New York,

But by the end of the seventeenth century the last of the Moorish craftsmen had departed and Spain’s oriental carpet era came to a close.

What’s left for us to enjoy in museums across Europe is a legacy of weaving that tells one of the carpet world’s most dramatic stories.

It was a time when part of Europe became part the Muslim world, and then part of the world of Islamic art became part of Europe. And it was the beginning of a long history of cultural exchange that continues today.


Saturday, 10 November 2012

Turkey's Sarabi Rugs Fill In For Banned Persians From Iran

November 10, 2012 – Is it time to begin looking for alternatives to Persian rugs woven in Iran?

If you live in the United States, the answer is probably yes. The US ban on importing rugs from Iran has now been in place for two years.

And as long as political tension between Washington and Tehran stays high, the ban isn’t likely to end soon.

Meanwhile, the stockpiles of new Iranian rugs that dealers can sell – those rugs they had in inventory before the ban started in September 2010 – is running out.

So, finding any particular style you want can be difficult, if not impossible.

Fortunately, however, there are ways around the problem.

One is to look for substitutes among the many excellent Persian rugs that are woven outside of Iran itself. That is, rugs from countries with a long tradition of weaving Persian styles or incorporating Persian design elements into their own weaving heritage.

Among those countries is Turkey, which, along with Iran, is one of the world's two highest quality rug producers.

At the top of this page and on the right are two examples of Persian Heriz-style rugs woven in Turkey.

Both, known as Turkish Sarabi Rugs, are available from ecarpetgallery, a leading North American on-line store based in Montreal.

The classic Heriz style shown in these two rugs has always been one of most popular types of Persian carpets in North American homes.

For many rug lovers, the geometric, four-lobed medallion in their centers is an iconic symbol that instantly conjures up images of stately Victorian homes with luxurious carpets on the floor.

Historically, Heriz rugs are woven by the Azeri-speaking Turkic inhabitants of the northwestern Iranian city of Heriz and its surrounding towns.

A particularly famous subgroup of the rugs were those woven at the turn-of-the-last-century in the town of Serabi and known on the rug market as Serapi.

 Since then, Serapi – also spelled Sarabi – has become a term for describing the finest Heriz rugs in general. And it is that name that Turkish producers use for their Heriz carpets, too.

Turkish-produced Persian carpets can be very expensive, just as are their Iranian counterparts. Indeed, Turkish and Iranian-produced carpets command the highest prices in today's global rug trade, followed at some distance by those produced in India and China.

But some major distributors are able to sell the Turkish-produced Persians at highly affordable prices. They do so by dealing in enormous volumes, which allows them to cut out middlemen and, increasingly, by operating on-line to keep showroom costs to a minimum.

For those looking for still more affordable Persian style rugs, one can move from Turkey to India, which produces many hand-tufted versions of Persian designs.Here is an example, again from ecarpetgallery:

In hand tufting, the weaver pushes wool or a man-made yarn through a matrix material using a hand-held pneumatic gun.

The technique is faster than hand-knotting, so the rugs are less expensive. Yet the tufting method still creates a durable rug which, when produced by a skilled craftsmen, can accurately depict even intricate designs.

No-one today can predict how long the US ban on Persian carpets produced in Iran will stay in place. But it is useful to look back at a similar, earlier ban to get some perspective.

 In October 1987, at height of Iran-Iraq war, then president Ronald Reagan prohibited the importation and exportation of any goods or services to and from Iran, including carpets.

The embargo lasted a full 13 years, until 2000. That embargo did what the current ban is doing again now: causing both rug producers and buyers to think about alternatives.

The last ban stimulated producers in many countries to make Persian-design rugs for the US market. In the process, some beautiful pieces were produced.

And that helped convince many rug buyers that how a rug looks on the floor can be just as important as where it was woven.




Sunday, 14 October 2012

New Era Afghan Rugs: From Ikat To Suzani To Persian Tribal

SAN FRANCISCO, October 15, 2012 -- What's happening with Afghan rugs?

In recent years, the range of styles Afghan weavers are exploring has exploded.

And, with the quality of weaving high and the use of natural colors and hand-spun wool frequent, that means a whole new world of rugs to enjoy.

Just consider these examples:

- An Ikat rug (photo above) inspired by Central Asian ikat tie-dye designs.

