Posted by R. John Howe on 08-17-2003 05:31 PM:

Review of Book on Persian Textile Industry 1500-1925

The Persian Textile Industry
In Historical Perspective
Willem Floor

Dear folks -

A short time ago Steve Price put up in this space a notice of the publication of this book and an email address for Mr. Floor. I contacted him and subsequently bought a copy. I have read it once cover to cover, have read sections of it a second and third time and am referencing some of them again as I write this review. (Nabokov says somewhere, sagely, that one cannot really “read” a book; one can only “re-read” it.) Mr. Floor’s book is one that will benefit from re-readings, even from selective ones.

I have also loaned this volume to my learned, Farsi-speaking, Persian, friend, Jamshid Aghamolla, and will reference an indication or two he has made about it. In addition, I have a quoted comment from Peter Andrews, with whom I have shared the table of contents and the bibliography. Andrews has not read the book itself.

Mr. Floor is Dutch and retired in 2002 from his work as an energy expert at the World Bank here in Washington, D.C. He has worked for a number of years researching ancient trade records and other old sources on the Middle East textile industry.

The first thing, perhaps to note is that Mr. Floor has identified, dug out and quoted from a large number of old sources. His lengthy bibliography will likely be quite useful to other textile scholars of this period.

Secondly, it is amazing how concrete some of the information in trade records about textiles made long ago is. Here is just one sample of the sort of thing Floor reports. It is from the entry for “Tafteh or taffeta” in his glossary chapter. “In 1618, the English report that ‘Tafetas are made in great quantities, long 6.75 yards per piece, wide, 0.75 yard less two inches. Those of Yazd are worth 48 shahis.'”.

Another feature of Floor’s volume is that he gives one perspective on the wide varieties of weavings and textiles that were made in Persia during the period he covers. It becomes much clearer that the country’s weaving skills were not at all focused on rug-making, as we often seem to assume, but were centered on a wide universe of textiles of which rugs were very often (at least until the late 19th century) only a rather marginal part. In this sense it is a healthy corrective for those of us who have, perhaps, read a shade too many rug books.

Floor gets our attention with passages like this:

“…However contrary to popular belief, Europe was hardly interested in Persian fabrics or its carpets, and in the latter only as of the 1870s. Because nowadays everyone loves Safavid fabrics, as well as Persian hand-made carpets, many assume that this same attitude prevailed during the 16th-18th centuries, the golden age of Persian weaving artistry. The more so, because paintings from that era clearly show the use of Middle Eastern carpets as decoration of tables, floors, and walls of the interior of European homes. Also, because some of the surviving carpets were made to order for European royalty. Consequently, there is a strong belief, albeit a wrong one, that the trade and export of carpets from Persia to Europe has been an important activity in which Europeans and others were engaged in the 16th-18th centuries.”

Floor details a great deal of textile trade during the 16th-18th centuries, but with Persia exporting luxury fabrics, mostly to Russia and Turkey, and to some extent to Central Asia, and importing luxury textiles from India, and at least indirectly, already importing woolens, such as broad cloth, from Europe. The picture built up in his narrative is different from the ones I think that we usually have.

I need to give you a brief version of Floor’s table of contents in order to make the point I want to make next. Here it is:

I. Introduction
II. Historical Development of the Textile Industry
III. Nomenclature of Persian Textiles and Crafts
IV. The Persian Dress
V. The Persian Shawl
VI. The Kerman Goat’s Wool, or Kork

The first thing evident from Floor’s sections is that they do not comprise a sustained continuous discussion. They seem, rather, when read, to be a series of articles combined under a broader heading to make a book. This is not necessarily a criticism, but it requires some revision, as one reads, of the expectations that one might have on the basis of the title of this volume.

With only the table of contents and the bibliography in hand, Peter Andrews, said that it seems that “it somewhat resembles Wulff's 'Traditional Crafts of Persia.'”

Here is a more complete citation on this latter book.

Wulff, Hans E.
The Traditional Crafts of Persia
Cambridge: M. I. T. Press, 1966.

Floor also acknowledges explicitly very early on that his treatment of carpets will be “partial,” so those interested only in that variety of Persian textile may be disappointed in this volume.

