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If there is one thing Iran is known for around the world, it is undoubtedly

its carpets. Persian carpets (many of which are actually made by non-Persian

peoples in Iran) represent one of the most distinguished and distinctive

manifestations of Iranian culture and art. Hand-woven Persian carpets are

among the most treasured possessions of homes, offi ces, palaces, and museums

throughout the world. Because of their high market value, these carpets

have also been treated as an investments—ones that can actually be enhanced

by time and use. To indicate the increasing value of an object with time,

Iranians often use the expression, “It is like a Persian carpet: the more it is

walked on, the more it gains value.”

Many motifs, patterns, and traditional colorations found in rugs that are

produced in many countries today have either originated in or been infl uenced

by motifs and patterns used in Persian carpets. In general, Persian carpet

designs have been inspired by nature, history, religion, and myths. They

may use fl owers, trees, natural scenery, historical and mythological characters,

Persian poetry and calligraphy, and religious symbols and stories. For

Iranians, a carpet with images of Persian kings, legendary or historical, as well

as representations of verses from Shâh-nâmeh or other books represents an

object of identity demonstrating their glorious past. Carpets are not just an

item for export or a piece of art, but an intrinsic part of the culture. Carpets

are used as fl oor coverings, prayer mats, and decorations for homes, offi ces,

palaces, and shrines. They have become an indispensable part of the living

environment for Iranians.


Persian carpets are famous for their variety in design, color, size, and

weave. Moreover, they are known for the uniqueness of each and every rug

produced. This uniqueness is the basis on which the quality and value of

a rug are determined. The less frequently replicated the design, the more

valuable the carpet, demonstrating the originality of the colors, materials,

weaves, and circumstances under which it was produced. Another basic factor

in determining the quality of a carpet is knot density, or the number of knots

per square inch—more knots indicate fi ner work, better quality, and a higher


Throughout Iranian history, the art of carpet weaving has changed, each

change further enriching techniques, designs, and the quality of the carpets

produced. Handmade carpets have warp (thread running the length), weft

(thread running the width), and pile (knots, which may be made of silk,

wool, or cotton). Traditional looms are usually made of timber, but newer

ones are now sometimes constructed of steel. Although weaving method

varies according to the design, in general weaving involves passing the

crosswise strings of the weft under and over the lengthwise strings of the

warp on the loom. After making several knots, the weaver levels the wefts

with a heavy range comb. The threads of warp and weft are generally made of

cotton, but sometimes wool and seldom silk. The pile is often colored strings

completely woven into the carpet like a basket. Each twisted pile threaded

into the warp is called a knot. There are two types of knots: Persian (also

called Senna) and Turkish (Ghiordes). The names associated with these knots

have no connection to geography or ethnicity. Both types of knots are used

in carpet weaving in Iran. In the Persian knot, the pile thread forms a single

turn about the warp string, while in the Turkish knot, it is taken around two

adjacent warp strings. The Turkish knot is symmetrical and works better for

geometric designs and is very common in tribal rugs, whereas the Persian

knot is asymmetrical and lends itself better to intricate designs found in

luxury carpets. Piles are often dyed wool, cotton, or silk. In earlier times,

colors were made from fl ower and vegetable dyes, thus giving carpets unique

colors associated with plants existing in each region.

The words carpet ( farsh or qâli ) and rug , often used interchangeably, need

to be distinguished. The major distinction referred to in the literature is the

difference in the size and pile. However, according to A. Cecil Edwards, an

authority on Persian carpet, this is a European distinction and should not

be confused with the American one. In the United States, such distinction

is based on the unity of the piece. A rug is a single piece usable in different

settings, irrespective of fl oor size. Carpet is a stripped textile fl oor-covering

matched and cut to the length of the room. As for the size distinction, any

hand-woven fl oor covering larger than 6.5 feet is defi ned as a carpet and less

than that as a rug.

Some gelims— another word used in reference to small rugs (in Turkish,

kilim )—are actually quite large. Another difference distinguishing the two

is the absence of pile in gelims. Gelims are coarse, thin woolen rugs without

any pile or knotted fl uff. Another term sometimes confused with gelim is

zilu. While gelim is made of wool, zilu is made of cotton. Zilu is a durable

and inexpensive fl oor covering often used in rural town and village mosques.