- Or a Suzani rug inspired by Central Asian embroidery traditions (photo below).

These, plus spirited reproductions of Persian town and village rugs like Bijars and Herizes, are all part of the ongoing renaissance of Afghan rug weaving.

They are available from Nomad Rugs in San Francisco.

The return of Afghanistan as a notable rug producer is taking place as parts of the country are stable despite the violence elsewhere and weavers who were formerly refugees have returned home.

Now in both Kabul and in the North – the homeland of age-old weaving populations like the Turkmen – weavers are creating an astonishing variety of pieces despite what remain difficult production conditions.

We talked with Chris Wahlgren, who trades in the best of the new Afghan rugs, to learn more about what is behind them.

Wahlgren, the owner of Nomad Rugs in San-Francisco, sees the new rugs as the latest chapter in a long and fascinating story.

It's the story of how Afghan weavers have been able to repeatedly re-invent themselves over the past three decades as their own lives have been repeatedly turned upside down.

The three decades of turmoil began with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and continue today with the war on the Taliban.

Here is a photo of a new Afghan Bijar carpet. It is available from Nomad Rugs in San Francisco.

 Before 1979, Wahlgren notes, Afghan weavers were almost entirely focused upon the traditional Red Rugs of Central Asia, that is, the traditional designs of the Turkmen and neighboring weaving population's of the region.

"In those days, it was any size as long as it was red," he says.

But with the Soviet invasion, and the flight of millions of people to refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran, everything began to change.

Particularly in Pakistan, with its direct links to the Western market, huge numbers of refugees turned to weaving rugs as a way to stay afloat.

And to connect to the market, they began to innovate.

 Some of the refugees' first innovations were not very successful as they tried to directly compete with Pakistan's own domestic production of large and finely-woven Pak-Persian carpets.

Whereas the Pak-Persians were in bright colors, the Afghans wove theirs in the darker brown colors they themselves preferred.

The results were somewhat gloomy looking pieces the Pakistani traders dismissively called "Kargali," meaning camp, carpets and which are forgotten today.

But the Afghan weavers kept experimenting.

They produced Khal Mohammadi rugs with non-traditional Turkmen-inspired designs, Kazaks with Caucasian-inspired designs and, more recently, Ziegler-Chobis with Indo-Persian inspired designs.

All were successes on the international market.

Here is a a new Afghan with a Persian Luri tribal design and below is one with a Khotan design. Both are available from Nomad Rugs in San Francisco.

One reason for the success, particularly of the Chobi carpets, was the refugees' willingness to return to the labor-intensive traditional practices of using natural colors.

That put them at the forefront of what is still a relatively new trend in the rug business and something which many customers like but not all carpet makers are ready to try.

Wahlgren says that much of the credit for introducing Afghan weavers to the natural color revival goes to Western rug dealers who promoted it in the refugee camps in the early 80s.

Those dealers included Chris Walter and others who were personally familiar with the pioneering DOBAG natural-dye project in Turkey and believed it could give the refugee market weavers a market edge.

 Today, some Afghan weavers remain in the Pakistani camps while many others have returned to Afghanistan. And in both places, experimentation has become central to Afghan weaving culture.

The weavers' links to the international market are assured by hundreds of Afghan-American rugs dealers in the West who track and suggest styles for the weavers to try.

But one thing that has not changed for Afghan weavers is the difficulty of letting the rest of the world know who weaves the beautiful pieces they produce.

That is because almost all of their production continues to go to Western markets via the port of Karachi, where it is labeled for export as a product of Pakistan.

The "Made in Pakistan' label is put on the work of Afghan weavers still in Pakistani refugee camps because they are physically in Pakistan. And the work of weavers in Afghanistan gets the label because a lack of facilities there means their rugs usually are still washed and trimmed in Pakistan.

Here is a photo of a "rug truck" taking Afghan carpets to Pakistan.

The photo is provided by Wahlgren received it from a contact in Afghanistan.

So, how can customers know an Afghan rug from the many other competing rugs on the market from Pakistan, India, China and elsewhere?

 Wahlgren says that dealers today increasingly highlight the Afghan rugs' origin because it is a positive selling point.

