VOLUME 1 NUMBER 1
It Takes a Village to Make a Carpet
A few years ago on a rainy March afternoon, my writing partner, Angie Brenner and I, and our Turkish guide Nesko, found ourselves sitting in a carpet shop on a street of carpet shops in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. Nesko had brought us to meet her friend Hasan Semerci, a former professor of English turned successful carpet dealer.
Hasan seemed at once a part of the bazaar with its boys carrying trays of tea in tulip-shaped glasses to and from shops, but also separate; a man who could talk politics while unfurling a rare Turkomen carpet, then taking time to explain the carpet’s history in context of the patterns woven within.
That afternoon, as we sat upon rugs woven by women in a tradition ancient as the mythical Spiderwoman who sets up her loom and weaves stories, I fell under the spell of carpets, their texture and smell, the thickness of the weave. I imagined nomads, laying them down in a new location after a day of travel across the Central Asian and Anatolian plains. A cloth would be laid across the carpet, plates of food set in the center. The men would eat first, using flat bread to scoop up a stew. After, the women and children would eat. At night, dinner cleared away, the family would unwind bedrolls and sleep within the carpet’s borders.
Over the years, Hasan and I became friends and when he announced that he was working with a partner in New York City, Murat Küpçü, a former travel agent and lover of literature, I was eager to meet Murat as well.
Murat opened his business on White Street in TriBeCa just after September llth and has been integral in the renaissance of a neighborhood that counted the Twin Towers as part of its immediate landscape. I began to visit Murat often, and because I was writing a book about Turkey, I became privy to his excellent collection of books about all aspects of Turkish culture.
Recently, I sat down with Murat in his shop and asked him a few questions about carpets.
Where do we start our exploration of carpets?
Well, let’s start at the top with luxury carpets because there is a whole body of scholarship connected to them. You can put these carpets in the context of Islamic art and you can trace the different influences and how the Ottoman Court borrowed from other regions, other cultural centers. There was active trade at the time from China through Moghul India and into Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran; and then across the Anatolian plain to Istanbul along the Silk Road. There are a lot of research and many theories about carpet design. While each culture developed their own style, there are also similarities in the designs of floral borders or medallions in the center, and stylized birds and animals.
The tribal carpets are more difficult to study because many of them didn’t survive. Yes, there are tribal carpets in the marketplace and in museums, but by definition they were used in the homes of the weavers who were often nomads. Some of the earliest pieces we simply have never seen because they wore out. So tracing the origins of a design is very difficult and there is lots of speculation about different things. Of course, along the trade routes, tribal carpets were influenced by the more luxurious carpets the traders carried.
For example, at that time in the Ushak region of western Turkey, the weavers made carpets for themselves, but also they were making carpets for export. Sometimes these motifs, which were attractive to European or American customers, clearly made their way into the patterns of the weavers’ own carpets. The early symbols of earth, various symbols for protection, have all evolved beyond recognition to the point where weavers themselves aren’t sure where they came from.
For most of the designs, the present-day weaver is very far removed from the original state of mind that created those designs. Clearly the earliest weavers tried to tell stories so many of the motifs are probably very stylized human forms, clan symbols, or animal forms.
What is the difference between a carpet and a kilim?
Remember, the design of a carpet is limited by the number of individual knots. And in the case of kilims where you wrap yarns around each other, you have limitations of working within the structure of warp and weft. Working with a warp and a weft on the loom you can only go left to right (weft), or up and down (warp). Because of this limitation, images become stylized.
You can think of weaving kilims in this unique way: when a painter creates a work of art, he or she works on a canvas, but the kilim weaver creates the canvas at the same time she is creating the carpet. In some of the early kilims there is no meaningless space. If you have an image in a certain color block of the kilim, you’ll find another image that will correspond to it.
The art of kilim weaving rests in the limit of form. A weaver works within these limits to create something balanced. And within these limitations, the freedom of the individual artist emerges.
So the one area that becomes less prone to outside influence is that of the flat weave kilims. In early times, flat woven textiles were probably more prominent than nomad carpets, although they were never really popular with the city people. They were always seen as peasant rugs all the way up to the 1960s and 70s when people from the West started to travel through Turkey and appreciate tribal art. Rug dealers would buy kilims and collect them, but not show them to their clients who were looking for refined, knotted pieces.
So from a tribal point of view there was never any impetus to make kilims pretty for someone else. In this way, traditional designs were preserved better than in carpets well into the twentieth century. Kilims were woven in exactly the same way that they were woven generations ago. Like the folk poetry that was not for general consumption, knotted carpets were made pretty for other people and tribal kilims were for the family.
Why has weaving been considered to be women’s work?
Until recently, with very few exceptions, weaving has always been done by women in the home. But it would be an oversimplification to look at this as if it’s just the women who do the hard work.