Floor’s discussion is, from the first, peppered with Persian textile and textile-related terms that make aspects of his discussion opaque. To some extent this may be unavoidable since, my friend Jamshid Aghamolla points out that many of these terms are old, and some are colloquial, and not used any longer in modern Farsi. True, Floor provides a glossary, but one does not have the advantage of it until the third chapter, and the use of these words commences early on. I can understand why Floor might not have wanted to begin his book with a glossary, but in fact something like that is needed. Farsi speakers are likely to find this aspect of Floor’s treatment more accessible and interesting. A potentially fascinating linguistic archeology awaits them here.

While Floor has done fine work in unearthing these old sources and quotes, I found, frequently, that a series of them are merely strung together and “dumped” on the reader, often, without needed context. One finds oneself reading a quote, noticing that it has a different footnote than does the previous sentence and wondering if this reference is to the same century. And sometimes a quoted source in one sentence seems flatly to contradict its predecessor in another without comment. To be sure, Floor often marks such context and notes disagreements and even sometimes gives us the benefit of his own weighing up of the evidence concerning such disagreement, but not frequently enough for my taste. I came away from this volume wishing that Floor had shared more of his own views on the basis of his extensive knowledge of this research material.

Although this is a scholarly work and budgetary resources for illustrations were likely very limited, I often found myself reading the quite extensive descriptions of clothing items, especially in the chapter on Persian dress, and wishing that I had an illustration of what was being discussed. Verbal description is not quite adequate to the task here.

Because of its French publisher and some of the title page information, it seemed to me that this volume had been written and published French, originally, and the volume I have read was an English translation of it. Floor tells me this is not the case, that the book was written directly in English and “vetted” editorially by a Britisher. In any event, the written English is not always successful and occasionally there are grammatical errors. Most errors are of the transparent, irritating sort, rather those that make the text mysterious, but sometimes one cannot make out what is actually meant. It is sometimes the case that the budget for an academic volume of this sort does not provide for adequate editorial resources.

In the balance of this review I want to present some sentences that attracted my attention in Mr. Floor’s book. They are disparate and do not add up to any particular point.

1. “Tenreiro for example, in 1523, observes that north of Lar groups of Turkoman nomads lived who ‘weave very fine carpets of silk.’”

I find this a fascinating sentence. Lar, Floor tells me, is south of Shiraz. We get very used to the fact that parts of many tribal groups migrated or were moved to areas far from their traditional areas of residence, but isn’t it interesting that, in the early 16th century, there might have been Turkoman tribesmen in southwest Persian who were nomads, but who in spite of this, wove silk rugs?

2. Floor indicates that the 17th century, the 18th century and the early 19th century were not good times for many Persian textiles, but that things began to perk up for some of them late in the 19th century.

“However, a total outsider, carpet weaving, was to become the most important and very successful textile craft in Persia. Carpets had never played a role in Persian exports before, but the position changed radically in the 1870s partly because European merchants were looking for a suitable commodity to export from Iran, but mainly because of the growing interest for old and antique carpets in Europe. Demand for carpets increased dramatically after the World Trade Fair of 1873. Demand between 1872 and 1874 increased by 100%…By 1910 at least 65,00 persons were directly employed in this craft, as compared with only 1,000 around 1860. Carpets were also important for the economy as a whole; in 1850 the did not figure among exports, however, by 1912 they accounted for no less that 12% of the total Persian exports.”

Like Floor’s earlier indication above, this paragraph seems to me to require us to rework somewhat our usual understandings.

And just as the Persian rug weaving industry flourished, the wider Persian textile industry was at death’s door. Floor describes some items still being produced and even exported at the turn of the 20th century and then says,

“But all of these activities, the seemingly large number of available looms, the ongoing exports could not hide the fact that the curtain had fallen for the Persian textile industry. ‘The once flourishing printing and dyeing industry of Ishfahan still exists but it is no longer flourishing. […] The local prints were now more costly than foreign-made machine-made prints, and are consumed by the middle and upper classes.’ The imports of foreign Russian cotton, especially of the printed variety, became very popular among the well-to-do, who used them as carpet covers (“rufarsh”). Jobs were also lost due to change in fashion.”

