1136 GMT May 28, 2022
Many motifs, patterns, and traditional colorations found in rugs that are produced in many countries today have either originated in or been influenced 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 flowers, trees, natural scenery, historical and mythological characters, Persian poetry and calligraphy, and religious symbols and stories.
Carpets are used as floor coverings, prayer mats, and decorations for homes, offices, 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. Another basic factor in determining the quality of a carpet is knot density, or the number of knots per square inch – more knots indicate finer work, better quality, and a higher price.
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.
In earlier times, colors were made from flower and vegetable dyes, thus giving carpets unique colors associated with plants existing in each region.
The words carpet (farsh or qali in Persian) 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, this is a European distinction and should not be confused with the American one. In the US, such distinction is based on the unity of the piece. A rug is a single piece usable in different settings, irrespective of floor size. Carpet is a stripped textile floor covering matched and cut to the length of the room.
Kilim is a flat tapestry-woven small rug. However, some kilims are actually quite large. A difference distinguishing the two is the absence of pile in kilims. Kilims are coarse, thin woolen rugs without any pile or knotted fluff. Another term sometimes confused with kilim is zilu. While kilim is made of wool, zilu is made of cotton. Zilu is a durable and inexpensive floor covering often used in rural town and village mosques.
Though the art of zilu weaving was strong in Iran, especially in Maybod, a city in the central province of Yazd, it has declined in the past years and it is hard to imagine how zilus can compete with newer products in the market.
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. Traditionally, prayer rugs had simple designs containing flowers, calligraphy, and mosaics.
Culture and lifestyle
Carpets made in different regions and by different tribes often reflect the culture and lifestyle of those people and regions. While carpets produced 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 influences the kind of materials and colors used. A gabbeh is a hand-knotted wool rug with deep color, more wefts, and longer fluff. 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 flower.
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, and those called Saruq refer to carpets either made in or with designs originated from Saruq, a small village in the central province of Markazi. These names can also refer to the particular pattern, palette, and weave uniquely linked to the indigenous culture, or to weaving techniques specific to an identifiable geographic area or nomadic tribe.
The above is a lightly edited version of a chapter of ‘Culture and Customs of Iran’ written by Elton L. Daniel and Ali Akbar Mahdi and published by Greenwood Press in 2006.