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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.

An Introduction to Authentic Kurdish Weavings

by Daniel Deschuyteneer

The goal of this Salon is to try to define what constitutes an "authentic Kurdish weaving". I hope that the examples will help us approach some authentic Kurdish characteristics. Paraphrasing Eagleton, this Salon is only an introduction to this topic, and I am well aware that my presentation is incomplete.

Two recently published articles demonstrate that this task will be very complex. The first is John Collins', "Power and Simplicity, The Evolution of the Central Medallion Design in Bijar rugs, 1840 - 1940 " (HALI, no. 111). Collins states, " …soft sparkling wool combined with deeply saturated colors constitutes the authenticity of Kurdish rugs, not specific designs or techniques...I am at a loss to understand what it is that the current wave of collectors of Kurdish are seeking when they rhapsodise about the authentic Kurdish design. Which Kurds do they mean? Which designs do any Kurdish weavers use that do not relate to the area they inhabit? The only useful approach to Kurdish weaving is in the context of specific areas..."

The second article is Michael Wendorf's, "The Nature of Kurdishness" (HALI no. 113, p. 73), a response to some of Collins' views of Kurdistan, "Kurdishness" and "authentic" Kurdish rugs. The article concludes with, "Kurdish rugs have a number of attributes that make them difficult to describe and understand. In addition, like many weaving groups, Kurds did adapt and adopt designs from familiar sources. However, Kurds also continued to create weavings using simple and ancient techniques such as weft wrapping without intervening ground wefts (weftless soumak), paired warp tapestry, and other techniques long abandoned by other weavers. It is …these and other less commercial weavings that one must look in order to try to understand what authentic Kurdish rugs look like…"

These sentences are extracted from their original contexts and reproduced without any nuances. I suggest that the readers go to the original articles for a more complete understanding of the authors' thoughts.

One of the first difficulties in our task is that the Kurds inhabit an enormous geographical area extending southwards from northeast Anatolia to northeast Iraq and north Iran. Covering so large an area and approaching Kurdish weaving in the context of specific areas is impossible in this Salon. Furthermore, this approach would give an erroneous image of what would be an "authentic Kurdish weaving".

Except for it’s western mountain part, the large northwestern Iranian Kurdistan areas (Bijar, Sanandaj, Zenjan, Hamadan, Songur and Varamin regions) have lost their tribal character and no longer represent an authentic Kurdish tradition, but a mixture of various workshop technique and urban-derived designs largely influenced by Persian and/or western tastes. Last, rugs from these areas were made by weavers of very mixed origin and Michael Wendorf, quoting P.R.J. Ford, even questions the Kurdish label of some of the best Bijar rugs that were woven by Afshar. Nevertheless, if we pay some attention Kurdish authenticity can still be seen in utilitarian textiles from this area. Here are a few examples.

Parviz Tanavoli (Bread and Salt, plate 131) illustrates a related mid 19th century salt bag and attributes it to the Kurds of Varamin. The narrow multicolored striped weft faced plain weave ground contrasting with knotted bands give it a powerful character.

Structure analysis:
Dimension: H 60 cm x V 52 cm (2'0" x 1'9")
Primary structure: weft faced plain weave ground and knotted bands.
Yarns spin : Z
Warp: 2 ply wool, dark brown wool or mixed ivory and brown wool in a barber pole fashion – 12/pi – no depression
Weft: 2 ply wool, 34/pi
Knot: symmetric, H 6 x V 16pi (96/psi)
Closure: slits and braided loops with twining between the loops
Overcast and twined join along the sides

It’s also not in the direction of the vast northeastern Iranian Kurdish province of Khorassan, near the towns of Quchan and Bojnurd, that we need to look for the "authenticity". Origins of the Kurds inhabiting this area are the Zagros mountains and Karrabagh in the Caucasus. These Kurds are, in fact, Kurds who migrated - were displaced - from the Anatolian Shavak tribal area centuries ago. They brought eastern Anatolian motifs with them, the best known being the so-called howzi or "water-tank" motif and mixed these original Kurdish motifs with others borrowed from the Turkmen and Belouch repertoire. Therefore, we must look to eastern Anatolia and the north Iran-Iraq border, the heart of Kurdistan, when trying to understand what the clues of the authenticity of Kurdish weavings are.

The Kurd's heartland since antiquity has been the Zagros highlands, and in this area Kurds have woven an astonishing range of rugs and all conceivable utilitarian objects of daily use, like curtains, blankets, and bags for horses, camels and tents.

As Michael Wendorf emphasized, it’s among their flatweaves, bags and animal trappings that we must search if we hope to find the most distinctive Kurdish weaving characteristics. This is certainly relevant, for it is clear that it was the nomadic requirement for a wide variety of bags and animal trappings that sustained a weaving tradition over many centuries.