3. “In the 1840-50s,'alecheh' was produced in Mazandaran and Astarabad. It was a striped manufacture of mixed silk and cotton of 9.5 yards by 14-15 inches. It was also made with waste silk or 'kej' The price was respectively, 10-20 sahebqerans and 5 sahebqerans per piece. In Astarabad it was of the refuse silk variety and as used by Turkomen women for shirts. Its length was 8 yards by 14 inches. It was sold for 4 sahebqrans per piece."

Again, it is interesting to me that by the mid-19th century Turkoman ladies were noticeably buying Persian textiles for their clothing. It would also seem to reinforce the notion in some places in the literature that there was quite a bit of interaction between nomads and town. That the nomads were in a sense far more dependent on these town contacts and sources than our more romantic images of them would suggest.

4. “Labaf or “lavvaf” or is a rope maker or tent material maker. They formed a guild in Isfahan. ‘They twist sack-makers’ thread [“qatimeh”], rope [tanab], and weave tent materials [“galeh”], nets [“tur”], bags [khur], large sacks [“juval”], saddle bags [“khurjin”] and the like. This group has not declined.’ There were 17 of them in 1870 and 120 in 1920.”

This confirms that there were, in cities, folks who specialized in making tent materials. Not just the frames but in weaving the cloth covering. But even more interesting to me is the seeming indication that some saddle bags and chuvals were woven, not by tribal weavers, but by city people who made other tent materials. One wonders who the customers were and what designs were used. Were, designs for example, specified by the nomad customers or was what would sell anticipated and selected by the city dealers and weavers? We know so little.

5. In a couple of places there are indications that at some periods in Persian society women were required to signal publicly that they were menstruating by wearing black. Here are two passages:

“Upper women had their clothes made of ‘aksun’ an expensive satin, that was often black and made in Europe. Apart from the fact that women had to wear black when they menstruated, it was also the color of mourning.”

And later on:

“Persians not only word colorful clothes but, unlike contemporary Europeans, sported a wide and varying combination of colors at the same time. Each individual piece therefore had a different color. ‘Persians like to have different part of the clothes all of a different colors, espec. the women. The sash and turban always need to be of striped fabric. Only the mollahs have clothes of one colour. They use black taffetas when women have their monthly courses, then they put on a black shirt of taffeta. Dancers at a party wearing a black shirt are allowed to dance but nobody approaches them and they eat apart.’”

These passages suggest that, in this respect, Persian social mores, in at least part of the period studied, were similar to those of other traditional societies.

6. On turbans at one point in this period:

“Because of the length of the fabric, the turbans appeared to be very big, and, moreover, they were very heavy. According to Chardin, who in the beginning had difficulty wearing one, some turbans weighed 12 to 15 pounds, the lightest weighing as much as 6 pounds.”

The size of the turban was also sometimes a source of fun and scorn.

“According to a contemporary Persian cleric: ‘One day I was in the mosque, and a man entered, dressed in white and wearing a turban so large that it looked like a small dome. He meant to give everyone the impression that he was a great scholar.'’ Darvishes made fun of large turbans worn by many members of the olama saying: ‘the larger the turban, the less brains under it.’ In respect to this the famous poem by Sa’eb is also instructive:

‘If the hugeness of the turban is an indication of learning
The dome of the Shah Mosque would be the greatest of scholars
Let not, Oh Sa’eb, the ascetic’s turban pass with you for learning
For, as in a dome, hollowness in the head creates much echo.’”

7. From Floor’s treatment of the Persian shawl.

He notes that such shawls were mostly worn by the rich. But then he says:

“The only author who mentions that the common people used pieces of shawl to adorn themselves is Fraser, although he in fact also confirms the exclusivity of shawls. He mentions that in Gorgan the women wore a dress of which ‘the sleeves are long and wide, and some gird it around the loins and the lower part of the stomach with a strip of white cloth or coarse shawl. To have a good shawl for this purpose is a point of great ambition with the Toorkoman women.’”

Although the “Gorgan” tribes were among the more settled and were geographically positioned to have information about textiles from other areas (ed. many Persian shawls were made in Kerman), it is interesting to see that Turkmen women, whom we often picture as great self-sufficient weavers, preoccupied with textiles of their own tribal tradition, were visibly interested in quite urban textiles made outside their culture and at a great distance.

