"Upside Down" In Relation to Design
Many will know this, but it may be useful to mention, here at the beginning, that many "prayer" rugs are woven upside down in relation to their design.
I have heard a couple of reasons given for this practice.
The first is that it may make it more certain that the weaver will be able to draw the area with the arch as desired (that is, the potential problem of a shortage of warp length at the end finished last, is avoided).
The second is that it makes the pile flow away from the person praying and therefore is softer against his hands (and perhaps even his head) during prayer. This second reason is the same often given for the fact that many saddle covers are woven so that the pile points down and so is ostensibly smoother against the inside of the rider's thighs.
Both of these reasons may be apocryphal but the practice of weaving many rugs with arches in what seems like an upside down mode is evident.
R. John Howe
I think one more explanation for the "upside down" weaving ought to be added to the list: some of the things we call arches aren't arches at all, and those rugs are woven right side up. Many "arches", when inverted, look like perfectly respectable vessels or flowerpots.
How do you know?
If a rug with a symmetrical field was woven upside down, how would you know? Technically, a symmetrical-field rug could be said to be half woven upside down and the other half right side up. There also may be rugs out there with a one-way field that were easier to weave upside down, but no one bothered to make note of it.
When weaving the bottom half of a medallion-and-corners rug, the weaver is actually weaving the "top" of a single niche prayer rug! If it is quicker to do that on a symmetric rug, then why not weave a single niche rug with the niche at the start?
What if some prayer rugs were medallion-and-corner rugs but the weaver ran out of warp and just finished the field flat across the top!!!
So, this upside down prayer rug theory may be less important, or at least may have considerably less meaning than it seems.
Here is a rug woven upside down if the arch is a mihrab, rightside up if it is a container for certain motifs. It's a 19th century Kula, shown as plate XVII in Prayer Rugs, by Ettinghausen, Dimand, Mackie and Ellis, and is from the Ballard collection.
Notice that the flowers and ewer in the arch are upside down if the rug is oriented in the "prayer rug" direction (which is the orientation in the published photo), as are the flowers in the main border. It appears to me that orienting the rug with the arch at the top is a perfect example of a lovely hypothesis ("The rug was woven for use as an appurtenance in Moslem prayer") coming face to face with an ugly fact ("Nearly everything in it is upside down when it is oriented for use in prayer, but rightside up if it was woven for decorative purposes") and the issue being resolved by ignoring the fact.
Steve, I find looking at the architecture upside down is far more disturbing
than looking at the flowers upside down.
I like the explanation "it may make it more certain that the weaver will be
able to draw the area with the arch as desired".
Thatís why: if the weaver of this rug had woven it upside down (which she didnít) she could have avoided the mistake of hanging the lamp off center.
I don't understand what you mean by the "architecture", but I don't think the question of which orientation you or I find less visually disturbing is the crux of the matter anyway.
Many of us have a prejudice (by this I mean pre-determined notion, which may be correct) that rugs with arches in their layout were woven for the purpose of being used for Moslem prayer and that the arch is a mihrab. For simplicity, let's ignore the more or less obvious exceptions like the Qashqa'i "milleflores" type and the Bezalel synagogue rugs and, of course, my Kuba khorjin face.
Let's take the Kula from the Ballard collection and try to see what it tells us about itself in this regard. When oriented in one direction, it has an arch at the top. But why do we think that is the top?
1. It's woven from the other end. Not compelling evidence of anything, really. There seems to be no firm rule relating the direction of the weaver's progress to the intended direction of viewing the rug.
2. There's a water ewer that's upside down if the arch is at the top.
3. The flowers in the "arch" are upside down, and so are the flowers in the border.
To make a long story short, the rug has a number of elements in it that have easily discerned tops and bottoms. Every one of them is upside down if we place the "arch" at the top. On the other hand, all of them are rightside up when it is oriented so that the "arch" is seen as a decorative design at the bottom. While this is not conclusive, it does constitute an evidence-based argument that the weaver intended the "arch" to be at the bottom. On the other hand, unless it is assumed that the arch belongs at the top I see no basis for concluding that it does.
Steve, it should be pretty clear what I mean by 'archuitecture.' since the
field (if viewed in the 'proper' way looks like a section of an endless
collonade with pointed arches and a textured ceiling, most reminiscent of
Moorish architecture in Cordoba and Granada. I have seen it hypothesized that
these designs came from spain via the Jews who were expelled in 1492.
I think the direction of weaving on prayer rugs doesn't mean too much. I have Beshir prayer rugs woven both ways.
As a prayer rug is used horizontally on the floor, the concepts of 'up' and 'down' are not as meaningful as one might think.
The architectural derivation of columns is more obvious on many rugs than it is on the Kula from the Ballard collection, and on one of those I would lean more in the direction you do with regard to interpretation. While "up" and "down" have little meaning when the rug is on the floor, when used for prayer the arch or mihrab is at the head end, so there is a direction from which it is viewed. The head end, in that use. is reasonably referred to as "up", the foot end as "down". When the columns are architectural and support a representation of a ceiling, directionality is again reasonably called "up" and "down".
Like you, I find the piece aesthetically more pleasing with the arch at the top, probably because I don't pay much attention to the representational details when I look at it.
Regards, and happy new year,
I propose that there is a third possibility for occasionally weaving
prayer rugs "upside-down". An example is this 1950's-ish rug from
Jangl Areq in NW Afghanistan:
I think it may be a "Light end vs. Dark end" thing, where the
weaver recognizes that (in the case of a prayer rug) the user
will almost always be viewing the rug from the bottom and feels
that the rug will be too dark to really appreciate the colors
and/or pattern if woven "normally".
This particular rug is quite dark when viewed from the open pile
end, but quite nice when viewed over the back of the pile. This
would be less important with pile clipped very short, such as some
of the Shirvan rugs, etc.
In the catalog text that accompanies the current exhibition of Turkish carpets at the Washington Textile Museum, Walter Denny postulates that niche prayer rugs were woven upside-down in order to assure that the most difficult part, the "mihrab", was completed first. If the weaver ran out of space as the warps contracted towards the top, she could finish with a straight border. I don't have the text at hand or I would quote you Denny's more lucid explanation.
If you don't have a copy of this publication, it is worth ordering from the Textile Museum. It is well written and full of common sense from an expert who has spent most of his life in the carpet and textile field.
Hi Ken -
Good to hear from you.
Yes, the reason you give here is the first one I gave at the beginning of this thread, but I certainly agree that Denny explains it better than either of us.
R. John Howe