Isfahan Oriental Rugs

Isfahan Rugs

Overview: Isfahan, or as the Persians say it, Esfahan is one of the most desirable rugs made in Iran in the 20th century. The city of Isfahan is the (administrative) center of Isfahan Province. So while the main workshops are in the city, Isfahan type rugs are made throughout the Province. The bulk of the production is in rug sizes (under 70 square feet), but there is a steady production of larger carpet sizes as well. The quintessential Isfahan rug today is finely woven wool pile on a silk or cotton foundation. A high degree of artistic expression is desired in the design and innovation is welcome as long as it stays with in a fairly rigid framework.

Unlike less sophisticated production, perfection is the goal with Isfahan rugs and noticeable design or execution flaws affect price negatively. Isfahans are often sold as 19th century or “turn of the century” rugs, but one must be careful of those claims. Rugs from before 1920 tend to be more like antique Sarouk carpets in design. The patterns are “blocky” and somewhat more angular than the sweeping graceful lines of the “Shah Abbas” style florals. After 1920 the delicate curves of an Islimis pattern are common, before 1920 graceful curves are rare. (Islims are the forked leaves or tendrills on vines in a circular pattern).

Historical Development: Weaving by the peoples of Iran goes back thousands of years but commercial weaving in Isfahan dates to the reign of Abbas Safavi the Great. In 1603 Shah Abbas moved the Armenian population of what is now Azerbaijan south near to his capital in Isfahan. Many of the Armenians were settled in what became known as New Julfa, taking its name from Julfa in Azerbaijan, which had been a prosperous Armenian city until Abbas moved the people. The move was commanded to protect an important economic asset. Shah Abbas counted on the Armenians for crucial foreign trade because they were able to move silk and carpets to the European market bypassing the Ottoman Turk embargo. This allowed Shah Abbas to trade his goods for Spanish silver from the new world which he then used to buy cannon and hire musketeers to solidify his empire.

New Julfa became an important center of carpet weaving for about 120 years. The period from the Afghan Invasion in 1722 until the end of World War I was a quiet period for Isfahan rug production.

Commercial workshops were organized and professional designers became de riguer for Isfahan rugs from 1920 onwards. Isfahan workshops are traditionally Persian and the designers draw on the great continuum of Persian art for their inspiration, including the art of Shah Abbas, which still can be seen in the palaces and mosques of Isfahan. Islimi and palmettes drawing on the best of Persian art became the rule. When the Great depression eliminated many of the foreign carpet producers in Iran Isfahan survived and prospered.

Slub, Slubs & Slubby: In handspun thread there are variations in width. The wide spots are called slubs. A few years ago slubby raw silk was in fashion for women’s clothing. The thread would get very wide and then thin out giving a variation in texture. Rug connoisseurs generally prefer Isfahan rugs made with slubby wefts because it gives a subtle variation to the weave that draws the eye. Without the subtle variation the rug would seem boring or a little too mechanical.

Attribution Guidelines: In Isfahan rugs knots are asymmetrical open to the left. Wefts are always two shoots, one rigid and one sinuous. The wefts are traditionally handspun so they have slubs.

For 19th and early 20th century rugs: 4 ply (heavy) cotton warps, knot counts of about 16 by 18 (288) knots to the inch. From 1919 to the 1930′s mill-spun wool was imported and is softer to the touch. Production switched to coarser handspun rug wool with the onset of the Depression. Silk is rare in the pile and very rare if used at all in the foundation.

For 20th century rugs: knot counts climb to 24 by 24 (576) to as high as 30 by 30 (900) knots to the inch. For mid-20th century rugs, finer cotton warps are common with thinner wefts and knot counts rising to about 20 by 20 (400) knots to the inch. To reach the higher knot counts silk is used in the foundations. Patterns become more and more elaborate since with a high knot count much more can be incorporated into the design.

A few words of caution: these knot counts are based on a prayer rug size (from 2 1/2 by 4 to about 3 by 5 feet). Larger rugs will have lower knot counts and small mats may have higher. Maximum knot count is affected by the strength of materials and the size of the rug.

Reference Note by Barry O’Connell, p4A Contributing Editor.

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