Though the art of zilu weaving was strong in Iran, especially in Maybod, it

has declined recently, and it is hard to imagine how zilus can compete with

newer products in the market.

Finally, it should be mentioned that an Iranian household may have

several rugs at the same time: more expensive ones for the guest rooms,

cheaper ones for the family rooms, and smaller ones for the doorways. In

religious families, the one rug that is cared for meticulously is the prayer

rug. Small in size, this rug is reserved only for prayer time in order to

ensure that prayer is performed on a clean rug. Some families sanctify their

prayer rugs by taking them to holy sites such as Mecca, the Imam Rezâ

Shrine, etc. Some very dedicated believers even carry their prayer rug while

traveling. Traditionally, prayer rugs had simple designs containing fl owers,

calligraphy, and mosaics. In recent years, there has been a conscious change

in the design of prayer rugs incorporating elements from scenes of holy

sites, especially Mecca.

Carpets made in different regions and by different tribes often refl ect the

culture and lifestyle of those people and regions. While carpets produced

by small producers in rural areas are often of lesser quality and complexity,

those produced by carpet factories or rural people in hire of big producers

are of higher quality and more sophisticated designs. Even the availability

of botanic resources in an area infl uences the kind of materials and colors

used. One form of simple tribal rug was made more familiar to Westerners

after the 1997 release of the internationally acclaimed fi lm, Gabbeh , by

Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbâf. Gabbeh was a cinematic poem that

truly refl ected the beauty of simple tribal designs woven with love, hope,

anxiety, and pain. A gabbeh is a triple hand-knotted wool rug with deep

color, more wefts, and longer fl uff. Some dictionaries considered the name

synonymous with another Iranian long-plied rug called khersak . Such rugs

are often woven without a predetermined design by tribal women who

incorporate their own taste and imagination into the rugs. Their designs

are simple and geometric, containing a few pictures of an animal, bird, tree,

or fl ower. Historically, they were made for personal use in nomadic tents.

However, in recent years, they have attracted Western consumers’ attention

and as such they have become more elaborate, containing scenes of rolling

hills and colorful fl ower fi elds.

Carpets are generally named after the village, town, or district where they

are woven or collected, or by the weaving tribe in the case of nomadic pieces.

For instance, carpets known as Baluchi represent those produced by the

Baluchi tribes of eastern Iran (or western Afghanistan), and those called Sâruq

refer to carpets either made in or with designs originated from Sâruq, a small

village in central Iran. These names can also refer to the particular pattern,

palette, and weave uniquely linked to the indigenous culture, or to weaving

techniques specifi c to an identifi able geographic area or nomadic tribe. It

should be noted that although each of these designs (Afshâri, Bakhtiâri, etc.)

started with its own unique features, in the course of time they have come

to be synthesized by other elements and innovative variations. For instance,

the Bakhtiâri nomads often combine fl at weave and pile weaving in the same

piece. Or one may fi nd a Kâshân city carpet that uses either material or design

elements of Tabriz carpets. The tremendous innovation and creativity found

in the industry resists generalities and makes it hard for any description to be

taken literally.

Tribal and nomadic carpets are usually smaller and coarser because the looms

must be portable as nomads move seasonally from one area to another. Their

dyes are also relatively strong and vivid with much broader palettes. Different

tribes and nomadic groups have developed different designs and techniques

of producing rugs. For instance, typical Afshâri carpets have medallions,

either geometric or fl oral, and typical Bakhtiâri carpets are fi lled with fl ower

and tendril motifs within geometrical compartments (called kheshti design).

The styles and designs employed in tribal carpets show many infl uences. For

instance, Shâhsavan carpets are very similar to Caucasian carpets. The Qashqâis

make carpets out of wool and, being descendants of the Shâhsavans, decorate

their carpets with styles very similar to Shâhsavan designs. The Afshârs use

Turkish patterns but also borrow from Kermân city-woven carpets of Safavid

style. Carpets made in Lorestân have bronze tones and broken cross patterns.

Baluchis borrow largely from Turkoman design, especially in the use of the

gol (fl ower) motif. They mostly employ geometric patterns in light colors like

light red, blue, and khaki, in contrast to the bright vermilion used by Turkomans.