The dealers point to the value-added that comes from the careful work Afghan weavers do based on their own centuries-long tradition of weaving and the esteem carpets hold in their culture.

But there is something more.

Unlike in many more stable rug-producing countries like India and China where large rug workshops are the rule, much Afghan weaving is still done at home.

"In Afghan rugs, you often can feel the weaver's personality," Wahlgren says. "Their rugs feel more handmade and not mass-produced."




Friday, 21 September 2012

Vintage Scandinavian Rugs And The Intimacy Of Modern Design

New York, September 22, 2012 – When one thinks of regions of the world with a long history of hand-woven rugs, Scandinavia may not be the first place that comes to mind.
But Scandinavian rugs not only have a centuries-old history, and some fascinating links to Oriental rugs, they also currently are much sought after by interior designers.
The renewed interest focuses particularly on vintage rugs woven in the 1920s through 1970s. That was a time when Scandinavian weavers attracted international recognition both for their pile rugs (called Rya) and flat-woven rugs (called Rollakan).
The Scandinavians did so by experimenting with abstract designs while continuing to weave with traditional methods – producing rugs that simultaneously offer the appeal of both the old and the new.
Above is a photo of a carpet designed by renowned Swedish weaver Marta Maas Fjatterstorm. Below is another by the same designer. Both are available from Nazmiyal Collection in New York.
We asked Jason Nazmiyal, whose New York-based Nazmiyal Collection specializes in antique rugs, why vintage Scandinavians are suddenly back in demand.
Interior decorators, he says, see the rugs as the perfect compliment to the wave of nostalgia that is now sweeping the design world for the styles of the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s.
Those decades, whose style is increasingly referred to as "mid-century" modern, was characterized by maximum experimentation with Minimalism.
The result was bold and striking furnishings and decors, but not necessarily cozy and comfortable living environments.
The vintage Scandinavian rugs woven during those times offered a solution to the contradiction. They were modern in design but rich in texture and color.
"They draw a room together," Nazmiyal says. "They can transfer a sparse and minimal space to cozy and luxurious without changing the overall style."
He notes that one of the reasons the rugs have that power is that their creators were schooled in industrial design but, at the same time, were rebelling against too much industrialization. So, they created their own unique style that combined Modern and Art Deco with the warmer, more human influences of their own folk art and regional history. 
The results can range from whimsical to dramatic, with no two rugs the same. And because all the rugs were woven not so long ago, the names of the weavers who created the best pieces are all known. That gives the rugs a still greater sense of personality.
Here is a Swedish Rollakan, available from NazmiyalCollection in New York.
Nazmiyal, who has personally traveled to Sweden to learn more about the rugs and acquire top pieces, can reel off some of the key names behind them.
Among the most famous are Elsa Gullberg, born in 1886 and one of the earliest Swedish textile designers connected to the modern design movement; Ethal Halvar Andersson, now a nonagenarian; Marta Maas Fjatterstrom, who got her start at a regional Arts and Crafts Fair and later attracted the patronage of Ludvig Noble, the brother of the founder of the Noble Prize; and that is just to name a few.
Many of the women went on to train others as apprentices and to found workshops, some of which continue today.
Below is a Finnish Rya with abstract circles and lines. It is available from Nazmiyal Collection in New York.
But if the renewed interest of interior decorators in the rugs of the 1920s to 1970s suggests that this period is all there is to know about Scandinavian rugs, that would be a mistake.
Behind the vintage rugs is a whole history of rug-making that goes back hundreds of and contains plenty of surprises.
No-one knows exactly when pile weaving began in Scandinavia but the earliest known examples were not rugs but sleeping blankets. They were woven to take the place of sleeping furs, which had been used since time immemorial but have the disadvantage of being hard to wash.
Interestingly, the earliest regional pile weavings date to around the same time Scandinavians would have become acquainted with rugs in the Orient. That was in the Middle Ages, when Vikings were routinely sailing down the Volga to Byzantium on trading expeditions.
One of the earliest surviving oriental rugs in Europe, in fact, was found in Sweden in 1925. It is the Marby rug, named after the abandoned provincial church where it was found cut into two pieces and long forgotten.
The Marby rug, shown here, is one of the so-called animal carpets from Anatolia which are depicted in Italian paintings of the 14th century. The animal carpets reached their peak of production and export to Europe in the early 15th century and then disappeared toward the end of the 15th century.
Nazmiyal believes that Scandinavians may have taken their inspiration for pile sleeping blankets from Anatolian "Yataks," which share the same characteristics and function. If so, it would be another unexpected link between East and West that underlines again how much is shred within the world's textile culture.
What is certain is that over time Scandinavians' use of shaggy rugs went from sleeping on the pile and decorating the back of the textile to flipping them over and using them as bedspreads with a decorative pile. Eventually, the bedspreads moved to the floor and became rugs.
Tracing all the design changes in Scandinavian pile and flat weaves is impossible to do here. But, in broad terms, things moved from originally simply working the owner's initials into striped geometric designs, to patterns with crosses to, around 1690, Baroque floral patterns.
Over the centuries, the use of highly decorative pile bedding rose to the heights of becoming a status symbol for the nobility in Sweden before losing that esteem in the 17th century and becoming popular as folk bedding instead.
By the time the Scandinavian rugs reached our ea, they had absorbed so many design influences, including from formal Western art, folk art, and imported oriental rugs, that they developed – and continue to develop – a rich vocabulary of their own.
It is that rich design vocabulary, their use of a broad color palette, and their ability to compliment a wide range of styles that brings vintage Scandinavian rugs back into our homes today.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Bijar Rugs And The Art Of Persian Town And Village Weaving