8. In a final quote Floor’s sources report that some Turkmen women wove Persian shawls. “According to Varizi, the master weavers in Mashad were all from Kerman, as were the shawls warp and woof. There also appears to have been some production of coarse shawls among the Turkomans of Astarabad and Semnan, part of which were traded.”

This seems to raise the possibility that some Turkmen women envious of a Persian shawl might find one woven by another Turkmen woman.

I have not begun to summarize, in these few impressions and snippets, many useful aspects of Mr. Floor’s work in these chapters. You have not yet read here a real “review” of the book this author has written.

I think on balance that Mr. Floor’s volume is a useful addition to the literature on Middle Eastern textiles and he is to be congratulated for his wide and deep digging in old sources.

This book can be purchased. I contacted Mr. Floor by email and he directed me to a Mme. Jacqueline Calmard, with the French publisher. You can order it directly from her at the following email address:
The book cost me 50 euros (she cannot accept US dollars), including shipping to me here in Washington, D.C.

Here is the detailed publishing information on this volume:

Willem Floor
The Persian Textile Industry in Historical Perspective, 1500-1925
Paris, France: Societe d’Histoire de l’Orient. L’Harmattan, 1999
399 pages, nine line drawing illustrations, ten tables.
Bibliography, pp. 383-399
To order email Jacqueline Calmard at

I would recommend Mr. Floor’s book to those interested more comprehensively in Persian textiles made during the period of his research.


R. John Howe

Posted by R. John Howe on 08-17-2003 09:33 PM:

Why So Little About Yazd in Rug Books?

Dear folks -

One of the things I noticed as I read and re-read Mr. Floor's book is how often the city of Yazd is mentioned as a great center of weaving activity.

Yet, we seem not to have in the literature much reference to Yazd rugs.

I just looked again at Eiland and Eiland (1998) and they do provide a short treatment of Yazd rugs (pp. 143-144). They first say that Yazd was famous "particularly for fabrics other than rugs." But then also acknowledge that "Carpet weaving is an old tradition in Yazd."

They give some useful details on the character of Yazd rugs before WWII, but it appears that mostly Yazd is too close to Kerman and its rugs too often resembled Kermans and so many were/are? identified as Kermans.

Eiland and Eiland do say that they can be distinguished from Kermans in that they have two picks of cotton weft between knots. Most Kermans have three picks of cotton weft and deeply depressed alternate warps.

I also looked at Hubel (p.203). He says that that "Yesd" carpets are almost always "large in format," in sombre colors not popular for export, and are often distinguished from older Kermans only "by their blue weft." Hubel also gives them good marks for quality, saying "'Wares from Yesd' is a term of quality understood all over Iran."

Anyway, rugs from Yazd were a kind of blank for me and so it surprised me that it was a great weaving center.


R. John Howe

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 08-18-2003 03:32 AM:

Great work, John!

Although you stressed that yours is not a real "review" I find it really useful.
Your points 3 and 4 are especially interesting for their implications…
Thank you very very much!

Best regards,


Posted by R. John Howe on 08-18-2003 07:34 AM:

A Response from Mr. Floor

Dear folks -

Willem Floor and I exchanged several emails about his book, background and my review before I posted it.

I have discovered that he apparently lives in the Washington, D.C. area and it may be that we will be able to arrange coffee some day soon.

I asked him to look at my review of his book in advance and to correct any outright errors. He did so and I made some corrections. I also asked him to say anything he wanted in response to this review and he has offered some points of this sort as well.

I am going to copy his response in its entirety into this post below. It seems possible that not only has Steve Price pinpointed a useful book, but that the permutations of that may supply us here in DC with access to a useful textile expert who may be pursuaded to speak both at a Textile Museum "rug morning" and to our local rug club. Mr. Floor seems also a candidate for salon host here on Turkotek.

Here are his comments on my review:

Dear Mr. Howe,

Herewith some comments on the review of my book The Persian Textile Industry, Its Products and Their Use 1500-1925 (Paris: Harmattan: 1999).

