Jennifer Wearden gets in a knot about carpet care and restoration.
Antique rugs from the Palazzo Falson Historic House Museum Collection, Malta. Right: Jennifer Wearden.
Q: Historically, why do the Middle East and the Orient have a richer tradition in carpet weaving than Europe?
A: Carpet weaving probably developed independently in several different places but because textiles are fragile, we can never have a complete picture of the history of any textile technique.
The oldest surviving carpet fragments date to the 5th century BC and were discovered in a frozen tomb in Siberia. Others of slightly younger date have been excavated in dry conditions in Central Asia, Iran, Iraq and Egypt. It is possible that carpets were made in Europe at similar dates, but nothing has survived in our damp climate.
When we look at historical periods – from the 9th and 10th centuries – we read that carpets of great renown were woven in Islamic Spain and were exported from there to Egypt and Baghdad. By the 13th century we find carpets depicted in paintings by Italian artists and we assume those carpets were woven in the East Mediterranean and exported to the various Italian city-states.
The earliest carpets that have survived date from the late 13th and early 14th centuries and were found in mosques in Turkey – they are thought to have been woven around Konya. Marco Polo described the area around Konya in 1271 and wrote that: “The finest and most beautiful carpets in the world are wrought here.”
Soldiers returning to northern and western Europe from the Crusades probably took carpets home with them – people in central Europe certainly knew about the carpets being woven in Spain and there was a well-established tradition of carpet weaving in Lower Saxony at the end of the 13th century. But the Middle East has always had a richer tradition of carpet weaving because labour costs were always lower than in Europe.
Q: Which are the regions that produced, and still produce, the finest carpets?
A: If by ‘the finest carpets’ you mean the ones generally thought to be the most beautiful and accomplished, then I have to say that 16th and 17th-century Persian carpets are magnificent in terms of both design and fineness of knotting – of course they are rare and no longer produced.
If you ask six people where the finest carpets come from, you’ll probably get six different answers because people judge by their own ideas of beauty. Fashions change, so in the middle of the 19th-century Turkish carpets were the most popular while Persian carpets were popular in the 1880s and 90s. Tribal carpets became popular in the 1960s while currently, Moroccan carpets are popular.
Q: How do colours and patterns vary from one region to the other?
A: There are two basic types of pattern – geometric and floral. There are two types of knot used to weave a carpet – the most common is the symmetrical knot which is easy to tie but relatively bulky which makes it almost impossible to create a graceful pattern of stems and flowers. The second knot is the asymmetrical knot which is less bulky and with it you can create naturalistic, flowing patterns. So weavers who traditionally use the symmetrical knot tend to produce geometric patterns and those who use the asymmetrical knot can produce floral patterns.
I’m not aware that colours vary from region to region except that carpets from Central Asia tend towards dark reds and browns. Carpets woven in tribal groups usually have the lowest number of colours and carpets woven in town workshops have the highest number of colours.
Q: What are the materials used to produce fine carpets?
A: Wool is by far the best material for carpets. Silk usually looks flat and lifeless.
Q: How rich is the V&A Museum’s textile collection and what are the pleasures, and pains, of being its curator?
A: The V&A Museum has about 1,500 carpets and carpet fragments from Europe, the Middle East, India and China, ranging from the 16th century through to the 20th century. Some of them were published in my study Oriental Carpets and Their Structure: Highlights from the V&A Collection (V&A Publication, 2003).
Carpet collections are difficult to work with because of the size and weight of the objects. Even smallish carpets often require two people or more to lift, carry, unroll and re-roll them. Also, it’s never possible to have a quick look at a carpet – examinations or inspections have to be planned ahead, space has to be made so it can be unrolled, people have to be on hand to help, and you have to kneel and crawl on the floor to look closely at the knots and weave structure.
However, the best way to learn about carpets is to look at as many as possible, as closely as possible and I’ve had the privilege of learning from some of the most beautiful carpets in the world. No research is ever complete and no catalogue is ever the final word but I was able to produce a technical analysis of all the carpets in my care so that the next generation of scholars can build on my work. That gave me immense satisfaction – even if my knees did hurt.
