Carpets East to West – Woven Comfort from Moors to Morris

Carpet Beauvais Manufactory (founded 1664) French, unkown weaver, wool and silk c1690 - 1720
Carpet Beauvais Manufactory (founded 1664) French, unkown weaver, wool and silk c1690 - 1720

Wool pile on wool warps 1450-1500 Alcaraz Spain, courtesy V & A Museum at London

Gaining an appreciation for the technical characteristics of weaving rugs and carpets is a crucial aspect of historical textile studies today.

This includes the materials used, the types of dyes employed and their sources, the weaving structure, the evolution of the designs rendered, the detailing of their side and end finishes, as well as the deisgn influences of different cultures provide the clues to their origin.

It is a vast and complex history.

Many, have great diversity and political, philosophical and intellectual connotations and from antiquity until today the story attached to rugs and carpets underfoot, which was basically all about comfort and class.

The Moors invaded Europe by way of Spain after 711 AD.

The term Moor refers to the people of North Africa who embraced Islam and then came, saw, conquered and occupied the Iberian Peninsula which today includes the modern-day states of Portugal, Spain, Andorra, Gibralter and a small area of France, for nearly 800 years

Medieval Spain was a unique place, one in which Christian, Moorish and Jewish cultures all existed and thrived together, in spite of the almost continual battles between Moslems and Christians. The result was a very exotic daily life one very different from other places in Europe.

Carpet weaving began in Spain during that time and Spanish carpets were highly prized in many European countries at a time when almost no floor coverings were being woven elsewhere in Europe.

Relatively small carpets were laid on the floor beside beds, placed on or before altars, on tables, chests and cupboards, hung behind chairs of estate and on festive occasions were draped from windows, balustrades and balconies.

A Philosopher in his Studio c1650 by Abraham van der Hecken

In 1666 Samuel Pepys the great English diarist, reputedly had some of the first ever glass-fronted bookcases made.

He placed them in a room with a table, close covered or ‘carpeted’ and placed his sloped reading desk on top, establishing the most quit-essential of all English rooms, the Library.

At this time no large pile carpets of any sort were being woven in England. Oriental carpets were very much in vogue as status symbols at this time. Since most of them had come from Turkey originally they all became generically known as ‘Turkey carpets’, regardless of their source.

The East India Company had been created in 1600 under a charter from Elizabeth 1 and the establishment of the Dutch East India Company in 1602, as well as various other such trading ventures, ensured that international commerce was firmly established and growing rapidly in Europe and England by the end of the 17th century, as was the population.

The first consignment of carpets from Lahore in India to England were shipped in 1615 from Surat, an established trading centre for viable merchandise. The sea route around the Cape of Good Hope afforded European powers the possibility of trade free, instead of the taxes paid on the overland route through the Middle East.

Silk warp and weft, silk pile with metal-wrapped thread 1600 – 1625, Isfahan (Iran) Carpets of this type came to Europe in the early 17th century through trade or as royal gifts. Many were found in Poland and were later mistaken for Polish products. This gave rise to the term ‘Polonaise carpet’.

Many factors such as being unable to ‘bespoke’ them seriously limited the sizes and quantity of rugs available for shipping. Demand back home however far outweighed availability and eventually it caused the locals in both Europe and England to look to what they could possibly achieve back home.

In France King Louis IV had a Grand Plan. He wanted to offer to God a wholly Catholic France and on the 18th October in 1685, with the urging of his Mme de Maintenon, Louis changed the fate of nations and men when he signed the revocation of the Edict of Nantes put in place by Henry IV the Great. One million Protestants in Catholic France (1/20 of the population at the time), were left unprotected against religious intolerance.

Aubusson Carpet c1850 France

The Huguenots were the crème de la creme of France’s finest talent.

They were craftsmen, designers, silk makers, glass makers, silversmiths, including the workers from Aubusson, all of whom emigrated along with leaders from finance, industry and science, Holland and England in particular, as well as other countries, were to benefit enormously by their immigration.

Henry, 9th Lord Pembroke (1693-1750) known as the ‘architect Earl’ helped bring French Huguenot (Protestant) to assist the local weavers of Wilton and the growth of a carpet industry in England and The Clothiers and Weavers of Wilton were granted a royal Charter in 1699 to manufacture carpet.

The style of weaving used would be a variation on the original Brussels weave, one that would form the characteristic pile of what would become known as Wilton carpet after 1741. Originally made in 27″ format and hand sewn, its construction combined the use of the highest quality worsted wool, which made for fine pattern definition, depth, clarity of colour strength and stability.

