The knotted carpet is an anachronism in 21st century culture. I can think of no other commercial or art commodity today in our time that involves the skill of hand craft from conception to execution to finished product, other than the hand knotted carpet. Cultural totem, religious icon, cosmic map, status symbol, significant shelter decoration or just floor covering, the hand knotted carpet has been an important part of human domestic life for over 2500 years. As a compressed wool felt floor covering serving to elevate nomadic tent dwellers from the hard cold physical world, from rugs, saddle bags, cradles and countless woven domestic containers, from cultural signifiers of spiritually , from tribal transhumance mounted societies, to palaces, churches and mosques of Europe and the Middle East and finally to the middle class households of 19th and 20th century West, the knotted carpet has continued throughout all human time, to reinvent itself again and again while still retaining the role of the primary meaningful object in our architectural interiors.
How is this possible that an item made in 16th century Anatolia, bought by Venetian traders, and sold to the rich and powerful in Europe and the Middle East have the same direct relationship, the same weaving technique, and even design reference to the carpet adorning a living room in a San Antonio? Indeed explanations seem inadequate to justify the continuing role the handmade carpet plays in the daily mundane activities of human life. Edgar Allan Poe wrote that the carpet is the soul of the apartment. In fact beautiful carpets breathe life into the spaces in which we inhabit.
This carpet can be calming and soothing; it can be visually challenging; it can introduce the excitement of color into a room, and it can serve as a meditative object. The hand knotted carpet in its best expression and whatever its statement has the substance of significance aesthetically, decoratively and yes even spiritually. Immediately it serves to bring the natural world into our living spaces, and elevates the textures of our lives. They recall the garden, the heavens and yes even the soul of life. Yet there is a rub, as there always is. If we want to understand the hand knotted carpet as something more than floor covering, we must also accept the hard truth that the ill-conceived and poorly executed rug can snuff the life right out of a room. Instead of creating light in a space they impose darkness. Rugs of all prices can fail as they can also succeed. The finest Persian carpet and the coarsest tribal rug can either fail or succeed.
It should not be puzzling that the knotted carpet is grounded in nature; Wool is the foundation of its being, at once its complex canvas and importantly its soul. Good rugs use the best wools and the experience of the rug is based in part on the quality of its wool. All rugs beg to be understood tactilely not just visually. They invite interaction with the human hand and foot. Upon seeing a rug or carpet, one of our first interactions with it, in an attempt to really understand it, is to touch it and yes even the smell of good wool enhances our appreciation of the rug. Good wool is the building block for good color. The wool should be long fibered, crimpy, and thick in diameter and hand spun if possible. Retention of the wool’s natural oils is also an important issue. Stripped wool makes lifeless color. Wool still containing lanolin creates depth and richness of color. It should be said here that wool differs in texture, oil content and diameter of the fiber. Sheep grazed in higher elevations produce better wool than sheep raised in the lowlands.
COLOR: Vegetable dyes are better than synthetic dyes. Like all things in the Oriental rug world (and life in general) it is easy to say but hard and expensive to do. Think of it, the cultivation of plants used to make different colors is a huge undertaking. Yet the dye master’s or weavers’ skill is fundamental in dying beautifully colored yarns. In the final analysis vegetable dye color is generally richer, more translucent, and nuanced than colors made from synthetic sources. This does not mean that synthetic colors are necessarily bad. To the contrary they can be lovely. They tend to be more colorfast and rug designers and producers have absolute control over the colors they want. However good wools receive good vegetable dyes in a remarkably beautiful way and demonstrate the potential for a vast spectrum of colors.
WEAVE: If the rug is a painting, line is the counterpart to its color. Line is controlled by the density of its weave, the amount of wool used in making the rug, the diameters of the wool, the type of knot used, the thickness of the warps and wefts. The degree to which the knots are pounded into the wefts below them increase design option as well as extend the rug’s ability to resist wear.
It is important to remember that rug weaving is a very traditional activity and different weaving areas use different knotting techniques and different knotting densities. Tribal, village and urban workshop rugs are always going to be different from each other in structure as their designs and character are always different and require different knot counts to be beautiful.
CONCEPTION: The idea of the weaver as artist is primary to understanding the nature of the knotted carpet. The weaver and her “staff”, whether it is simply a daughter or mother or at the other end of the spectrum a RISDE graduate with an MFA in fabric design designing modern carpets, must combine a high level of craft combined with creative spirit to make a beautiful object.
At some level that is art.
In closing it needs to be said that choosing a rug is a very personal thing. Your choice will determine the attitude of your living space. Rugs are the architect of the room. The size of the rug will either expand or compress the room. In most types of spaces there should be an attempt at establishing a relationship between the furniture and the rug. In living rooms and family rooms the furniture and rug need to be connected in some manner. This connection can be established with the architectural features of the room or with furniture. Taste may be subjective (But good visual understanding is not.) Be willing to expand your expectations about what you think is beautiful and appropriate. Obsessing about one color or fabric is a self-defeating approach. Focus on the big picture and don’t allow yourself to be mired in the trivial.
Think beauty, think character, and be open to new ideas.