BIJAR, Iran; July 15, 2012 -- When one thinks of Persian carpets, one usually thinks of two ends of a spectrum.

At one end: intricately crafted workshop carpets. At the other: spontaneous tribal carpets.

But most Persian carpets lie between these poles and are distinct from both.

They are the carpets produced not in city workshops or nomads' tents but in towns and villages. 

The weavers, often working at home, range from a single person to a small group and together they form a vast cottage industry.

Usually the weavers are women weaving part-time to supplement their family income. But there is nothing informal about their work. 

Their skill level is so high -- and so consistent over generations -- that their towns and villages are internationally famous for the rugs they weave.

One of the best-known examples of town and village weaving are Bijar (or Bidjar) carpets, produced in the Kurdish town of Bijar and neighboring villages in northwest Iran.

At the top of this article is a Bijar with a drop repeat pattern. It is available from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.

Bijar carpets first appeared in Western markets during the 19th century and were particularly popular in America. They could be found both in homes and in public spaces, such as university common rooms.

One reason for their widespread popularity was their durability. The weavers made them so strong – so tightly packed and heavy -- that they were nicknamed the "Iron Rugs of Persia." That also made them especially appealing to men, who regarded them as a masculine choice for dens and studies.

How the weavers made the rugs so durable was no accident. They put three wefts between the rows of knots, and one of the wefts was not only thicker than the others but sometimes as thick as a pencil.
That makes the rugs so stiff and heavy they can barely be folded. They have to be rolled up for storage.

The success of Bijar rugs – which continues today -- tells much about what historically made Iran's town and village rugs so successful in general.

Each of Iran's famous weaving locales traditionally has something characteristic about the way its rugs are made. The difference is often in the technique of the rug's construction or the use of colors and it makes the rugs recognizably native to an area.

