Nowadays, rugs are a convenient commodity used to dress up a hard floor, but they weren’t always used this way. Rugs started as practical tools, morphed into an exquisite art form and were later mass produced in the Western world, opening up the market to a wide swath of people who may not have been able to enjoy cost-prohibitive handmade imports.
The Origin of the Rug
The first rugs were created by nomadic peoples of central Asia thousands of years ago for utilitarian purposes. Because the nomads herded sheep, they had plenty of wool on hand to make rugs. They also lived in a cold environment that made woolen products appealing for the warmth and comfort they provided. Fabrication was simplified thanks to portable, makeshift horizontal looms that were laid on the ground.
Unlike today, rugs were originally multipurpose tools that could be used as:
- Table and bench coverings
- Tent flaps
- Wall tapestries
Oriental and Persian Rugs
From these early nomadic traditions sprung so-called “Oriental rugs” produced in Asia. Persian rugs, a subset of Oriental rugs made in the area that’s now Iran, prevailed during this time.
Two rugs famously exemplify the history and artistry of rugs made in the Persian tradition.
The Pazyryk carpet is the oldest rug in the world, dating back between the fifth and fourth century B.C. It was excavated from burial tombs in the Altai Mountains of Siberia. The entire carpet measures approximately 72 by 79 inches and is made of densely knotted wool. The intricate design consists of crosses, lotus buds, deer, griffins and men riding horses.
The Ardabil carpet is the second, much more elaborate and splendid rug. This carpet is half of a pair, the counterpart being the Coronation carpet which was partially destroyed in order to restore the first. The rug was created in 1539/40 A.D. for the shrine of Safi al-Din Ardabili, the leader of the Safavid dynasty. It spans an immense 34.5 feet by 17.5 feet and features 340 knots per square inch, allowing for an ornate and cohesive design. At the center of the rug is a large golden medallion surrounded by colorful ovals and two hanging lamps flanked by intricate floral signs.
Both rugs demonstrate the long history of rug making in Asia – Persia specifically – and reflect the customs standard at the time. For example, every city, town or maker would have their own unique knotting technique and design motifs incorporated into each tapestry. Floral patterns indicated production in a city, while geometric patterns were more typical of small towns and nomads.
Rugs during this time were knotted using wool and silk and dyed with natural materials like:
- Mulberry bush fungus
- Iron and vinegar
Introduction of Rugs to Europe
Rugs became a popular commodity shortly after trade between Asia and Europe became more commonplace. Islamic prayer rugs reached a wider audience as the religion spread to Spain and Eastern Europe. At the same time, merchants were trading rugs through Istanbul and exporting them for sale in Venice, where they gained widespread popularity. Rulers and those of the noble classes in Italy began to take a liking to the rug designs, solidifying their place in European culture.
The Mechanization of Rug Making
Rugs, as we know them now, didn’t truly take off in the United States until mechanization made them affordable enough for the typical family. Before the rugs we have today, Americans relied on less durable varieties of carpet, like:
- Ingrain carpet
- Painted canvas
- “Rag” rugs
- Hooked rugs
- Designer rugs on burlap backing
- Venetian carpet
- Shawl striped carpet
- Birdseye carpet
- Straw mats
Everything changed when Erastus Bigelow invented a power loom for weaving carpets in 1838. Weaving became two to three times faster, enabling more efficient and affordable production and increased sales. By 1849, these looms incorporated the Jacquard mechanism invented by Frenchman Joseph Marie Jacquard, allowing a single operator to produce more intricate rugs designs. The system worked by transferring the desired rug pattern to a punched card, similar to the mechanisms behind pianolas and early computers.
In the 1900s, tufted carpet was introduced to America by Catherine Evans Whitener, who crafted handmade bedspreads and rugs in Georgia. The invention of the tufting machine in the 1930s made her chenille-style rugs increasingly popular, and they became common accessories in American homes with the introduction of synthetic rug materials in the 1940s and ’50s. Today, more than 90 percent of rugs in the U.S. are tufted.
Maintain Your Rugs With Great American Rug Cleaning
Rugs are one of the oldest forms of artistry thanks in no small part to their combined beauty and functionality. They can also last a long time when properly cared for, as evidenced by the Pazyryk and Ardabil carpets, which is why it’s important you preserve the history of your rug with regular cleanings.
At Great American Rug Cleaning, we use a precise 10-point process to ensure your rug remains in as close to mint condition as possible. We also offer rug repairs to restore your rug to its former glory as well as many other rug-related services. Call us today at (281) 255-2407 for your instant quote.