Are there any authentic Kurdish weaving, authentic Kurdish design, patterning and colors or authentic Kurdish woven structure, to be found in the earth of Kurdistan? Answering some questions and looking to some pieces of different areas that I show below will document the remarkable variety and the great beauty to be found among Kurdish rugs and textiles and will help, I think, to build a correct image of authentic Kurdish weavings.

If one is seeking a rug of unspoilt character which really reveals the true meaning of Kurdish tribal art, he must look at this filikli. Early primitive textiles used as insulation against the cold, like siirt (faux-pile mat) and filikli, are among the most striking examples of authentic Kurdish textiles. Please refer to an earlier Salon and to the outstanding article written by John T. Wertime, "Back to Basics – Primitive Pile Rugs of West and Central Asia" (HALI no. 100, p. 86). An example similar to mine is illustrated on page 94. Do you have related piece? Let us see it.

This filikli clearly shows some characteristics of authentic Kurdish textiles. As in most of their pile weaving, the patterns are simple, geometric, large scale, which accomodates the height of the pile, and in the layout there is always a charming asymmetric balance. The very saturated bold colors seen in this filikli are typical and contrast, as always, without disharmony or imbalance.

The picture shows the widely spaced rows of symmetrical knots tied on three warps and woven with unspun and untrimmed Angora goat mohair. The symmetrical knots are tied on three warps and around 80 wefts are inserted between rows of knots to hold them in place. The back looks like a weft faced plain weave and, like the borders, is decorated with large brocaded S motifs. Kurds have always paid a lot of attention to secure the ends of their rugs. One of their most usual end finish is the two-pick oblique interlacing band, most often called "plaited" or "braided", that is illustrated in the bottom left photo.

Authentic Kurdish design exists. We may cite the howzi or water-tank motif, where pools are set in a stylized formal garden, the sandikli, the Mina Khani, the Sanjabi emblem seen in their two panel chuval. Nevertheless, in most of their pile rugs and other textiles woven without cartoons and usually without commercial purposes, the patterns are simple and geometric. Latch hooks, diamonds, octagons (arranged in rows or in lattices), geometric flowers, hooked and stepped patterns that appear to follow the requirements of slit tapestry weave as seen in the rug illustrated below, are designs that are not restricted to Kurdish art but that are clearly part of their authentic tradition and artistic expression. Certain colors like orange, salmon, apricot, often offensive to western tastes, are cherished by Kurdish weavers and one must learn to love them in order to fully appreciate the Kurd's products.

My purpose isn’t to show all these motifs. They are published in many books, and I prefer that you enjoy and try to "feel" what’s Kurdish in this pile rug.

Everything in this rug, maybe woven in the northeast Turkey Kars-Kagizman area, is Kurdish. The repeated asymmetrically drawn stepped polygons, clear descendants of slit tapestry weave, the colors, the runner format and its structure. Notice also the end finishes. Kurds used essentially oblique interlacing and oblique wrapping to secure the end of their weavings. Oblique interlacing is widely used while oblique wrapping seems, more and more, as a Kurdish hallmark to me.

As it was not easy to show this characteristic and important end finish, I picked this photo from Marla Mallett's end finishes page, where many examples are illustrated.

Structure analysis:
4'7" x 12'8" (140 cm x 386 cm). Circa 1900.
STRUCTURE: Symmetrical knots; H: 7, V: 7, 49 knots per square inch (H: 27.5/dm, V: 27.5/dm, 756 knots per square dm). Discontinuous wefts and weft inlays. No warp depression.
WARP: Loose 3-ply yarns: 2 tan wool plies and 1 dark brown goat hair ply.
WEFT: 2-ply light brown wool; primarily 2 picks, crossed between sheds.
PILE: 2 wool singles; 2 camel-hair singles; height: 6 mm.
SELVAGES: Not original.

Kurdish weavers used many structures, colors and materials (sheep wool, angora goat mohair, goat hair and cotton for white elements in the pattern and even metallic wrapped cotton especially in the Sivas and Malatya area) in their rugs.

This Malatya tent storage sack (H 106cm x V 60cm; H3'4" c V 2'0") woven in one piece is presented as it was woven on the loom. It’s pattern of latch hook diamonds arranged in panel, the red-wine color (a hallmark of Malatya), the white cotton highlights, the sparing use of light rose and orange are typically Kurdish.

Weft or warp faced plain weave, slit tapestry weave, overlay-underlay brocading, reciprocal brocading, soumak, are all important woven structures that were most often mixed in their flatweaves. This storage bag gives me the opportunity to show certain woven structures which are "typically" Kurdish. Commenting on a pile rug above, I cited the use of oblique wrapping in their end finish and Michael Wendorf cites "weftless soumak" and "paired warp tapestry" in his HALI article.