But what most town and village weavers don't do is limit their rugs to just a few patterns or designs.
They may have a traditional repertoire of patterns peculiar to the village or locality, but because they are weaving commercially they do not restrict themselves to only those.
As rug experts Murray Eiland and Murray Eiland III note in their book ‘Oriental Carpets – A Complete Guide’:
“Any of the popular Persian designs of the nineteenth century, except for types specifically associated with nomadic tribes, can be found on Bijars.” That includes Herati, Mina Khani, Floral Arabesque, Harshang, Weeping Willow, and simple Medallion forms, just to name a few.
Below is a medallion Bidjar carpet with a Herati pattern. The Herati pattern was the most popular pattern among weavers throughout Persia in the 19th century. The carpet is available from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.
Often, the designs on town and village carpets seem traceable to the designs on city workshop carpets.
So much so, that many experts think that local weavers take their main inspiration from this source and that tribal designs have only a minor influence.
But where town and village rugs differ dramatically from city workshop rugs is in how they interpret patterns.
Whereas workshop rugs are filled with swirling lines and curves, town and village rugs simplify the curves by making them more angular and rectilinear. The result is a bolder look that make town and village rugs something all their own.
The angular stylization of town and village rugs is part inspiration, part necessity.
The weavers, who are not full-time professionals, have neither the expertise nor the time to do the high knot-count weaving that creates minutely graded swirls and curls. So they modify the designs accordingly.
There are other differences, too, in how town and village rugs are woven compared to workshop rugs. One of the most interesting is how the weaver learns the pattern she or he is using.
In professional workshops, patterns are usually drawn by artists and given to the weavers in the form of a ‘cartoon.’ The cartoon, drawn on grid paper, shows the pattern of the rug knot-by-knot, so the weaver has a guide to follow no matter how complicated the pattern gets.
But town and village weavers have traditionally worked by copying another rug, instead.  When there was a new pattern to learn, it would be transmitted to the weavers in the form of a sampler rug that contains examples of all the motifs in the design.
The sampler rug, called a wagireh (or vagireh), may show both the field and border patterns for the carpet, as in the photo above. This sampler from the 19th century is available from Nazmiyal Collection in New York.
Wagirehs can vary widely in size.
If the carpet to be woven frequently repeats its elements, a small wagireh is enough to show the weaver ‘one repeat’ of the pattern.
But if the pattern continues to change for a long time before it repeats, a much larger sampler rug is needed. Thus some wagirehs can be as large as 9 x 5 feet (2.7 x 1.5 meters).
Perhaps not surprisingly, wagirehs themselves have become collectors’ items in recent years. One reason is that they have become rare as rug companies today mostly commission rugs by giving local weavers paper cartoons instead.
Here is a picture of another wagireh, available from Nazmiyal Collection in New York.
Through the centuries, town and village weavers have proved to be more than just highly skilled weavers. 

They have also provided a depository for weaving skills that might otherwise have become lost in the ups and downs of the workshop carpet industry.
Just that happened when Persia’s court-sponsored workshop system collapsed during the tumultuous period that followed the end of the Safavid dynasty in 1722. The workshop virtually disappeared until the revival of the Persian carpet industry again in the 19th century.
Eiland and Eiland note that during that time – when export of Persian rugs to foreign markets stopped and most of the rugs sent to Europe were Anatolian – the weaving that continued in Persia was only “at a modest level to meet local needs.”
That modest level was the ongoing work of Persia’s cottage industry, whose rugs only became known to the West following the explosion of foreign demand for Persian carpets in the second half of the 1800s.
The explosion of foreign demand not only brought Persia’s dormant workshop industry back to life, it sparked an enormous export of town and village rugs to the West, too.
Ever since, town and village rugs have provided the bulk of Persian carpets in Western homes.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Silk Carpets And The Story Of The Silk Road

PRAGUE, May 15, 2012 -- There are few things in this world more mysterious than silk carpets.

More than any other kind of rug, they conjure up images of ancient luxury from distant lands, of camel caravans and the Silk Roads.

But in reality, very little is known about where silk carpets came from – or even whether they ever traveled the Silk Roads at all.

The reason: silk is not only the most luxurious of weaving materials, it is also the most perishable.

So, like the ephemeral nature of beauty itself, they exist for only a time before taking their secrets with them.

The oldest surviving silk carpets are from the 16th century, where they were woven in the Safavid court of Persia. That was a time when the Silk Roads were already giving way to increasing sea trade between Asia and Europe and the modern era was beginning.

Above is an antique silk carpet woven in Tabriz, Iran, in the last century. Below is an antique silk Khotan rug from East Turkestan. Both are available from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.

Whether silk carpets were woven before these oldest surviving examples is a question that continues to fascinate experts.

Many think they must have been, because silk has bewitched mankind and been woven into fabrics since the very earliest times.

Yet it is equally possible that silk carpet weaving did not begin until carpet weaving itself reached its greatest heights under royal patronage in the 16th century.

That was when rulers across the Islamic world vied to outshine each other by creating the most splendid objects in court workshops without regard to difficulty or cost.

As one expert, Jon Thompson, notes, both the difficulty and cost of weaving silk carpets were far greater in earlier times than today.