As to my own background the following may be of interest. Until July 2002 I was working at the WB as an energy specialist, but since then I have retired and have written a number of books and articles. Maybe also of interest to your readers is my Agriculture in Qajar Iran (Washington, DC: MAGE, 2003), which deals with any- and everything agricultural in 19th-early 20th century Iran, including the production and trade in raw silk, cotton, and wool. Also the relationship between nomads and urban dwellers is discussed as well as the role of weaving as a subsistence activity for the rural population. There is also a section on rural dress as well as chapter on natural dyes used. The book (698 pages with some 90 pictures in large format) may be bought from MAGE: 1-800-962-0922 or or at or Barnes&

Another book that may be of interest is my The Traditional Crafts of Qajar Iran (Costa Mesa: Mazda, 2003), 507 pages and some 12 rare illustrations that offers information on ceramics, glass making, lighting fuels and devices, metal-working and mining technology, paper making, sugar making and trade, soap making and leather tanning. It may be bought directly from or via and Barnes&

Although having worked for the last 25 years as an energy specialist, I studied amongst other things sociology, economics, Persian, Arabic, and Islamology. In addition to my normal daily energy-related work I also kept my interest in the Middle East and wrote books and articles about the socio-economic life of Iran and the Persian Gulf during my spare time. There was not much of that, because I traveled all over the world each year (but not in the Middle East or Iran!), usually 100-120 days per year. It was in between travels that I did my research and writing as a form of relaxation to balance it with the demands of my busy job. Thus, textiles are just the result of that broader interest.

As to your comments on my book, the following. First, a general remark. The book was written out of a sense of frustration, because art historians and textile specialists did not have answers to my many questions relating to this important field of socio-economic interest. I therefore set out to find these answers myself. The book therefore represents the extent of my ignorance. Although it would seem that the book does not offer “a sustained continuous discussion,” as you have put it, it tries in fact to do so. In the first part of the reader is introduced to the raw materials (silk, cotton, wool, flax), to the variety of textile related crafts, to the diversity of weaving centers and the development over time, the organization of the royal workshops, and international trade. I point out the destructive impact the Afghan occupation (1722-30) had on Iran and in particular on its crafts. The 18th century was one of continued and sustained economic decline and it was only around 1800 that the economy started growing again due to the stability brought by the new Qajar dynasty. For the 19th century I once again discuss crafts, weaving centers, the impact of foreign trade, and the slow disappearance of the weaving of fabrics, which was partly off-set by the boom in carpet production after 1873. This first chapter indeed represents an assessment of The Persian Textile Industry 1500-1925. Because the book uses many technical terms, the second chapter provides a glossary. This glossary also shows that the simple substitution of some English equivalent is not always possible or even desirable, since the meaning of the terms often changed somewhat over time. Because the most important end-use of textiles is clothing the third chapter deals with clothing items from headgear to footwear, by century, so as to make it easier for people to read, compare, and see what changes, if any, occurred. Both these chapters thus represent the Its Products and Their Use part in the title of the book. The fourth chapter is about all you wanted always to know about shawls. What does the term really mean, what it the history of its production, what was its social and economic role and its many end-uses, what is the difference between a Cashmere and a Kerman shawl? For example, this chapter points out that in Persian the term shawl did not mean a wrap-around (although it did in India) as it is understood in the English language, but in Iran it was not used as such. In the final chapter, I discuss the geographic location, trade and other aspects of the fine down of the Kerman goats from which high-quality shawl was woven. In short, there is a logic in the book, which may not be evident at first sight, or even after having read the book. This is understandable, because the book is a storehouse of information of textiles and their craftsmen from 1500-1925. Not only the wealth of facts but also the multifarious and exotic terminology used (which modern Persians also often will find quaint) requires careful reading and re-reading, so as to get the storyline and the shades of meaning.

As to some of your other comments the follwing:
Carpets were woven all over Iran, but until 1873 were not a major export item. There had always been some export of carpets, but never anything like what happened after 1873. So, when I wrote that carpet weaving was marginal I meant to say that although omni-present it was production for the local market. Also, production of coarse cottons was much more common and needed, because they did not last as long as carpets did.

