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
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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,
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
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
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
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
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:
* relatively high quality
* nomadic heritage
Here are several examples of rugs that were considered "ethnographic"
in the Mideast Meets Midwest exhibition.
Age: second half of 19th century
Warp length: 29" Weft length: 58"
Knot: asymmetric open to the left Vertical: 10 Horizontal:
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
Age: mid 19th century
Warp length: 70" Weft length: 51"
Warp: wool in broad bands of blue, red and brown Spin and
Ground weft fiber: wool Spin and ply: Z2S
Plain soumak: 22 stitches per vertical inch
Kazak Bag Face
Age: late 19th century
Warp length: 25" Weft length: 43"
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