Transcaucasian Rugs

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Karabagh rugs Sumak rugs Shirvan rugs Kazak rugs

    One might suppose that, shut off from their Daghestan neighbors by so grim a barrier as the main chain of the Caucasus, the weaving peoples of the lower districts would have looked to Persia for artistic inspiration, and that their textiles would rather have followed the patterns of Kirman, Sehna or Feraghan than the severe models of the North. But it is not so; the majority of Transcaucasian rugs are more in conformity with the Daghestan theory of design than are some of the products of Daghestan itself.

    They are made on the southern slope of the Caucasus and in the country included between the Kur and Aras rivers. The wool supply here leaves little to be desired, since these plateaus are famous for the quality of their sheep. The old rugs of the region generally are marked by durability and by the permanence and harmonious blending of their colors. Like the Daghestans, they were originally made with no thought that they were to be extensively sold, and were found only in small sizes. Nowadays nearly the whole output is destined for export, and rugs of all dimensions are produced. This is especially true of the Soumaks, which, under the more seductive but wholly erroneous title of "Kashmir," have attained wide popularity. They are now made as large as twelve by fifteen feet.

    Karabagh Rugs. — These, in point of quantity, constitute nowadays a very considerable portion of the whole Transcaucasian output. The old rugs of Karabakh were excellent, although they never, within the memory of man, attained to the high artistic standard which has prevailed in the products of cities farther south. The finest of them were still sufficiently substantial to rank as useful rather than decorative fabrics. Competent judges declare them to have been better than the best Kazaks.

    The old province of Karabagh lies to the north of the Aras river, in the angle, which that historic stream forms with the Kur. As an ancient dependency of Persia it acquired the Iranian mastery of color, and in the old pieces there is as fine a display of the dyer's skill as in any rug of Kirman. The floral elements entered in, too, but most of the forms were stiff and conventional and the distribution was in the manner peculiar to the Caucasus. The rug weavers of Karabagh are divided, like those of other provinces, into two classes — the Elats or nomads and the Takhta-Kapon (wooden door), which signifies the villagers, or people who dwell in houses. Both are Shiah Mohammedans. There are many Russian Armenians, too, in the towns. The nomad weavings have here, as elsewhere, stood out longest against the tendencies of the time, and some of them, even now, are good imitations of old-time rugs.

    Since the province passed out from under Persian control, the rugs have borrowed more and more from the patterns of the North. It is to the North, now, that the people turn as the source of power, authority, learning, wealth, everything. Some of the later rugs are good copies of the Daghestans in point of design, and even of color arrangement. But as textiles they have neither the quality nor the finish of the genuine Daghestan. They have the Daghestan brightness, and more, but their comparative coarseness, and, it may be, the inferior skill of the dyers, has deprived them of all that might be termed fine effects. Where the Daghestan is brilliant, the modern Karabakh is loud, in white, blue, red and yellow. This is caused chiefly by startling masses of white, either in the grounds of the border or in the central field.

    The production of Karabakhs, which can be transported from the looms to the Russian railway in two or three days, has of late been pushed forward without stint. The range of designs is almost limitless. Anything will serve. In some of them the field is mapped off into hard squares, like those of the well-known Bokhara pattern. In others there is no pretense at body pattern at all, merely the border stripes surrounding a field of solid color. Western rugs and Wilton rugs are also copied. In yet others, set devices of uncertain origin, but strangely resembling the spatter patterns seen in modern China silk rugs, are repeated in several alternating colors, and, with little other attempt at design, make up the entire filling of the rug. The effect is blotchy, inconsistent, and anything but pleasing, especially where, as is often the case, an effort is made to retain in the borders the pure Daghestan character.

    The Muscovite influence is perceptible lately, in more or less successful attempts at genre figures, such, for example, as a full-length representation of a Russian official, in gray uniform, and with a red and white bandanna protruding with most un-Oriental suggestion from the skirt pocket of his coat. This simulacrum of authority is pictured upon a black field, and set off with nondescript figures in several colors. The borders have no stripe arrangement, but consist of actual flowers, grouped about the center-piece in a manner purely rococo.

    In the borders of some of the original Karabaghs is discovered the reciprocal trefoil, as it is called by European experts, who declare it to be an essential mark of the so-called "Polish" rugs and other famous fabrics believed to be related to them.1 This device will be noticed later in modified form in many Mosul and Persian as well as Turkoman and Beluchistan fabrics.