Q: Is the number of knots per square inch the primary indicator of a carpet’s fineness?
A: The number of knots indicates the relative coarseness or fineness of a carpet – a carpet with 16 knots per square inch is coarser than one with 200 knots per square inch. The density of knots is not an indication of quality. A really lovely and hardwearing carpet can have as few as 20 knots per square inch while a carpet with 400 knots per square inch might be stiff and liable to wear badly.
Q: What are the basic processes to care for an antique Oriental carpet?
A: First, it needs a good synthetic underlay underneath it, especially if it’s placed on a stone or wooden floor. Underlay made from rubber, synthetic foam or anything containing adhesive is undesirable, and natural fibres such as wool and hair attract insect pests – polyester is safer.
Try and limit the amount of traffic carpets have to endure by placing rugs to one side of a room and not putting them in front of doorways. Consider removing outdoor shoes before walking on a valued carpet. Heavy furniture can also cause damage by leaving permanent indentations where the fibres have been crushed. You can avoid this by repositioning your furniture every now and again, and by using castor cups to spread the weight and protect the pile. The rug or carpet can be turned round every year or two so that it wears evenly.
If possible, a rug shouldn’t be placed where the sun will shine directly onto it. Window blinds can be used to minimise the damaging effects of daylight. Textiles will absorb moisture from the air and will swell. A dry atmosphere, which often occurs in winter when a room is heated, causes the fibres to shrink, so try to keep the humidity levels stable.
Don’t worry about temperature, just about humidity. To avoid dampness, try not to hang rugs directly against the interior of the outside wall of a building, nor place them directly onto a stone floor. Hanging a rug above a radiator or a fire will cause the fibres to become dry and brittle. Be careful of open fires, especially if there’s any danger of sparks falling on the carpet.
Everyday dust and dirt is unavoidable but it will become a problem. It’s attractive to insects and can become ‘cemented’ to the carpet if left too long. However, cleaning can also cause damage and must be undertaken with care. For older, more fragile rugs, a small hand-held vacuum cleaner is preferable as it is more easily controlled. Use moderate suction and vacuum with the direction of the pile. Use an attachment without brushes and be very careful with fringes.
Cats and dogs can cause a lot of damage to antique carpets and rugs. Removing pet hair, for example, usually requires vigorous vacuuming. If your carpet or rug is very valuable, you may need to keep it in a room that your pets don’t use, otherwise you will have to accept the damage they cause. You might get a flea infestation, in which case the best treatment is to focus on the source of the fleas, that is, your pet. The best way to remove fleas, eggs, larvae and their food sources from carpets and rugs is by thorough, regular and gentle vacuuming.
All spills, such as food, drink, water damage from a leaking pipe or radiator should be dealt with straight away. Blot off excess water with white towels or white kitchen paper to absorb as much moisture as possible, repeating the process with clean towels or paper until all the moisture has been removed. Resist the temptation to press down hard or rub the surface of the carpet or rug. When you have blotted it so that it is as dry as possible, you need to get cool air circulating to dry it off and to prevent mould growth. Support the damp area slightly above the floor if possible. Remember, textiles are much weaker and more easily damaged when wet, so handle them gently.
Q: Can antique carpets be successfully restored?
A: If the worse does happen, and a carpet is damaged, skilled restorers can do miraculous repairs – however, it will be expensive.
Q: Can a machine ever replicate the creativity of human hands?
A: Machines which could tie knots in carpets were developed in France, probably in the 1880s. Several firms in Britain acquired the necessary looms and were producing machine-knotted carpets from at least 1921 until the 1950s. These carpets are virtually impossible to tell from hand-knotted carpets, so machines can reproduce the patterns, the density and the texture of hand-knotted carpets. Human beings are truly amazing because they can make carpets by hand and they can also make machines to make carpets which look like they’ve been made by hand.
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