Journal Home Page Attribution Guides Collector Exhibits Links


Salon du Tapis d'Orient

The Salon du Tapis d'Orient is a moderated discussion group in the manner of the 19th century salon devoted to oriental rugs and textiles and all aspects of their appreciation. Please include your full name and e-mail address in your posting.

The "Ethnographic" Rug

by Jerry Silverman

Nomenclature - the giving of names to things - is the touchstone of all oriental rug collecting. Until we can name something, we can't collect it. This is a seemingly obvious point but nonetheless an important one for those of us who are interested in the sort of rugs that bring us here to TurkoTek.

While it is okay for Shakespeare to opine that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet," there still must be some general agreement as to what those sweet-smelling flowers are named before we can study, compare, contrast and collect them. In the study of oriental rugs that general agreement has already been achieved (within debatable limits) on names like workshop rugs, village rugs and nomadic rugs among others. Having reached something of a consensus of these terms we can then use them as a shorthand to describe our tastes, our collecting interests, our passions.

I'd like to return to a subject that was briefly addressed at ACOR II in an exhibition (and catalog) called: "Mideast Meets Midwest: Ethnographic Rugs from Midwestern Collections." And that is: can rugs also be categorized as "ethnographic"? For the purposes of starting this discussion, I'd like to propose that ethnographic rugs are rugs that are woven for non-commercial purposes.

While it is impossible to know for sure the weaver's intent (none of us was there), intent can be inferred. (See Daniel's rejection of Wendel's salatchak in Salon B as a possible "baby wrap.")

Ethnographic: The Easily Agreed Upon

What textiles were virtually always woven for the personal use of the weaver or her family? Dowry pieces. Mafrash. Chuvals. Khorjin. Ensis. Tent bands. Salt bags. Kilims. These were the utilitarian pieces that were used in everyday life. For these items, the probability that they were woven for noncommercial purposes is quite high. Does this mean that every kilim or khorjin is ethnographic? Of course not. Some were undoubtedly woven to be sold. I will propose some hallmarks for distinguishing these presently. But for the most part, utilitarian items were probably woven to be used, not sold. That they were eventually sold is not an indication of the intent of the weaver so much as a manifestation of what happened in the life of the weaver or her progeny over many years. My grandmother knitted sweaters for her children. While they have been carefully handed down and worn by subsequent generations of children, were our family to fall on hard times and were there to be a collector interested in the knitted sweaters of the early 20th century, they might one day be sold. At the same time my grandmother was knitting sweaters there were other women knitting sweaters to order for sale at stores. The difference between my grandmother's sweaters and the commercial sweaters that were made contemporaneously is the same difference I believe defines ethnographic weaving.

Ethnographic: The Not-So-Easily Agreed Upon

Once we move from the relatively safe harbor of utilitarian items, the waters get murky, but remain, I believe, still navigable. Our inferences must be based upon more subjective clues. Even though they are subjective, they are still open to examination. Primary among these is individuality. Ethnographic rugs are likely to be oddities, one-of-a-kinds and consequently difficult to classify. They are unlikely to be "rug book pictures," perfect and collectable as such since there are many strongly similar examples. Finding lots of rugs just like one another indicates that they were being made to order or they were the result of a long, unvarying tradition. In the former case, they are clearly not ethnographic. In the latter, they might be, depending on what we know historically and anthropologically about the weavers. But the unique one-offs certainly seem to imply that they fit the attribution.

Just as my grandmother lavished special care on the sweaters for her children, the weaver of ethnographic items was more likely to do her best work within the essentially conservative design environment she inhabited. So another subjective determinant of ethnographic weaving is the relatively high quality of work. In a pre-consciousness-raised society, a woman's worth was often directly related to her household skills. Is it not reasonable to infer that a particularly well-executed weaving is the output of a person who is making it for her own family's use?

Ethnographic rugs are probably not the clear descendants of types of rugs that we have come to know as usually being objects of commerce. As such they are more likely to be the products of peoples who are outside the normal routes of commerce. Current rug scholarship regards nomadic peoples as having lived the sort of lives that made them and their artifacts most likely to be unaffected by the fads and fancies of the marketplace. Unquestionably some nomadic rugs were woven expressly to be sold, but I'd like to suggest that the inference of an ethnographic attribution is stronger for nomadic weavings than for those of more settled people who are probably making rugs as a vocation rather than as an avocation.

While it can be argued that a late 19th century Caucasian weaver might have seen an "Eagle Kazak" and decided that she would like to make one just like it for her home, the fact that there are countless nearly identical versions of this pattern suggests that it is far more probably that most were woven on contract for immediate sale. Could that weaver have woven two, one for sale and one for personal use? Yes. And we could never tell which was which. Does this invalidate the term? Not at all. It merely encourages us to be cautious in its use. Was there an archetypal "Eagle Kazak" and was it woven by someone for their family's personal use? Perhaps. In this case it is the combination of an early date and the lack of a commercial heritage that would give substance to an ethnographic attribution.

Still more subjective is the notion of ethnographic vigor. Oriental rug literature is rife with synonyms on the order of boldness, vividness, totemic strength and the like. I believe that these are just another way of trying to describe the special power of design and rendering that is present in the best of ethnographic weaving. anyone who has enjoyed a free range chicken can attest to its enhanced "chicken-ness" when compared to the flat, mealy, flavorless chickens produced in the immobilizing cages of chicken factories. Ethnographic weavings are the "free range chickens" of the oriental rug world. Totally subjective? I don't think so. True, vigor is a quality and not a quantity; but it is a quality with impact that objective observers can agree on.

Finally, and most subjective of all, is the issue of beauty. In examining ethnographic rugs one is often struck by the - albeit indefinable - beauty of the piece. One might almost say that it is the degree to which an ethnographic rug has resisted the artistic stagnation which inevitably comes with market influences that is the measure of its aesthetic merit. (But one should probably refrain from such sweeping proclamations since there are no measuring sticks for the degree of resistance to market influences and aesthetic merit.) They are beautiful nonetheless.

So how do I decide whether a rug is ethnographic? I maintain it may be inferred from its:

* use

* relatively high quality

* nomadic heritage

* vigor

* beauty

Here are several examples of rugs that were considered "ethnographic" in the Mideast Meets Midwest exhibition.

Plate #63

Ersari Asmalyk

Technical Analysis:

Age: second half of 19th century

Warp length: 29" Weft length: 58"

Pile: wool

Knot: asymmetric open to the left Vertical: 10 Horizontal: 7

Density: 70/sq. inch

Warp: brown wool Spin and ply: Z2S

Offset: 0 degrees

Weft: brown wool Spin and ply: Z2S

No. of shoots: 2

Plate #12

Caucasian Verneh

Technical Analysis:

Age: mid 19th century

Warp length: 70" Weft length: 51"

Warp: wool in broad bands of blue, red and brown Spin and ply: Z2S

Ground weft fiber: wool Spin and ply: Z2S

Plain soumak: 22 stitches per vertical inch

Plate #7

Kazak Bag Face

Technical Analysis:

Age: late 19th century

Warp length: 25" Weft length: 43"

Pile: wool

Knot: symmetric Vertical: 5 Horizontal: 8

Density: 40/sq. inch

Warp: white wool Spin and ply: Z2S

Offset: 0 degrees

Weft: red wool Spin and ply: Z spun singles

No. of shoots: 2 to 4

[ Post Message ] [ FAQ ]

Post A Message!




Optional Link URL:
Link Title:
Optional Image URL:

Scripts and WWWBoard created by Matt Wright and can be found at Matt's Script Archive