    A point of wide difference between the Daghestan and Karabagh fabrics is the fringe. In the latter-day rugs, instead of taking the trouble to elaborate the fringe, the weaver simply withdraws the rod which holds the warp, and the looped ends are left uncut, to do duty on one end as fringe; on the other the warp and weft are woven into a web just wide enough to be turned back and sewed. The warp is white or brown wool; the weft is sometimes colored throughout. The sides in the old pieces are usually finished with a narrow selvage; in the moderns they are apt to be overcast, which saves time and labor. In the poorer grades of moderns heavy yarn is used to make up for the wretchedly coarse weaving, and dyes and workmanship are unmistakably bad. Yet these horrors are put forward for sale as "antique Daghestans."

    Sumak or Soumak Rugs. — It is the shaggy ends of the colored nap-yarns, left loose at the back of these rugs, which has given them the name of "Kashmir". The dealers foster the title for the monetary value of the suggestion it embodies, and in some quarters a belief prevails that the rugs are really the product of that vale in northern India, whose shawls, until their manufacture was debauched and ultimately destroyed by European traders, were accounted the most perfect textiles in the world.

    The true name of the so-called "Kashmir" rugs is Shemakha, derived from the city where they are marketed. This has been distorted into Soumak and Sumak. It is best to continue to call them by their recognized name.

    Shemakha was capital of the ancient Khanate of Shirvan, which was ceded to Russia by Persia in 1813. The province lies along the coast of the Caspian, as far south as the river Kur. Today it is divided into two districts — Shemakha and Djevat. Both appertain to the government of Baku, the terminal of the trans-Caspian railroad, and up to a few years ago a great rug-collecting port. Shemakha is a market-place for Daghestan, Kabistan, "Chi-chi," and Shirvan rugs, as well as those of its own district.

    The patterns are mainly the geometrical forms found in all Daghestan fabrics, and for a very good reason, since the district where they are made is in the range of the mountains, and with only the ridge at its back separating it from Daghestan.

    There is no difficulty in discerning the likeness between the Shirvan and Soumak rugs. In many old examples the designs and colors are practically identical; the difference, as has been stated, is in the texture. Both resemble the Daghestan in device and color distribution, though the treatment is different.

    The Soumaks are woven with a flat stitch, which with the loose yarns at the back of the rug, constitutes the only ground for the fictitious title of "Kashmir". These peculiarities identify them beyond all doubt, for no other rugs resemble them in this respect.

    They formerly came only in small or medium sizes, and the oldest specimens are fine, carefully woven, fast dyed, and beautiful rugs. The demand for large pieces has been met with fabrics made on the same plan, but with coarse, grayish-brown warp in place of the white wool, and with a heavy, common quality of surface yarn, loosely woven to save labor. The dyes in many of these "bargain-counter" pieces are distressingly bad, and the evil is growing as time goes on. The designs are also deteriorating. Some consolation is to be had, however, from the fact that even now something like ten or even fifteen per cent, of the Shemakhas which find their way to the American market are made in close keeping with the old requirements.

    The stitch may be called an over-and-over method. Sometimes each turn of the surface yarn in which the pattern is produced takes in two threads of the warp, sometimes three. The stitches lie slantwise of the fabric, and each row reverses the direction of that employed in the preceding row, so that the grain of the surface resembles an ordinary herring-bone weave. The weft is in most cases carried across and back after every two rows of stitches. In the old rugs it was carried one way after a single row was finished, and back after the next row, making a fine, closely compacted body. In such there were ten or twelve rows of stitches to the inch perpendicular, not, of course, counting the weft threads. In the moderns, eight stitches to the inch is the average of a good grade. The coarse qualities have as low as six, the yarn being very large and heavy, and the weft is thrown across one way after every three rows.

    Very coarse Karabagh and Shirvan designs of all sorts, shipped from Shemakha, have come to be known among Caucasian traders as Shemakinski — and the term is a synonym for bad weaving, as Kaba-Karaman is in Anatolia.

    shirvan rugs. — So far as numbers go, the rugs sold as Shirvans are well nigh as important a part of the Caucasian output as are the Karabaghs. In texture the average modern Shirvan is rather better than the Karabagh, but deterioration, particularly in the matter of dyes, is apparent, in many of the grades.

