The large variety of rugs and carpets woven in Iran (traditionally called Persia) reflect the region’s diverse artistic traditions as well as the economic circumstances of production. The Museum’s collection ranges from the ornate carpets of urban workshops to more homely examples from village weavers and the boldly decorated pieces of tribal peoples.
The Golden Age of Persian carpets, and Persian art generally, was during the Safavid dynasty (1501-1722 CE). Rulers established large city workshops employing teams of designers, dyers and weavers. They produced finely-wrought book covers, glazed tiles, dress, and pile carpets for the Persian elites.
The workshops applied the same designs to different artefacts. For example, the popular carpet format of a central medallion with triangular corner patterns was adapted from Safavid book covers. Other ornamentation included spiraling arabesques, realistic hunting scenes and luxuriant gardens, and these too become standard features in Persian and other oriental rugs. Safavid-inspired pieces in the Museum collection include a Mashad carpet, two Nain carpets and a Kashan-style hunting carpet which was woven in Kashmir.
A similar division of labour has been used since the mid-19th century by urban carpet workshops, which mass-produce carpets up to room size for export to the West. A designer’s diagram shows weavers where to place each coloured knot, resulting in a balanced design and the fine knotting needed for Safavid-style curving arabesques and realistically drawn floral patterns. Workshop examples in the Museum collection include the Mashad and Nain carpets mentioned earlier.
Iranian village women have long woven small rugs for themselves or to sell in the local bazaar, and in the late 19th century, many were organised into cottage industries by entrepreneurs. These provided dyed wool and dictated the sizes and designs, then purchased the rugs for agreed prices and exported them to the West. Village designs often follow Safavid models. However, as the weave is sometimes loose and the wool more coarsely spun, floral patterns and arabesques can be angular, rather than smoothly curved, and the rugs may display irregularities, such as abrupt tonal changes and border patterns not meeting up in corners. Powerhouse Museum examples of well-made village rugs include a Hamadan Kurdish piece, a Senneh kilim and an Arab Khamseh ‘Chicken‘ rug.
The numerous tribal groups of Iran, some nomadic and others settled, traditionally used portable ground looms to weave rugs that embodied their particular repertoire of colour schemes and designs, usually geometric; these are usually known by their tribal origin, such as Qashqa’i, Afshar, Baluch and Khamseh. Rugs for dowries and important gifts had to combine fine execution with a beauty of colour and pattern. However, as nomadism and tribal lifestyles waned in Iran under political and economic pressures during the 20th century, tribal peoples increasingly wove for the market, with an initial decline in technical and aesthetic quality which Government programs have since managed to arrest. The Museum collection contains several authentic tribal and nomadic pieces from Iran: a Qashqa’i rug, Shahsavan bedding bag, and Basiri saddle bag.
Leigh Mackay, President, Oriental Rug Society of NSW Inc, 2020