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.