    The earlier Shirvans are not plentiful in the markets now. They are well made, and have all the old richness and stability of color. A feature of many of them is the dissonance between border and central field, in color and design. In the borders, for instance, some of them carry one broad stripe, sustained by narrow guard-stripes, and displaying in brilliant red upon a white ground, and with no trace of other colors, a combination design of the arabesque order, reinforced with conventionalized flower patterns suggesting the Ladiks, or more remotely, the Ghiordes, although more definite than either of these. All the border area presents this arrangement of red and white. In the body of the rug the ground-color is apt to be a rich and lustrous blue, almost of the peacock tinge, upon which is laid, in yellow, with the addition of some red, the diagonal lattice-work common in Daghestans; but here it is drawn in the softer, more irregular fashion of the Mosuls. Others of these antiques have the selfsame fine geometrical designs shown in the Soumaks, but knotted, of course, instead of worked in the pileless stitch. The borders sometimes depart from the Caucasian forms and, as in some old Karabaghs, show separate realistic flower devices at regular intervals. These flowers are frequently in the profile drawing, declared by some experts to be an Asia Minor characteristic, and are devoid of all the rectilinear Caucasian character.

    The modern Shirvan rugs are a multitude, and serve well the purposes of ordinary use. Their designs have not undergone the degeneration of the Karabaghs, but for the most part follow quite steadfastly the old models. The better qualities, especially those which show traces of Persian influence, are often marketed for the Tartar type of Shiraz rugs made in the Persian provinces of Fars and Lar. To forestall this substitution is sometimes difficult. The materials of the foundation offer small aid. For both warp and weft of the best Shiraz fabrics of the sort mentioned white wool is used, but in the coarse moderns black wool or even goat's-hair may be found; in the same fashion the antique Shirvans have wool foundation throughout, while the modern warp is of coarse brown or white wool, or a mixed yarn of two strands, one brown and the other white. The weft, if not of wool, is of cotton, and four threads are sometimes put in after each row of knots, as in the genuine Kazaks and Samarkands. The most reliable way of distinguishing them is by the peculiar checked or patterned particolored selvage at the ends, referred to in the description of the Shiraz rugs. In nine out of ten of the Shiraz fabrics it will be found in some form, in the Shirvans seldom if ever. The ends of Shirvans have the cloth web woven of the warp and weft threads, extending an inch or more beyond the pile, in addition to which many have a fringe made by knotting the gathered strands of the warp after the manner of ordinary machine-made fringe. In many moderns the warp ends are simply left loose for a finishing, to save time. In some of them the sides, instead of being overcast or selvaged, have the body finish.

    Kazak rugs — There is a tribe of nomad Kazaks inhabiting the hills about Nova Bayezid and Lake Goktcha in Erivan. They are an old offshoot of the great hordes whose home is in the Kirghiz steppes and whose kinsmen are scattered over the southern districts of Russia away to the banks of the Don. "Kazak" means virtually a roughrider. It describes the whole race of these restless, roaming, troublesome people, who, in a sense, are born, live, and die in the saddle. It is the original of the name Cossack, which is familiar to all the world.

    The Kazaks of the Kirghiz steppes weave rugs, but, it is conceded, chiefly for home use. Nearly all the Kazak fabrics, which come to market, are made — or were originally made — in the district of Transcaucasia just mentioned. This Kazak colony, which invaded the neighborhood while yet Transcaucasia was reckoned in the Persian domain, is Sunni Mohammedan in faith, for a long time its rugs were made after the models of the North, but of late have begun to show more likeness to the Karabagh type made throughout the surrounding country. This is chiefly the work, not of the Kazaks, but of Armenians, who inhabit the villages in the district, and who, having learned the weaving trade from the shepherds, proceeded to develop a type for themselves, better suited, they thought, to the requirements of the market. It leaned toward the Karabaghs. From Nova Bayezid, where most of the rugs are exchanged for other commodities, the Armenian storekeepers make large shipments from time to time. About seventy-five per cent, of these are of the old-fashioned Kazak order. The remainder are degenerate Kazaks or out and out Karabaghs.