And that could suggest that no weavers other than those in court workshops would have been able to undertake it. Thompson writes in his book Silk, Carpets and the Silk Roads (1988):

"The silk carpet is in a class of its own in terms of the specialization involved in its production. For a start an enormous amount of silk is required, it must be dyed by highly skilled professionals, the looms have to be built to a standard appropriate to the fineness of the carpet to be woven, and so on."

The reason silk carpets particularly appealed to royal courts despite the difficulty was that they combined a number of extraordinary qualities at once.

For one, the knot count that weavers could achieve with fine silk threads was far greater than could be achieved with wool.

That allowed the depiction of much greater detail in carpets than before, including in naturalistic scenes.

Here is a carpet woven in Turkey's famous silk-weaving town of Hereke depicting Istanbul in stunning detail. It is available from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.

At the same time, silk could be used entirely to weave a carpet or to provide highlights to a wool carpet, in either case bringing a texture and sheen that could not be achieved with any other material.

But most of all, it was the "richness" of silk – its millennia-old association with wealth and luxury – that made silk carpets undisputed status symbols for any court which wove them.

Those courts included not just those of the Safavids but famously also the Mughals in India, the Ottomans in Turkey, and the Mamluks in Egypt.

To fully appreciate the richness associated with silk can be hard today, when we are used to seeing silk cloth mass produced for clothes, as well as many synthetic imitations.

But a quick review of just how strange a substance natural silk is, and how rare it once was, can bring back the feeling.

Silk appears to have first fascinated people for both its unusual source – insect cocoons – and its translucence when it is woven into a sheer fabric.

The classical Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote:

"The process of unravelling … and weaving a thread again was first invented in (the Greek island of) Cos by a woman named Pamphile, daughter of Plateus, who has the undoubted distinction of having devised a plan to reduce women's clothing to nakedness."

Cos (or Kos), in the Aegean Sea near the coast of Turkey, was a major early producer of silk, which was obtained by gathering cocoons abandoned by silk worms after they metamorphosed into moths.

The cocoons, broken open when the moths exited, provided broken strands of silk that could be spun into thread.

But demand for silk really took off after ancient China discovered the secret of cultivating silk worms so that the cocoons could be collected before they were broken open.

That allowed later unraveling the silk thread that forms the cocoon the same way the silk worm had originally woven the cocoon, with a single unbroken filament up to a kilometer long.

Here is a picture of the cocoons of the silk worm, or Bombyx mori.

The caterpillar weaves its bird-egg sized cocoon with a weblike filament excreted by a spinneret on its lower lip.

The construction begins with attaching the web to twigs and then moves inwards as the caterpillar twists its body round and round to fully enclose itself over the course of several days.

When producers in China spun thread from the unbroken silk filaments, the quality was vastly superior to anything before.

The thread, and fabrics from it, created enormous demand across Eurasia, including in ancient Rome.

Pliny writes that the Roman Empire spent vast amounts importing silk from the East via the trading routes that today we call the Silk Roads.

So much so, that the Roman Senate eventually forbade men from wearing silk in hopes of at least confining the demand to women, but to no effect.

Interestingly, as much as ancient Rome valued its silk imports, it had no idea precisely where they originated. The Romans simply described it as coming from a land they called Seres and which they imagined to be at the end of the world.

Thompson gives this explanation of where the word Seres might have come from:

"The term probably does not even refer to China itself but to a region of the Tarim Basin, in Chinese Turkestan or Sin-kiang (Xinjiang), through which silk passed on its overland route to the West. The last stop on this route before the mountains, Kashgar, formerly called Sarag, may be the origin of the word Serica. If this is so, it underlines how little the Mediterranean world knew of China."

Here is a picture of the kind of silk fabrics that traveled the Silk Roads.

The road also carried, in reverse, Roman glass to China, which would not discover the secret of clear, colored glass until 424 AD.

Eventually, China's secret of how to cultivate silkworms leaked out to Japan in the 4th century and Persia in the 5th and 6th century, creating major silk industries in both places.

As knowledge of the technique spread, the supply of silk goods became ever less of a problem yet the demand for silk, and inventive new forms of silk weaving, has remained high right up to our own times.

The question of when silk carpets first joined the list of silk luxury goods may never be resolved.

But today they continue to provide one of the most popular ways to include silk in home decors and enjoy the sense of luxury and mystery it imparts.