I agree with your wish for more illustrations. However, cost made that impossible. May be if I had approached another publisher, but being very busy I had neither the time nor the patience to do so, and therefore opted for the Societe d’Histoire, also to help their revenues. May be I should republish the book with additional material that I have found/written since then, but this would require some funds, which are always difficult to get. Given the fact that actual 19th century samples are available in the archives for many of the fabrics mentioned in the Glossary would make this a worthwhile undertaking.

The book was not originally written in French, but directly in English. I understand a native speaker’s irritation with a foreigner mangling his/her language, but there is no easy solution to that. I had an English native speaker (a Brit no less) vet my inadequate use of the English language, but apparently some mistakes still remain. So be it. There is always a trade-off between quality and cost. The book as it stands now costs I believe $40; it could have been fully edited, but then the price would more likely have been $50, and therefore possibly reducing the number of purchasers and making its publication impossible. This leaves aside the question that somebody must be willing to pay the up-front editing cost that only can be earned back piece-meal. This is not attractive to a cash-strapped publisher. Publishing books of this nature is only getting more difficult.

As to your quotes of some sentences. Correct, Lars into Lar, which is south of Shiraz

As to your comments to your observation 3 that nomads were dependent on urban contacts may I refer you and other interested readers to my recent book Agriculture in Qajar Iran (Washington, DC: MAGE, 2003) chapter 8.

As to observation 4. Tents were also much used by urban people, either for outings in the countryside or as awnings and the like inside the town. Nomads usually made their own tents and tenting.

As to observation 7. Please note that shawl means a variety of things. First it means a sturdy coarse woolen fabric; secondly it means a very refined, high-quality woolen fabric; third, it means a fabric (made of silk, cotton, or wool or a combination these materials) that displays the same patterns as the refined woolen [Cashmere-type] shawls. The Torkoman women wore a cheap version of 2 or a more refined version of 1. They did not wear, unless they were rich women, Kerman shawls. As you cited another quote of mine where it is clear that Torkomans wove shawls, but they were of a coarse variety.

Posted by R. John Howe on 08-25-2003 07:25 AM:

Wulff Book Distinctive From Floor’s

Dear folks -

Peter Andrews, armed only with the table of contents, a brief passage from the glossary and the bibliography suggested that Floor’s book, reviewed above, might be similar to Hans E. Wulff’s “The Traditional Crafts of Persia,” The MIT Press, 1966.

As it happens, I have been able rather quickly to obtain a copy of Wulff’s book. I can see why, given the glossary portion and the bibliography he has seen, Peter might suggest that the books themselves are similar.

They do have aspects of similarity, in addition to the fact that both have a long bibliography and a glossary of related terms. They even both draw on deep historical roots in their respective discussions.

But Wulff’s work has far more breadth than does the Floor book. Here is a brief version of Wulff’s table of contents.

Metalworking Crafts
Woodworking Crafts
Building and Ceramic Crafts
Textile and Leather Crafts
Agriculture and Food-treating Crafts
Review of Literature

The craft that is the focus for Floor’s entire book is treated in Wulff’s in about 40 pages.

Floor’s book places rug weaving, usefully in the broader spectrum of the Persian textile industry. Wulff’s treatment provides a similar perspective and context for textile weaving as a part of the world of traditional Persian crafts.

Floor and Wulff do draw on some of the same literature, especially very old accounts by travelers and Wulff makes some claims for existing textiles that seem astounding to me. Floor has mostly examined the primary resources of trade records, while Wulff has often used secondary resources. It is not clear to me how some of the things he claims about old textiles comport with more recent research by folks like Elizabeth Barber and even that reported in Hali 100 by John Wertime. Regardless, the basic sources consulted by these two authors are quite distinctive.

In addition, while Floor describes the textiles themselves as they are portrayed in trade records, Wulff’s treatment is much more of a “how to” variety with a great deal more discussion of the methods, tools and processes used in traditional Persian crafts.

Another noticeable difference is that Wulff’s book is profusely illustrated. It contains 423 illustrations plus a map. Many of these illustrations are photos taken in the early to middle 20th century and may not provide accurate images of how things were done in the more distant past.

Anyway, Wulff’s book is also deserving of a competent review and is recommended for those interested more broadly in the Persian crafts of his title.

I was able to purchase my “ex libra” copy for $14.50 including mailing.


R. John Howe