History of Rugs

Rugs as Part of Human History and Culture

It’s winter in a cave somewhere in Europe. A woman decides to lay a skin on the bald cave floor to keep the cold of the rock inches away from her body. Thus, the carpet was born. From then on, it’s a story of technology and art. Rugs have existed before civilization. The development of rugs is the story of worldwide trade, agriculture, and technology.

The history that we read about is Euro-centered. Most of what we know about early history came from the study of our European ancestors. This study forms the center of our generalizations about the prehistoric ages. Our understanding is that early humans first appeared in Africa and gradually spread throughout the world. The latest findings suggest that human-like ancestors appeared in Africa close to a million years ago and arrived in Europe about 80,000 years ago as part of a wave of migration driven by climate change.

Rugs and Agriculture:

When people began to settle in villages, during what is called the “Neolithic period” or New Stone Age (about 10,000 years ago), agriculture took hold. Plants provided food as well as fiber. The technology of weaving fibers into fabrics was invented by some unacknowledged genius. People started to domesticate animals and began incorporating their hair and fur into fabrics. Wool became the fiber of choice for making garments,  mats and early rugs.

There are references to rugs in ancient scriptures and classical writing which help scholars date the history of rugs. Different types of flat weaving were well developed more than 4,000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia (Middle-East: Persia, now called Iran) and Egypt.

Asian Rug-Making:

The art of herding animals developed more quickly in the grassy areas of Europe and Asia where there were few hills and mountains. These were in the northern steps of Siberia and Asia. Shepherds subsisted with large herds of sheep and used their wool for clothing and tents as well as carpets. Many people were migratory there, following the availability of pasture around the countryside and traveling with portable homes made of carpet-like fabric.

Meanwhile, the Navajo people who lived and herded sheep in the area in what is now the Southwest of the United States also began weaving wool rugs with an entirely different style. The weaving of rugs is profoundly mixed with their history and mythology.

Growing Rug Trade:

The herders of northern Europe were the first people to produce wool rugs in large quantity. The development of the rug-making craft in Siberia was confirmed in 1949, when the Russian archeologist, Sergei Rudenko found the first modern knotted rugs, called Pazryk” carpet, frozen and preserved in a Siberian tomb. These rugs were dated from 600 BC. They feature rich colors, striking details, a “Turkish” style of knotting. There was an average of 200 knots per inch–a very high standard of rug-making art (the most advanced oriental rugs, which European rug-makers were never fully able to imitate were made with up to 1,000 threads per inch).

Trade in rugs followed the movements and history of Middle Eastern traders, who were the ones who wandered over the Asian trade routes and brought back treasures. Many fine rugs entered Europe through Spain because that country was so influenced by Moorish culture. The wealthiest people of Europe sought the oriental rugs made in Persia.  More and more English and European aristocrats began collecting oriental knotted rugs, both on the floors of their stone homes and as rich tapestries on their walls.

By the middle of the 19th century, European and British rug-making centers were being established. Some of them began by employing rug makers from Persia. European versions of Persian and oriental rugs were never competitive because of the high cost of labor and the lower quality. In the middle 1800s, American and European countries were developing power looms to attempt to bring down the prices. Large American rug-maker companies began appearing with mass-produced rugs, many of which imitated oriental designs.

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