More About Oriental Rugs – Symbols and Motifs
I don’t know about you all, but I’ve had visions of bats, peacocks, tulips, bamboo sticks, and the color orange dancing around in my head ever since that last article. Hopefully the same is happening to you because that means the knowledge is sticking in your noggin and you’re one step closer to being a pro at “reading rugs.”
Last time we talked about colors, plants, and animals and what they mean when they’re used in Oriental rug designs. In this article, we’ll discuss some other commonly used symbols and what they represent as well as analyze how these rugs are made, i.e. what materials and techniques are used, where they’re made, who makes them, etc.
Common Symbols and Motifs
As we’ve previously discussed these rugs have had several different uses throughout history. First for protection, then for declaration of rank and decoration. At one point, certain types were made to serve as “prayer rugs.” From this, the types of symbols used in the design started to reflect these religious interests. They moved away from just using animal, plant, and color themes and started integrating symbols that could be used in spiritual designs.
Botch – flame, universe
Amulet – thwarts evil eye
Ewer, Jug – purification
Comb – cleanliness
Diamond – signifies women (two diamonds attached together represent a man and woman)
Cross – faith
Hand – prayer rug
Star – spirituality, good luck
Mihrab – gateway to paradise
Numbers – signify dates and times
As you can see, the symbols represent things like cleanliness, faith, purification, spirituality, and a gateway to paradise. They can be applied to a variety of faiths and denominations, not just to their nation of origin. Some people believe that the religious designs are created by weavers who are inspired by the domes of the local mosques in their regions.
These rugs can also represent important life events, such as a wedding (the two diamonds) or a baby’s christening (the ewer/jug or the comb). They can be used like some American families use a family Bible to record important dates, like family members’ birth dates, wedding dates, and christening dates. In that same way, these rugs can be so much more than just decoration. They can commemorate a family’s history and be passed down through several generations.
How It’s Made: Oriental Rugs Edition
Now that we’ve covered all aspects of design, let’s take a look at the building process and what goes into making an oriental rug. These rugs are not dependent on technology. Considering the earliest versions were invented before sewing machines were, these rugs can be hand-made and still possess the same amount of structural and design quality. The only downfall with the recent advancements in technology is as the amount of demand has increased, more and more people see adapting these rugs into a factory setting as a natural next step so they can be mass produced. This didn’t begin all that recently though.
Remember how I spoke about the rugs lasting through several dynasties? They didn’t stay in Asia forever; they couldn’t. When international trade became a large part of the international economy, countries sold whatever they could in order to set themselves apart and to make the most money. Asia had these magnificent oriental rugs to trade with the Western part of the world, and so they did. Once the Western countries got their hands on this merchandise and saw how popular they were becoming, they wanted to mass produce in their own countries and sell their own versions.
One tiny, seemingly insignificant detail was about to change the way rugs were produced and would divide rug-lovers forever.
Dye Debate: Natural vs. Synthetic
From the beginning, only natural dyes were used in Oriental rugs. They were mainly derived from plant materials and insects, including: indigo, oak, sumac, pomegranate, and larkspur. These were the main ingredients in dye because they were the only source used to dye wool. There was no other alternative at the time. That is, until the 1870s.
Just before the 1870s, German scientists were the only ones who had successfully developed synthetic, chemically-based dyes. They were incredibly useful because they involved far less time and labor than the vegetable-derived colors I listed above. These dyes became common in other parts of the world during the 1870s like Turkey, Persia, and Central Asia. Because of the high demand from the Western part of the world, these rugs needed to be manufactured at a faster rate.
A dye that could decrease the time and labor spent while increasing the amount of output. What could go wrong? (Famous last words.)
Over time these synthetic dyes proved to be problematic. If they were exposed to too much light or washed one too many times, they began to fade badly or the colors would run and ruin the rug.
At this same time, industrialization in the west introduced machine-spun wool which would aid in the mass production of rugs. Later in the 1920s and 30s, western technology “saved the day” once again by perfecting the synthetic dye formula. No longer would the dye run or would the colors fade too quickly. They had created the perfect formula for a rug.
But that was just the problem. Now that they used machine-spun wool, all rug textures were the same. And with the perfection of synthetic dyes, all colors became uniform. With these advancements in technology, they lost all individuality that had once existed in these rugs. What used to be individual pieces of artwork had transformed into mass-produced cookie-cutter versions of the same rug.
This natural vs. synthetic debate still exists today since only recently there was a revival of traditional weaving. As a result, many vendors still believe in hand-weaving and using dyes derived from natural substances. While these natural dyes still fade over time, it is a much more gradual shift and the effect makes for an even more original sense of artistry.
So there you have it: this huge debate that you probably had no idea even existed before today. Which side are you on? Natural? Or synthetic? Don’t let this divide your household or trouble you too much, and make sure to stay tuned for the next article!