According to Marla Mallett (Woven Structures, p. 68 and 78), only weavers in the Malatya area of eastern central Anatolia used paired warp tapestry, and weftless soumak is the most ancient soumak construction, appearing in fragments (Catal Hüyük archaeological site in Central Anatolia) that predate the invention of the loom shedding. She also notes that nearly all surviving weftless soumak objects are Kurdish saddle bags or storage sacks from eastern Anatolia .

Top: shows paired warps tapestry with soumak outlining and white cotton slit tapestry weave

Bottom left: slit tapestry with metallic wrapped cotton or 2 ply wool wefts and soumak outlining

Bottom right: 2/1 weftless soumak, 3/3 overlay underlay brocading, slit tapestry with soumak outlining.

Structure analysis: Malatya storage sack
Dimension: H 106cm x V 60 + 60 cm (H 3'4"x V 2'0"), woven in one piece
Primary structure:
Back: striped weft faced plain weave
Front: weft faced plain weave, 2/1 countered weftless soumak, slit tapestry weave with soumak outlining.
Secondary structure:
paired warps tapestry vertically aligned or offset with soumak outlining
3/3 overlay-underlay brocading
Weftless soumak and reverse soumak for tiny horizontal lines.
Flat open Cretan stitch joins
Yarns spin: Z
Warp: 2 ply ivory wool , 12/pi (48/dm)
Weft: wool singles in the weft faced plain weave bands – 54/pi
Wrapping wefts: 2 ply wool or hand spun cotton
Tapestry weft: 2 ply wool or handspun cotton for the white or metallic (silver?) wrapped cotton, 46 per vertical inch.
Brocading wefts: 2 ply wool

Now I want to share two Shavak bags with you. This is a first hand attribution, from my friend Mehmet Kiliç of Tribal Gallery.

According to Eagleton and Sykes, the Kurdish Shavak tribes are dispersed over a large area north of Elazig in the Dersim area near Tuncelli and Cemiskezek.

I like this so-called baby bag very much. It is woven in two vertical panels, and presented as it was woven on the loom. Once more its geometric motifs, its colors with orange highlights, and its structure are all unmistakably Kurdish. Josephine Powell, traveling in Anatolia was also certainly impressed by the beauty of these bags when she photographed a Shavak tribe woman bearing a similar baby bag containing her child. This photo is illustrated in John Thompson’s book, Carpet Magic (published under several titles).

My baby bag measures 70 cm (35 cm per panel) horizontally and 35 cm vertically. It was woven in two panels assembled with overcasting stitch along the vertical axis in the middle of the bag. All the related bags I have seen were woven in two panels assembled in the middle of the rug. This suggest that these bags were woven on narrow looms, although I have no first hand information about this.

A full structure analysis is available below, but notice in this close-up the tiny white and blue pick and pick bands edging the bands of overlay underlay brocading. Such extremely decorative pick and pick bands are often seen in Kurdish weavings from eastern Anatolia, and to my knowledge are typically Kurdish. They appear also in western Anatolian flatweaves, and my guess is that such pieces were woven by Kurdish weavers who migrated there.

The top band with opposed stepped triangular motifs is woven in slit tapestry weave and white is cotton. The join, on the sides of the back, is a usual plait stitch in various colors.

Structure analysis:
Woven in two panel assembled in the middle with overcasting stitches.
Each panel is V 70 cm and H 35 cm
Weft faced plain weave with pick and pick narrow decorative bands.
3/3 overlay-underlay brocading with three intervening wefts on a weft faced plain weave ground.
Slit tapestry weave without outlining
Yarn spin: Z
Warps: 2 ply ivory wool, 13/pi
Wefts: wool singles, 68/pi - white cotton in the pick and pick bands
Brocading wefts: 2 ply wool
Tapestry weft: 2 ply wool and cotton
Plait stitch joins on the sides.
Top and bottom border are hemmed

I like them so much that I would love to share more pieces with you, but it is impossible. Nevertheless, as it’s the New Year, I offer you this second Shavak reciprocal brocading storage sack, as I am sure that you begin to feel and to love what’s authentic Kurdish weaving. Except for its structure analysis below, I won’t make any comments. Just open your eyes and enjoy it!

This photo shows reciprocal brocading and the loop stitch join.

Structure analysis:
Dimensions: (one face) H 87cm x V 49 cm
Primary structure: 2/2 reciprocal brocading
Secondary structure: weft faced plain weave with small pick and pick bands , slit tapestry with 2/1 soumak outlining
Yarn spin: Z
Weft: wool singles 58 pi – white is cotton
Warp:2 ply ivory or gray-brown wool – 13pi
Brocading wefts: 2 ply wool
Tapestry wefts: 2 ply wool – white is cotton
Loop stitch join with 2 ply wool

Many thanks,

Daniel Deschuyteneer