Unlike the other tribes, the Kurds beautifully combine complementary

city and tribal designs on wool and other rough materials.

Though many rugs are produced by nomads and villagers without

predesigned drawn pattern (known as broken designs), most carpets follow

carefully designed curved lines drawn on checkered paper (known as revolving

designs). The latter is used as a guide by weavers while making the carpet.

Rugs produced by tribal people often lack consistency in color and material.

These small weavers can neither afford to purchase all the materials needed

for a rug at once nor are they able to devote uninterrupted time to weaving

a rug; looms would have to be disassembled should the tribe move from

one place to another. Given the conditions under which these tribal rugs are

produced, most are usually one of a kind.

Historically, women and children, especially girls, have been weavers, and

men have been in charge of the distribution and marketing of the carpets.

Given that a carpet is made of millions of knots by unknown individuals whose

names do not appear anywhere on the carpet, young female villagers have

come to symbolize the pains of carpet laborers. There are numerous works of

Persian literature referring to village girls’ injured fi ngers and loss of sight due

to making carpets in dark rooms. Fortunately, the situation has changed in the

past two decades. As education in rural areas has become more available and

the mandatory school attendance for children is better enforced, fewer young

girls are working in the carpet industry full time. Although the current labor

law forbids the employment of children under the age of 15, the violation of

the law in remote areas is common, especially in rural and mountainous areas.

In 1992, the offi cial fi gure for child labor was 286,000, of which 62 percent

were girls, mostly working as part-time weavers in the carpet industry.

There are many similarities between designs in carpets and those in

Persian tilework and miniature painting. Persian carpet designs can be

grouped into at least 17 types. Patterns of well-known Persian designs, many

inspired by nature, include goldâni (vase), derakhti (tree), Shâh ‘Abbâsi, gol

farang ( European fl ower), mâhi (fi sh, a design also known as Herât ), châhâr

fasl (four seasons), afshân (scattered), and shekârgâh ( hunting fi eld). The

aigrette design ( boteh ) has its roots in Zoroastrian tradition and consists

of the so-called “mother and child” and “ friendship and enmity” patterns.

The portrait design has been used to depict kings and revered characters.

Geometric designs include qabqabi (framed), moharamât (striped), and

Torkmân patterns. Used on silk and wool carpets, the triangular citron design

( lachak toranj ) is usually round and sometimes elliptical, with one-fourth

of a citron appearing at every angle of the carpet’s main body. Designs

incorporating historical monuments include Takht-e Jamshid, Tâq-e Bostân,

and Tâq-e Kesrâ.

Designs are also named after the cities or regions that are centers of carpet

weaving. These include Kermân, Kâshân, Khorâsân, Isfahan, Tehran, Tabriz,

Hamadân, and Nâ’in. Famous for their durability and lush pile, Tabriz

carpets usually have a central medallion surrounded by and complimented

with fl owers and tendrils in a curvature pattern. Typical Hamadân carpets

are smaller in size and have strong bright colors, a single weft medallion, and

the fringe only on one side. Representing one of the highest- quality Persian

carpets, Isfahan carpets are fi lled with colorful fl oral designs on an ivory background.

Typically, they have a central medallion amid fl oral twines. Though

close to Isfahan, Nâ’in has developed its own distinct carpet design with

lighter colors and detailed curvilinear and medallion-and-corner designs.

Kermân carpets are most known for their softer hues; detailed curvilinear

and repetitive fl oral patterns; and vase, garden, animal, and medallion motifs.

Khorâsân carpets are mostly curvilinear with the single central medallion and

corner fl oral design, and very busy curvilinear fl oral motifs in the background.

They include carpets made in the cities of Mashhad, Birjand, Kâshmar,

Torbat-e Jam, Torbat Haydariyeh, Nishâpur, Sabzevâr, Gonâbâd, Quchân,

Shirvân, and Bojnurd. To varying degrees, they all employ vivid red, purplish

red, and crimson backgrounds. The famous Kâshân carpets have a central

medallion with tendrils and vases. During the Safavid period, themes of birds,

human beings, and mythical fi gures were common in Kâshân carpets. Kâshân

is known for producing luxurious carpets made of silk and velvet.