Thick Pile Legacy - the Enduring Turkish Rug

By Gani, Martin | The World and I, July 2002 | Go to article overview

Thick Pile Legacy - the Enduring Turkish Rug


Gani, Martin, The World and I


Wandering Istanbul's mazelike grand bazaar, I was attracted to a large rug with an intricate floral design displayed in one store. A young vendor materialized next to me as I studied the rug through the window. "Do you like it?"

"Very pretty."

"It's pure silk, handmade in Hereke. Do you know how long it took to make this carpet?"

"Three months?" I guessed.

"Three years! There are a million knots in each square meter," he boasted.

"Don't tell me how much it costs then. I don't think I can afford it."

We both laughed.

After this short conversation, I got the rug bug. It struck me that I'd been looking at a work of art. I burned to know more. I soon discovered that Turkish rugs are more cultural symbols than pretty floor coverings, and they have been around as long as the Turks themselves. I also learned that the small town of Hereke is one of Turkey's foremost rug producers.

Thirty-eight miles to the east of Istanbul, Hereke has been famous for its rugs for hundreds of years. It moved to the forefront of the industry around 1890, when Sultan Abdul Hamid II set up new workshops there to meet the needs of his imperial court. The sultan wanted to beautify his palaces, impress visiting Western dignitaries with the best carpets the Ottoman Empire produced, and offer them as gifts. The demand for the town's handcrafted carpet/artworks today still outstrips supply.

Many other towns such as Bursa, Kayseri, Konya, Usak, Gordes, Bergama, and Sivas are almost as well known as Hereke, producing rugs that have been recognized in art history books and carpet manuals. What is less known is that there are hundreds of rug-producing townships and villages across Turkey, where women quietly work at their looms in complete anonymity. In fact, women have done this for generations, their craft skills having been passed down through the centuries. Today villagers either individually market their products or join a cooperative.

I decided to visit a cooperative in Avanos, close to Kayseri in central Turkey, to see rug manufacturing for myself. Women of all ages in bright blouses, dark printed skirts, and head scarves were deftly knotting elaborate designs on vertical looms. A fast-talking guide eagerly explained the whole process to me. The wool to be used is sheared from live animals only, he explained. Apparently wool from deceased animals is not as soft or smooth and lacks luster. The dyeing process uses plant extracts exclusively for coloring, but it was the knotting process that fascinated me. I asked some weavers if it was hard to learn. "It needs a lot of concentration and patience," one responded timidly. "But it's immensely satisfying to see the completed rug."

"We've done it for so many generations that it's as natural as making tea," said another softly. "It's like meditation while hands work almost automatically," added another. I watched the weavers from a distance. They really did seem to be in deep meditation. Their fingers appeared to move gracefully, just like those of a harp player.

Turks traditionally use a double-knotting method, commonly known as symmetric or Turkish knotting, in making pile rugs, which renders the product sturdier and more compact. This method is preferred to the single-knot (asymmetric or Persian knot) used in Iran, India, and China.

"Cotton, silk, or rayon can all be used to make pile rugs," my guide explained. "Cotton ones will last longer but won't be as soft as wool or silk rugs. Silk should not be mixed with wool or cotton. All three yarns--the warp (vertical), weft (horizontal), and the knot itself-- must be silk."

"How can one tell it's not machine-made?" I couldn't help but inquire. He smiled and nodded as if to say that he was expecting the question. "In hand-knotted rugs," he continued, "the design is seen as a mirror image on the back. …

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