The Persian empire was one of the oldest and most powerful in the Middle East, and weaving had always been an important part of its artistic history. Unsurprisingly, the 15thand 16thcentury, the period when the Persian culture reached its peak under the Safavid dynasty, is known as the golden age of Oriental rug making.
The Safavid shahs were great patrons of the arts, and they brought skilled craftsmen from all over the empire to their capital at Isfahan. The court artisans produced rugs that were quite unlike the geometrically designed carpets found in other countries at the time. These new rugs had elegant, intricately curving designs, and they were woven with the finest materials in the most precise detail. The magnificent court rugs made for the Safavid shahs represent the height of the art of weaving. In fact, they set the standard of workmanship and design that are still used to judge the finest Persian rugs.
The Persian empire is now a distant memory, but its weaving tradition is very much alive and thriving in Iran. The country’s population includes a huge number of different ethnic groups, each with its own distinctive historical design and weaving technique. The rugs they produce can range from rustic nomadic pieces to finely detailed master workshop carpets that are descendants of the Safavid court rugs.
Modern Iranian rug production can be divided into three different categories.
The nomads and villagers
The smallest percentage of the total comes from nomadic tribes and their sedentary kinsmen who live in small farming villages. These nomads and villagers do not rely on weaving for their livelihood; their rugs are generally less expensive than master workshop or city workshop pieces. They are not as finely knotted but do have an undeniable rustic charm.
Since the nomad and village looms are more primitive, these weavers produce only small rugs; in addition, their selection of materials is usually limited to whatever is available in the area. When nomad and village rugs are completed, they are taken to a central depository in one of the nearby towns or cities. There the rugs are sheared, not unlike shearing a sheep, washed and sold to a buyer or a dealer. Nomad and village rugs can vary a great deal in the fineness (knot count) of the weaving, mainly because the only quality control is whether or not the market will accept their goods.
Contract rugs for the Bazaar
Another form of Persian rug production involves an investor who contracts carpets on speculation by providing weavers with enough capital to cover the cost of materials and labour. The weaver makes the basic decision on what patterns and colours to use, but these choices are bound by local traditions and techniques. When the contract rugs are finished, the investor gathers them up and sell them, usually to shopkeepers in the bazaars. Again, because no strict specifications are laid down, these pieces vary greatly in quality.
Finally, there are large resident companies that are responsible for the majority of Iran’s rug production. These firms have standing orders from foreign traders to export certain types and quantities of rugs, which are made in workshops that usually contain many looms, thus the ability to produce many rugs at once and to be able to create oversized rugs. These rug manufacturers subsidise their weaving and fully control it, dictating all the specification of the rugs, including colour and size. Obviously, this form of production is much more efficient than nomad or speculative weaving, and it means the quality of workshop rugs is much more consistent.