English Artist Philip Reinagle (1749 – 1833), who became renowned as an animal, landscape and botanical painter, also painted beautifully detailed portraits when he was artist Alan Ramsay’s assistant, at least until 1785, when he seemed to tire of catering to the aristocracy’s need to record their achievements.

Mrs. Rebecca Congreve and her children seated in their fashionable London Drawing Room of Eastcombe House, near Greenwich by Philip Reinagle

In 1782 he depicted Mrs. Rebecca Congreve and her children seated in their fashionable London Drawing Room of Eastcombe House, near Greenwich (now demolished).

She is shown with her children Rebecca Elmstone (d.1791) with Ann (1773-1814), Thomas (1777-1832) and Charlotte (1775-1845).

The family moved in to their new home in 1780 and over the mantelpiece is Godfrey Kneller’s portrait of their illustrious ancestor, the playwright William Congreve (1670-1729). The survival of all the family portraits today supports the authenticity of the furnishing and their disposition within the room.

Everything in the room from the paintings to the chairs, mirrors, porcelain and textiles is of fine quality, in both design and manufacture.

The carpet is highly desirable, probably being an early example of what generically became known as Axminster.

It was named for the town where carpet weaver Thomas Whitty set up shop in 1755 so that he could produce simple woven carpets, which were far more cost effective than Wilton.

By that point in history Whitty had a great wealth of material available to help him achieve his ambitions, as he went on a relentless quest of bringing about efficiency in production and expanding choice.

Detail of Axminster carpet, c. 1791, in the Music Room, Harewood House, Yorkshire, England. With the kind permission of The Earl of Harewood

Detail of Axminster carpet, c. 1791. Possibly made for the Library at Harewood House courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Scottish born architect Robert Adam (1728 – 1792) became renowned for complimenting the designs of his neoclassical style plasterwork ceilings with the designs of his carpets as at Harewood House, one of Adam’s greatest commissions.

The wool carpets of Axminster became a quality benchmark for wealthy English aristocrats to have in their country homes and town houses, between 1755 and 1835 when after struggling since a disastrous fire had destroyed its looms the factory closed.

Cardinal Wolsey’s appreciation of the luxury of rugs during the reign of Henry VIII in England had initially encouraged English manufacturers to use their creativity to bring about a revolution in design and production.

That would gradually lead to the mass production of designs that could be repeated and strips that could be added to end up with the innovation of wall-to-wall carpets.

This happened during the Regency era in England and it was helped along when George, Prince of Wales later George VI (1762-1830) installed wall-to-wall carpet at Windsor Castle.

The traditions that rose up in rug production in America between 1500 and 1800 also helped that process to happen.

Originally reliant on England and its goods, as indeed were all English colonies; in America weaving traditionally also became at first a manual craft, with wool its principal material of choice.

John Henry Dearle, born 1860 – died 1932 (designer) William Morris, born 1834 – died 1896 (designer) Morris & Co (maker) 1899 – Hand-knotted with woollen pile on a cotton warp courtesy V & A Museum at London

During their struggle for freedom and independence the importation of British wool was not desirable and so colonists used locally produced fibres to manufacture all sorts of very different woven goods.

Detail Morris & Co carpet at V & A, London. Morris adopted the coarser Turkish (Ghiordes) knot for his own hand-knotted carpet manufacture. They were woven at a thickness of 25 knots to the square inch.

Revolutionizing the loom used for weaving with power during the Industrial revolution of the nineteenth century and the massive changes made to machinery at that time would change the rug and carpet industry forever. In America, England and Europe many carpet manufacturers would go from boom to bust and back to booming again.

However those involved in hand weaving with its traditions lasting centuries had a champion in England in William Morris (1834-1896), a founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, who became the spiritual leader of a revival in arts and crafts.

His belief in a utopian style of socialism, and affinity with natural handcrafted detail, were doggedly pursued.

Like many of his peers Morris wanted to simplify life for everyone in a world moving forward at a very fast pace. He wanted everyone to have an opportunity to experience the feeling that work could be a creative and joyous expression of one’s daily existence, rather than a deadening act of sustenance.

‘We are here to lead you back to the realities of life’, Morris said, ‘to show you how to use your hands and your heads, which machines have already made over half of the population lose’.

Carpets come back into fashion for all sorts of reasons. In the drawing room of the popular television seriesDownton Abbey, youngest daughter Lady Sybil shows off her evening gown by taking a turn on a gold and red Aubusson rug.

“All artists love and honour William Morris” said the man considered the greatest American architect of all time, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959).