    Antique Kazak fabrics of the best sort are few now. Occasionally an old, patched, threadbare specimen comes to light to rebuke the latter-day products, which bear the name. Bad dyes have made a mockery of many of the moderns. Great stains of some unstable color, usually magenta, soaked over perhaps one-third of the fabric, tell the sad story of their deterioration. Many a dealer has had these loose-dyed rugs left upon his hands.

    The older ones have a remarkable softness. They are thick and heavy; the tufts or knots of the pile are longer than those of almost any old Oriental rugs. The peculiar feature is that four threads of the weft are thrown across after every row of knots, as in the Samarkands. In this way the tufts forming the pile are made to overlap each other smoothly instead of standing nearly upright, as do those of most other fabrics. The only saving accomplished by thus burdening the rug with weft-threads is that of time.

    The original designs are strong and characteristic to a degree — big, geometrical figures, upon fields of magnificent red or green, which half a century of wear and exposure will scarcely suffice to dim. Throughout the field are distributed detached figures-crosses, particolored diamonds, squares and circles and disproportioned representations of birds, trees, animals and human beings, all in the most archaic drawing and most primitive color. In the borders are many variations of the latch-hook feature, and a reciprocal saw-tooth pattern distinctive of some Caucasian fabrics. This same border often appears in the Persian Sarabands. Persian weavers call it the sechandisih — "teeth of the rat."

    The Kazaks are usually finished with a stout selvage at the sides, and at the ends with a shaggy fringe, which may be omitted from one end to allow the web formed from warp and weft to be turned back and hemmed. The most common sizes are from three to six feet wide by five to eight feet long.

    The whole effect, whether the rug be of great or small dimensions, is stoutness. Many of the older ones are almost square, one measurement exceeding the other sometimes by only three or four inches. Occasionally an example is found with one end finished in a knotted rope's-end fringe resembling that mentioned as belonging to the coarser rugs of the Mosul province in Turkey.

    In the later products there is a tendency to imitate some of the more ornamental patterns of the Kabistans. The stripe arrangement of the field, and lumbering versions of the pear pattern are seen, but in nearly all cases there is preserved one figure thoroughly typical of the old Kazaks, a conventional form which will be recognized at once from its likeness to the tarantula, of which it is probably an actual representation, but having become a standard element in the decoration of this region, it has taken on complications and formal ornamentation which in a measure obscure the resemblance. In some of the better modern pieces this idea has been developed in the most artistic manner, two of these figures appearing in great size in the central field, upon a ground of splendid red. The borders have the heavy patterns typical of Kazaks.

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Karabagh rugs Sumak rugs Shirvan rugs Kazak rugs

References:


So-called "Polish" rugs:
"The intercourse between the East and the Venetian and other Italian States in the Middle Ages infused an Oriental spirit into European work after the sixteenth century. About that time a Pole named Mersherski visited Persia and India, and on his return to Warsaw brought with him native workmen, with whom he established a manufactory of Oriental fabrics in that city. He had procured kincobs and other stuffs in India and rugs in Persia, which he used as models. In the kincobs gold and silver threads were woven with silk and cotton, and many imitations of these are still in existence. But whether he found rugs in the East with this mixture is uncertain. Of the rugs made by him, having gold and silver interwoven with silk, very few remain to our day… The Polish handicraftsmen seemed at first to have only copied originals, but gradually they worked details into their designs which, though tinged with Eastern ideas, are a departure from the old models, and if carefully examined these productions present a singular mixture of the old Persian character with quite a new element… It is as if the Mongolians who invaded Poland in 1241 had left traces of their art, which remain as a permanent influence." — Robinson: "Eastern rugs".
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Likeness to the tarantula:
"On voit sous la lettre un tapis Boukhare, qui se distingue par l'éclat des couleurs et par un remarquable mélange de dessins rappelant des scorpions, des tarentules, les constants compagnons de voyage des traditions populaires. Pas de conte ou Ton ne voie jouer un rôle à la tarentule Kara-coute, qui est considéré comme particulièrement venimeuse." Simakoff: "L'Art de l'Asie Centrale".
"Boukhare" is used by Simakoff to designate the whole of Turkestan. The rugs which he here calls "tapis Boukhare" were the Yomuds. The manner in which they come to have many of the border patterns common to the Caucasians is made clear in the section on Yomud, under the general class of Turkoman fabrics.
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