Carpet weaving begins with raising sheep, shearing sheep, and the washing of the wool, which is done by all the villagers.
Spinning, too, is done all the time by everyone, and actually gives the elders of the village an active role in its survival.
Men and women who are no longer able to be up and about will sit with their friends or family and spin wool. Remember, the villagers don’t just spin wool for carpets, they spin wool for clothing as well.
Another trade is that of wool dyer. Chemical dyes were introduced during the second half of the nineteenth century. And while natural dyes are more labor intensive, chemical dyes can produce good results.
After carpets are woven, they need to be clipped and washed. In villages there were expert shearers of carpets. With huge scissors they would work their way across the carpet creating an even nap.
But while we are talking about carpets, you have to realize that there would be no carpet without a loom. In setting up a loom, you start with a prayer ceremony to bless the weaver and the loom itself. A loom must be made with great care because it is the foundation for the carpet. If it’s not tight and straight, you will end up with a crooked carpet. So the prayer is for the whole village because everybody has a hand in creating an environment in which the carpet is made.
Are handmade carpets a sustainable trade today?
Thanks to international trade and the middle class in most developed and developing countries, there is a demand for hand-woven carpets. As a response to that, in the last 20 years or so there has been a revival. More carpets are being made along with the tradition of making natural dyes.
Still there are many changes. Turkish society was once a place where sheep and wool were readily available, but there has been a mass migration of villagers to the cities. Even for those who are not migrating, the nomadic lifestyle completely disappeared. This has had an effect on carpet production. Once nomads stopped moving, the colorfully woven storage bags that they hung on camels started disappearing. With a lack of demand, the camel bags began to be made with poorer quality wool and technique, and became harder to sell and exchange. The making of that kind of thing also declined because there was less appreciation for the work.
For example, we traveled to some villages last summer where in the Ushak region they’re making carpets for us and they are very happy because in these villages the people were always carpet weavers. Now, because they are making commissioned pieces, they know that the carpets are sold from the minute they start working on them.
It’s appealing because today with modern roads, younger kids can go to school. And there are universities not so very far from their villages. They can remain close to their families and not be tied to the looms. In the old days there were no schools to go to, but today some people just want to stay in their own village. They can make a living at carpet weaving if they choose, or choose a different kind of life.
In this particular village in the last few years, they’ve started a tradition. They build a house for each son who reaches the age of marriage. Even if the son moves to Istanbul, there’s a house for him. But many do choose to stay. They’re eager to have more work, to be part of the community.
Although the wool and patterns are given to them, carpet weaving contributes to the health of the village. Often, several families get involved. Women from neighboring houses get together and the work becomes a common economic activity.
Would you talk about the knots in carpets and how they’re done?
When you look at a carpet you will notice technical differences starting with the way the wool is spun. There is no such thing as a perfect knot. You are looping the yarn around the foundation warp and weft. The main difference is between two styles of knots: the double knot, and a single knot. A double knot is a Turkish knot. Single is Persian. There are plenty of Persian carpets with double knots and Turkish carpets with single knots.
They use two different techniques for achieving two different results. The single knot is a finer knot. A double knot uses twice the amount of material. If you’re trying to make a fine detailed carpet with little flowers and motifs in a small area, you need to work with the single knot: workshop carpets like Hereke with its intricate floral designs use a single knot.
The double knot is more common in tribal carpets because their motifs are larger and more bolder.
Between Turkey and Iran, there is a rivalry that is not just about carpets but also with everything. You’ve had two different ethnicities that have lived side by side for many centuries. There are many communities throughout this geography of Turkish origin/Persian origin or a mixture of both.
For instance, there are many famous carpet-making tribes in Iran who are of Turkish origin. You have to understand this in the context of the fact that urban centers came into conflict with the nomads who were arriving from Central Asia. The Mongols were nomadic communities. Yet Iran and Afghanistan had many cities with a mix of ethnicities who spoke Persian, which was the language of the court. Rulers were of one tradition or another tradition. Most successful rulers were interested in commissioning art.
There’s an added layer: from the eighth century on, Islam spread very rapidly dividing into two branches: Shia and Sunni. Turks are Sunni; Persians are Shia. The two cultures were always fighting one another.
You also had a divergence between the simple poetry of the villages with its economy of words and court literature, whether Turkish or Persian, with borrowings from Arabic and Persian. Like carpets made for the Sultans, court poets had to outdo one another to gain the king’s favor, and back in their villages, they were free to do what they pleased.
The area of Ushak is also the area where the Turkish warrior Osman founded the Ottoman Empire. How did this affect carpet weaving?
Basically, this is an area where the Turks arrived in the eleventh century and by the fourteenth century, the little principality of Osman, which the world calls Ottoman, came to dominate all of what is Turkey today. Nomads began settling in this area and the Ottomans gave them land or actually settled them in villages.
