Placing a covering of some sort over a floor or other indoor walking surface probably originated with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The desire for a barrier for additional warmth from the cold ground and comfort for the feet is instinctual, our earliest ancestors most likely using strewn plant materials and animal skins prior to perfecting skills in weaving and creating fabrics.
To explain the terminology before launching into the history and visual examples, rug and carpet are technically interchangeable. In the modern era, we tend to think of a carpet as a wall-to-wall variation, opposed to a rug covering a smaller area of the bare floor or thrown atop the carpet. Our ancestors, however, would not have differentiated in that way. Until the late 19th century, a carpet was any type of surface covering, even one on a table or wall or bed, whereas a rug typically referred to the floor cloth or skin, as well as what we would today call a “lap-robe” or blanket. And just to confuse even more, a blanket was also called a blanket!
From the etymology, one can ascertain the subtle differences which allowed the two words to evolve into their present-day applications. Yet, even today, the separation between a rug and carpet is not as wide as we may presume. From the 15th century, both referred to coverings for the floor, with the sense of rug for the smaller sort unseen before the 18th century. Interestingly, the Encyclopedia Britannica lists them together. Historical writings are replete with references to the art of rug weaving, with fragments found in Egyptian tombs and Mesopotamic ruins showing an advanced ability to weave both flat and pile carpets.
The oldest surviving pile carpet is the Pazyryk, excavated from a burial mound in Siberia in 1947, preserved in the frozen ice. It dates to the 5th century B.C. and is incredibly detailed in design and richly colored. It measures 6’6″ x 6’0″ and framed by a border of griffins. Pile fabrics are materials consisting of a strong backing of ordinary weave with extra threads knotted in to form a somewhat raised surface, the technique an advanced method of carpet creation. The eminent authority of ancient carpets, Ulrich Schurmann, says of it, “From all the evidence available I am convinced that the Pazyryk rug was a funeral accessory and most likely a masterpiece of Armenian workmanship.”
Other B.C. cultures famed for carpet weaving and design include Armenia, Afghanistan, and Azerbaijan. As civilization advanced, Turkey, China, Persia, India, and Pakistan created carpets woven with unique fabrics, superior weaving skills, fantastic designs, and immense sizes. The mastery of these ancient artisans is legendary.
With rare exception, people living in the far western Europe were unaware of these eastern treasures. Or if aware, the carpets which did traverse the miles were so highly valued that only royalty or the wealthiest could acquire them.
Crusaders who traveled to the Middle East during the 11th century returned with exotic carpets and the resulting opened trade routes increased the flow into Europe. Hand-knotted rugs were made in Europe by the Saracens of southern Spain as early as the 13th century, the artisans inspired by the Oriental imports. The Moors invading France in that century founded several rug factories.
In Persia, carpet weaving developed during the 14th and 15th centuries, reaching the height of artistry and technique during the reign of Shah Abbas in the 16th century. Isfahan was the center of the Persian rug industry, the patterns intricate in rich colors and in deep pile weave. Fine Persian rugs often had as many as 1,000 knots per square inch. These rugs, as well as those made in Turkey, were imported into Western European countries as early as the 15th century. During this period originates the Ardabil carpet, the most splendid, famous rug in the world. One of a pair made by Maksud the Keshani in 1540 (or 1586) for the Mosque of Ardebil, it is on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
During the reign of King Henry IV of France (1553–1610), a group of Persian weavers was persuaded to leave Isfahan and work in the Louvre Palace in Paris. In the 1590s, Pierre Dupont, who is credited with being the inventor of new carpet-weaving techniques in the days of the Renaissance and inspired by the Persian and Oriental master weavers, was appointed “Carpet Maker to the King.” As such, Dupont was honored with a residence at the Palace of the Louvre and a workshop for his carpet and tapestry weaving industry. In 1628, a carpet factory was started in a former soap factory at Chaillot, France. French weavers of Savonnerie rugs created designs in vibrant colors on deep backgrounds based on Oriental motifs, but later designs followed French period styles.
The 17th century saw the rise of England as a major center of the European rug and carpet industry. Knotted pile carpet weaving technology came to England in the early 16th century when Flemish Calvinists fleeing religious persecution settled in Norwich. A number of them were weavers and the fine carpets that have survived are referred to as “Norwich carpets.” In 1655 a carpet factory was built at Wilton in Wiltshire, Huguenot weavers fleeing France settling in the area enhancing the prestige of Wilton carpets. So much so that in 1699 Wilton carpet weavers were granted a Royal Charter. In 1720, the Earl of Pembroke persuaded a group of weavers from the Savonnerie factory to join the Wilton weavers and teach locals how to make Brussels carpet (a type of machine-made floor covering with the loops of the pile uncut).
Over the subsequent hundred years, dozens of carpet makers established businesses in England, many still in operation to this day. Until the invention of the power loom by English inventor Edmund Cartwright during the 1780s, these carpets were primarily hand-sewn and woven. Thus, professionally woven rugs and carpets were costly. The common man throughout most of Europe continued to utilize rushes and straw over their floors, the pelts of animals, or simple fabric braided rugs into the 17th century.
Wealthy Europeans, especially royalty and others of the aristocracy, quickly made use of carpets for beauty and comfort on their floors, but also for wall hangings and to cover tables. Oriental rugs were still preferred by the wealthy, and paintings of past eras inevitably displayed the exotic, costly carpets under the feet of those in the portraits. It took close to a century before the European skill to create sturdy and beautiful carpets surpassed those imported from the Far East regions. After all, they had been doing it for millennia!
Nonetheless, the artistry was present and advanced, the Industrial Revolution aiding in the cost-effectiveness of manufacturing rugs accessible to all. It would not be until the late 19th to 20th century that power machinery and synthetic fabrics allowed the creation of carpet by the yard that could be sized to fit entire rooms. Nonetheless, the artistry was present and advanced, the Industrial Revolution aiding in the cost-effectiveness of manufacturing rugs accessible to all. Even so, not until the 20th century would power machinery and synthetic fabrics allow the creation of carpet in multiple yard sizes to fit entire rooms.
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