Tribal carpets are almost the opposite of what one may visualize when they think of a carpet. They are abstract. They are spontaneous. They are naïve. They break rules. And most of all, they are personal expressions of the weavers, straight from the heart! Those from nomadic groups in particular are a fantastic potpourri of many diverse ethnicities, tribal lifestyles and indigenous customs.
There is no defined picture that the weaver is copying from… the picture is in the weaver’s heart, which slowly emerges and takes shape on warps strung around a makeshift loom, wefted and knotted in a colourful collage, one single row at a time! A small six by four foot carpet may have tens of thousands of knots and may take months (and sometimes years) to create. Patience and tenacity are two critical virtues each weaver had to be able to create such fantastic art! The end product is a visual story, full of icons and expressions. Flowers. Plants. Birds. Animals. Human figures. Mythical objects. Shamanistic symbols. While we all speculate and attribute the symbolism on each carpet to have a precise meaning, it really should be considered a mystery to which only the weaver knew the answer!
In pre-industrial times, each tribal weaving was a handmade work of art, created exclusively to give happiness and pride to the group who wove it. The weavers were almost always women, congregating to have a few hours of fun and swapping stories between their everyday household chores. Men helped with other pre-weaving tasks such as raising the sheep, shearing the wool, and making exotic dyes from flowers and plants to colour the wool.
Carpets were initially meant to serve as purely utilitarian objects in the nomadic tent, for example, to insulate the floor from the cold ground underneath, or as curtains to prevent chilly mountain air from getting into the tent. Over time, they also began to be woven into objects such as bags to carry clothes, grains, vessels and salt. As is natural with many such crafts, simple day-to-day weavings started to make way for beautiful works of art, some of which were woven to support sacred prayer rituals, or woven by young girls as a part of their cherished trousseau. Many of these objects became integral assets for the weavers’ families and were carefully treasured and preserved as heirlooms.
Contrary to modern city or village weaving, nomadic rugs were typically woven in or around the tent on simple makeshift looms. Seasonal migrations often created the need to dismantle a loom containing a partly woven rug at the beginning of a journey… at the end of which, the loom would be reassembled to resume and complete the weaving. These makeshift weaving facilities created very endearing uneven nuances in tribal rugs… rather than being considered as “imperfections”, they are considered highly desirable due to the authenticity these features convey in nomadic carpets.
Dyes are another intriguing and much debated topic among rug collectors… but it is probably safe to say that no one really knows! What we do know is that colours were originally made from natural sources such as flowers, roots, tree bark, and even insects! For example, blue came from indigo, red from madder, yellow from weld, and a deep bright pink cochineal came from insects. Many other colour variations exist, too numerous to list comprehensively. One interesting example is green… so abundant in nature, yet impossible to produce from a single natural source! Historically, it was obtained by dyeing the wool yellow and overdyeing it with blue, resulting in the magical green that is much sought after in old rugs! During the mid to late 19th century, the onset of chemical substances started to offer more choices in colours. By the early 20th century, these dyes were more easily available. While one can never really tell, 19th century rugs are more likely to have natural dyes and maybe some chemical dyes… the converse is probably true for 20th century rugs, which probably primarily contain chemical dyes and maybe some natural colours.
One of the most interesting groups of tribal carpets are the Gabbehs. The term “gabbeh” is a Farsi word, literally translating to “unclipped”. Gabbehs are woven by nomadic tribes from the Zagros mountain chain of southwestern Persia. The high altitude sheep from these areas yield rich quality wool with a strong lanolin content, which is what gives these rugs the shine and gloss seen in top quality gabbehs. The iconography of these rugs is simple, naive, and surprisingly “modern”. Gabbehs are woven by a number of tribes in this region, the most prolific of which are the Qashqai, followed in smaller numbers by the Luri and Bakhtiari groups.
It has become almost impossible to find gabbehs that are spontaneously woven. Most that are made available for sale appear to be rigid copies of cartoons the dealers are using to get new gabbehs made in controlled village workshops in not just Iran, but in India and Afghanistan as well. The collection currently on sale at Arastan has been consigned for a limited time from a private collector who has passionately collected these rugs over the past two decades. The collector considers them all to be “remarkably impure yet remarkably attractive”. These are all “younger” gabbehs from the 20th century, almost all containing abundant bright colours (including some that have portions of completely undyed wool). All these rugs have been woven with top quality high mountain wool. Each rug is a little piece of art… visually stunning and mysterious! We hope you will come and see this collection… and that the simplicity and boldness of these carpets will make you happy and put a smile on your face… just like it does for us!