Mystery of the Persian Rug

I recently walked through the carpet repair part of the shop and was abruptly diverted by a rug Ali was restoring with a handmade fringe. It was a stunning old Persian rug in beautiful muted blue and red tones. The intricate design was astonishing and it seemed to have a cosmic quality to it. The distinctive dark center medallion was deep blue, and within that was a smaller and lighter inner pendant that matched the outer border. In the center the weaver had worked in a subtle tree of life motif rising from the darkest area of the rug through to the heavens. There was an exceptional harmony to all the elements. This was clearly the artistry of a master craftsman.

I chatted with Ali about the rug. Coming from a weaving area of Iran, he was well aware of its uniqueness, and thought it was at least 90 years old. My curiosity was piqued and I delved into an investigation of the rug with Sherlock Holmesian intensity. The design of the carpet suggested Isfahan, with all the typical fauna and flora embellishments. The complex sweeping geometry is also there, but somehow it seemed much less formal than a typical city rug. City rugs like Isfahan's, are crafted in small factory settings in the major weaving centers. Ali suggested instead, that it was made in Yazd, a small town about 200 km south of Isfahan. A little forensic investigation on the back of the rug with a magnifying glass confirmed this. The warp threads that held each row of knots in place were blue cotton, which is typical of Yazd rugs. Yazd is an ancient city in central Iran on the early East West trade route. The area was, and still is, a large center for Zoroastrian culture. Followers of this faith are known locally for their vivid honesty. The rug was likely made in a small village near Yazd. The weaver would have lived in a small home with mud brick construction, which is the dominant architectural form of the area. He may have had a small farm with a few animals, and of course a large loom, which would have been in the family for a long time.

The rug is as dazzling as any formal Persian rug, but without the self-conscious drama. The subtle country feel and distinctive character of this piece, is achieved from the artful blending of the colours. The result is an understated muted kaleidoscope. One could even say the design has an honesty to it, which might be a reflection of the Zoroastrian beliefs of the weaver.

The mellow character of the rug is a result of the natural vegetable dying techniques used to colour the wool. Vegetable dyed rugs can have variegation and tend to patina over time adding further personality. This is certainly the case here. There is also notable abrash, where areas of the rug inexplicably change colour for no apparent design reason. This is caused by colour variations in dye lots or changes in the tightness of hand-spun wool causing differences in dye saturation. It has also been claimed that imperfections can be intentionally woven into Persian rugs to illustrate no one is perfect but Allah. The hand spinning and hand dying of the yarn for this project would have taken months, and was likely done by the family of the weaver. Locally available raw materials would have been used for each colour. There are at least 12 colours or tones used in the rug. The reds would have come from pomegranates and madder root, blue from indigo plants, and maybe walnut skins for the beige or brown tones. This 9x12 foot rug would have taken the weaver around two years to complete. Measuring off an area on the back of the rug with a ruler to count the knots, revealed around 250 per square inch. That adds up to 3.8 million hand-tied Persian knots. The rug is not signed which is common for rugs made in the countryside. The design would have been knotted largely from memory, using features passed down through the weavers' family. Small details would be improvised long the way. The perfect symmetry of the rug is amazing. The weaver of the carpet is long gone and it's hard to say if any of his skills or designs were ever passed along to his family. As an artform the carpet weaving industry of Iran has changed since this rug was made.

Persian rugs are of course still produced in Iran, but the quality can vary. The country has been hit hard by economic sanctions and political instability. Plus there is stiff competition from Pakistan, India and China all weaving Persian style rugs. Chemical dying of the fibre has replaced natural dying techniques, and since 1940 most wool for handmade rugs in Iran is machine spun. In recent years there has been a minor resurgence of traditional weaving techniques, including vegetable dying and hand spinning of wool. Persian rugs can still be appreciated for their good weaving technique and artistic merit. However older rugs have something else they share with fine wines, and that's terroir.

Old Persian rugs have terroir. They reflect the time and place they are made. You will not find a wine with the character and quality of a 1956 Chateau Mouton Rothschild on the shelf in the liquor store. And, like a well-crafted wine, the character of a well-made rug will also evolve over the years. They will patina, reflecting the characteristics of their construction and the way they are used over time. They can even appreciate in value. But, unlike wine, which needs to be stored in a cool dark cellar to mature and improve, Persian rugs can be appreciated every day on the floor in the home. In fact they thrive on it.

Well Holmes, what do you make of it?
He took a long draw on his pipe and exhaled slowly enveloping us both in a cloud of smoke.
"Well, Watson I believe the case is solved," he said with a self-satisfied air.
"The rug is clearly hand-knotted and made between 1918 and 1920 in Yazd, which is a small town in central Iran. It is of fine quality with 250 Persian knots per square inch and vegetable dyed. The modest man who knotted the rug was a Zoroastrian who lived in a small hut made of mud brick. He had a small farm, tended a few animals, and he liked pomegranates.
"Holmes you astound me.
Elementary my dear Watson."

March 1, 2017, By John Farr


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