Today many still find solace in Morris’s philosophical approach to both design and life.

Morris loved Persian and Oriental carpets and always maintained the pattern in carpet design should avoid the uncomfortable feeling of walking over a surface that simulated three dimensions.

Machine Woven Wool Carpet designed by Charles Voysey made 1896 V & A Museum, London

He learned the theory and practice of weaving to build up his own knowledge of surface decoration.

Challenging industrial age industry to produce handcrafted goods was a lofty ideal and their appeal for his disciples was motivational.

However the reality was that it was profit driving the market for William Morris products, which were sold through his company Morris & Co including his carpets.

The irony for Morris was that while he aimed at giving a wonderful experience to many, the high costs of labour ensured that only the rich could afford his goods.

English architect Charles Voysey (1857 – 1941) was one of the most original and influential architects and designers of textiles and all forms of decorative arts at the end of the 19th century.

He set up his own architectural practice in 1882 and from the late 1880s onward produced repeating patterns for wallpaper and woven and printed textiles and carpets.

Voysey’s evolved a style, which although susceptible to local variation, was universally acceptable. His most interesting designs were dominated by flowing patterns incorporating pastel-coloured birds, animals, hearts, flowers and trees in silhouette.

He sold his work to manufacturers and they became well known in mainland Europe, and although popular with French Art Nouveau designers, his influence was felt far more dramatically by the founders of the modern movement.

His motto the ‘Head Hand and Heart’ became the motto for the Society of Designers in 1896. These three words are also the keys to understanding Charles Voysey’s focus. The ‘Head’ for creativity and imagination, the ‘Hand’ for skill and craft and the Heart’ for honesty and for love.

Hand knotted woollen pile on woollen warp and jute or hemp weft, 1930’s V & A Museum

After 1870 the refinements in power loom technology had allowed manufacturers to produce reasonable substitutes for higher quality handloom woven goods and large rugs became a staple in upper-middle class American homes by early in the twentieth century.

During the first half of the twentieth century in America the new technique of tufted carpets emerged and took the floors everywhere.

They used far less raw material and attracted lower labour costs than the woven rugs and carpets available from firms such as Axminster or Wilton.

Tufted carpets, where tufts are glued onto a backing and not ‘woven’ into it, would dominate the market from the 1950’s onward as patterned woven carpets went out of fashion. The old weaving firms hoped that it was a ‘fad that would fade’.

The Americans also developed man-made fibres including nylon, which made carpets and rugs became easier to make, harder wearing and also much cheaper.

This meant the comfort of wall to wall carpet could come within the reach of practically everyone, and not just remain the preserve of a privileged few.

The V & A Museum also hold in their collection at London a ‘flattened modernist spiral design’ is thought to have been inspired by rugs and carpets made by Ivan da Silva Bruhns, the best-known of the ‘deco era’s Parisian designer’s, whose earliest compositions were inspired by styles from South American ethnic patterns.

The carpet industry would peak in 1923 and then sales would fall off again before the Great Depression. The economic disaster of the 1930’s offered no respite and rugs during this time there was always exceptions to the rule and weaving manufacturers would continue, although in a smaller boutique fashion.

The tufted carpet industry experienced a meteoric rise again in the 1950 as new raw materials became available in increasing quantity, especially synthetic fibres. Shag pile carpet took the world by storm in the 1970’s.

Since that time Carpet has experienced the highs and lows dependent on current floor fashions, which have become of increasing concern for everyone and no longer the preserve of the monied elite.

Workers in India working on a ‘traditional’ design

The incredible diversity of design and style that has built up over the centuries since the ancients discovered the joys of weaving and the traditions that evolved over time based on style; materials, technique and cultural context can sometimes appear quite overwhelming for students of design.

Today carpet scholars have amassed an enormous amount of data about the development of rugs and carpets, including urban, tribal and village woven rugs, which all have their own extensive historical ethic and cultural traditions relating to their design, manufacture and use.

Drying carpets in a village factory – Ourika Valley, Morocco

The countries that specialize in rug weaving today usually prefer those made in a village context, where designs, colours and techniques have persisted for such a long period of time and where innovation is an aspect of production as it had been in ancient times.

Pile Carpet (fragment) Eastern Altai, Pazyryk Burial Mound 5 5th-4th centuries BC Wool courtesy State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

We sleep, but the loom of life never stops, and the pattern which was weaving when the sun went down is weaving when it comes up in the morning *

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013-2014

*Henry Ward Beecher 1813-1887

Part 1 of this story Rugs & Carpets Underfoot – Woven Comfort Caves to Kashmir

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