Although our modern word ‘carpet’ comes from the old Italian word ‘carpita’ which means ‘plucked’, the carpet itself has a much longer and illustrious past. Carpets, that is rugs made from knotted wool from goats or sheep and used as floor, table or even wall coverings, probably date back four or five thousand years, although there is some evidence that animal hair was spun or woven for use in fabrics and rugs as long as nine thousand years ago, in the Neolithic age. Again there is some uncertainty as to exactly where carpet first originated, but the current consensus is that it originated somewhere around the Caspian Sea or the Armenian Highlands.
The oldest pile carpet still in one piece is the Pazyryk Carpet which was made in the 4th or 5th century BC, making it around 2,500 years old. Preserved in ice, the 200cm x 183cm richly coloured and illustrated carpet was discovered in 1949 in a Pazyryk burial mound in the Altai mountains in Siberia.
It is believed that carpets were originally produced specifically for festivities and celebrations and only afterwards became used as floor coverings, primarily by nomadic tribes that wanted some insulation from the bare earth in their tents, but did not want to use precious animal hides.
Carpet weaving as an industry probably started in Persia and rapidly spread across Asia, and there are now many countries with a long history of carpet making, from Turkey to Afghanistan and Armenia, to India, Pakistan and China, each with their own styles and methods. Venetian explorer Marco Polo commented during his travels in Turkey, “They weave the choicest and the most beautiful carpet in the world. They also weave silk fabrics of crimson and other colours, of great beauty and richness, and many other kinds of cloth.”
Interestingly, Europe was very slow to adopt carpets as floor coverings, and until the 1700s the term carpet applied to any large heavy cloth covering for walls, tables or floors. As trade routes between Western Europe and Persia opened up in the 1700s, carpets became more popular in the West.
Today the largest producer of hand woven carpets in the world is Iran, modern day Persia, thanks to the Arabian Nights and Aladdin popularly considered the birthplace of handmade carpets. It produces 75% of the total global output and represents 30% of world export markets. It is also where the largest handmade carpet in the world was made, measuring 5,625sqm.
Carpet weaving in Persia is claimed to date back to the Bronze Age, with earliest surviving examples of carpets from Persia dating back to the Safavid Dynasty, from 1501 to 1736. Animals and humans rarely feature in Persian carpets, as Islam forbids them from being represented in images, although some hunting and feast scenes are depicted. Most carpets are made from wool, but a small number, mainly from Kashan, are made out of silk.
Today, ‘antique carpets’ are those made using natural dyes, before the introduction of synthetic dyes in the 1860s, although some classifications of antique carpets simply refer to all carpets made before around 1920 as antique. Any carpets made after this period are defined as ‘modern carpets’.