The settled nomads were useful to the Ottomans in many, many ways from providing troops for campaigns to raising horses to making carpets. Once the Ottomans captured Constantinople, they came into contact with a very lavish Byzantine lifestyle that they wanted to adopt so they were changing very rapidly from horseback-riding, tent-dwelling, constantly fighting guys to building luxurious homes on the Bosphorus. They knew the Byzantine Empire well because for years the Byzantine princesses had intermarried with Ottoman princes.
From the mid-fifteenth century on, the Ottomans lived as luxuriously as the Byzantines, building the large and elaborate Topkapi Palace. Now they needed to furnish these places so we have these very early images of carpets made in the Ushak region where weavers were always weaving things, but this time artists and designers created the patterns. The court supported designers in many areas of the decorative arts including bookbinding, miniature painting, and textile design. Of course they also created carpet designs, some of the artists drawing on Turkish tribal ideas, but some of them drawing on their own cultural background which may have been Persian or Afghan.
The Ottomans were powerful and they had money to basically sponsor artists so from very far away places people came: from China, Persia, Iraq, and many different cultural centers. Istanbul was the new cultural center where patrons really took care of everything for their artists. If you were a scholar writing a book, or an artist, you had a free life as long as you did what you were doing.
In that context, art was created, and carpets were a prominent part of it. We see these carpets in every major museum collection. Obviously it was beyond the means of just the villagers to get these carpets to market. It involved entrepreneurship to encourage the villagers to set up big looms that could be twenty feet tall. Some of these carpets made their way to Europe.
They were traditional gifts to ambassadors who came and visited the Ottoman court. Many of these carpets are well documented with information about which ambassador acquired it and when. Eventually, the merchant classes in the nineteenth century began purchasing them. A big boom in international trade began. The West wanted carpets and an export business was created. Specialized carpet galleries started popping up in Europe and America. Western companies started up operations in Turkey. There is this tradition to this day of using the traditional skills of carpet-weaving peoples to make carpets for, if I may say, rich people.
Carpet palettes seem to have grown lighter. Why?
Softer colors in carpets are a relatively late addition from the nineteenth century on. Sixteenth century Ushaks are primarily red and blue. Natural dyes were the most common dyes such as the madder root, which grows wild in Turkey and produces beautiful red colors, and indigo for blue, so that’s predominantly what Ushak carpets looked like. Then softer colors became popular. In the seventeenth century they began using undyed wool. When carpets are made for somebody else, this means the taste of the customer will dictate what happens to the colors and patterns.
Persians have a saying: “The best carpet is a sold carpet.” So for a carpet to be sold, the client, not the weaver, must ultimately be pleased. But that’s like all decorative arts. In the seventeenth century the British and Russians began adopting a French style of decorating. Dutch tiles appeared in the Topkapi Palace. As far as carpets are concerned, softer colors are still preferred today.
Would you give a description of this prayer rug from central Turkey?
This prayer rug is from central Anatolia, from the general area of Konya, which is the home of the Sufi order of Dervishes also known as the Whirling Dervishes. Prayer carpets are common designs for carpets. There are many different styles in many parts of the world. In this carpet, the weaver did a very artistic interpretation of the prayer niche, which is like the apse of a church, the mithrab of a mosque, or pre-Islamic/Christian temples. The focal point is always in the field of the carpet.
The weavers in this region reduced the prayer arch into very simple shapes and colors rather than make an actual picture. They created an abstract, multi-layered prayer arch that also combines a very well known motif. At the apex of the arch are what look like rams’ horns. After all, sheep are the most important animals in this culture. Another idea is that this could be hands on hips. A mother, that is, standing with her hands on her hips, called Eli Belinda.
What makes this carpet beautiful are the natural dyes: the red, blue, yellow, blue-green, clearly a mixture of
the yellow-blue dye. Red of madder. Yellow from various sources such as daisies in the Konya region. Blue is
indigo, which would have come from trade. Other local plants could be used to create a blue color, but indigo
is the main dyestuff.
And, of course there are flowers in the border. I’m sure if you asked the weaver of those carpets she would probably say they are flowers and not have much more to say about it. Minor borders in the carpet trade are called running water, a river meandering. Meandering water is another common theme. If you travel in Konya you will see that it is a bare plateau with rows of trees in the distance indicating the source of water. Actually, the carpet represents a clean, pure space bounded by water. For a nomad, the home itself is not necessarily the definition of refuge. The carpet creates the refuge. If you put your carpet on the floor, you’ve created in your home a sacred space, in the case of this carpet, that would be for prayer.
Or you can think of it like this: Wherever you welcome your family or guests, you have a beautiful house with water and flowers surrounding you.