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.
STRUCTURE, DESIGNS, AND PATTERNS
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
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.