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 include your full name and e-mail address in your posting.
by Melina Raissnia
In 1999 my husband, Bamdad Raissnia, brought me a felt rug, or namad as it is called in Farsi, upon his return from his first trip to Iran since the revolution. It was a small oval with a linear floral motif, and I fell in love with it instantly. It seemed humble and utilitarian, but charming nonetheless. It sparked a fascination and determination to go to Iran in search of the people who made them.
My attempts to research felt making regions of Iran before our trip brought scant information. Most of the literature is quite dated and would not be useful in finding living felters. We decided to try to find felt rugs, bring them to the U.S. and create a market for them here. Since then we have been able to locate just a few master felters who we feel are the best in Iran and have begun commissioning them to make rugs. We have also been able to find one felter, Asghar Aliyari, who specializes in interpreting other artists designs. I have begun a collaboration with him to create a large scale installation based on my drawings. I am trying to secure a grant to go back to Iran and learn his felt making method. It has become apparent that this ancient art form is truly on the verge of extinction. This has lent a sense of urgency to our project.
In the summer of 2002 we took our first trip to Iran. Our
first stop in
Tehran was the main bazaar. We quickly learned that namads were not
distributed into the marketplace. We met a merchant at the bazaar
brother who was a schoolteacher in Azerbaijan for the Shahsavan tribe.
believed they would have namads because they lived in felt covered tents,
he offered to take us there. Although the visit was the highlight of
our trip, they
did not make felt rugs. We did learn, however, that feltmaking is
urban vocation providing felt for nomads. Felt is made in small workshops
that employ about ten men. The majority of the felt is made into strips one by three meters, which are used to cover the tent frames or made into coats that are not only warm but that also offer the shepherds protection from wolf and dog attacks. Very few workshops make rugs.
Weeks later we had virtually run out of leads. Finally, we met a man who photographed architecture all over Iran and claimed to know about a namad workshop in Semnon, in central Iran. When we arrived in Semnon we found a row of cinderblock workshops, each with one namad maker. We were told that the buildings were originated by the Shah's wife, Farrah, with the intent that they would become a namad museum. The project was abandoned because of the revolution .
Over the years the namad makers were subsisting on the patronage of the nomads, who encouraged the felters to lower their prices. Consequently, the quality diminished. It was time to go back to our home north of San Francisco.
A year later my husband returned to Iran alone. His
mother lives in Iran,
and had been getting information from Mahmoud Javadipour, an artist
Tehran who wrote a book entitled, Felt Carpets of Iran (Namad) in
1976, but never published. Bamdad ended up finding felters
near the Caspian Sea, in Isfahan, in Shiraz, and in the Golestan
Province, where Turkoman women do the felting. He encountered the
story again and again; five years ago there were fifty felters working
now there are only three. They have managed to carve out a niche selling their rugs to the tourists. We met Iranians who periodically commissioned a particular felter to make several namads at a time. It is customary to provide the wool. The felters all feel largely ignored by the cultural and business institutions who clearly look at felting as a lesser art form. They
do not encourage their sons to carry on their trade because it is so stigmatized. During our search we often encountered the same question: Why?
A Little History
Felting is an ancient art form. It is thought to have its origins in the Neolithic period, predating weaving. Many motifs found in woven and knotted carpets were made in felt first. The use of felt is concentrated geographically in a 1000 km band between the Balkans and eastern Mongolia, where it has played an important role in the lives of nomadic peoples. It was, and in some regions still is used for tent covering, clothing, blankets, rugs, and votive images. Perhaps because felt making is labor intensive, it developed into a specialized, mostly urban profession servicing the nomadic populations. There used to be itinerant felters who would establish a regular route arriving in a particular town or camp at the same time each year to make felt for those who needed it. This aspect may have influenced its being a male trade, although women do the felting in Turkmenistan.
It is important to note that most felters work independently and are ignorant of the work of their contemporaries. The patterns and motifs as well as the process are passed down through older family members. Consequently, methods vary and new or better methods are rarely introduced. My husband met one felter from Isfahan who is relatively young (mid forties), and who worked in many workshops. He claims to have perfected the technique, taking the best from each workshop. He is the exception in his inventiveness.
After the wool is carded, spun, and dyed the felter is ready to begin. The first step is to lay out a large canvas tarp on the studio floor. The dyed yarn is wet and laid down on the tarp in the desired pattern. Unspun bits of dyed wool are used to fill in larger areas of color. A border of yarn holds it in place. The water helps to keep the pattern from shifting.
When the pattern is complete, loose wool is slowly placed over the design, being careful to create an even layer of wool. This is done with a fanned fork that is shaken to separate the wool, facilitating an even application. When laying down of the wool is complete, the pile looks like a large fluffy cloud.
It is now ready for felting. Boiling water is sprinkled over it. Some felters use a thick bunch of leaves, pouring the water on the leaves and letting it fall on the wool in order to distribute the water more evenly.
When this stage is complete, the felter quickly rolls the entire thing together in the tarp and ties it tightly with a rope. At this point there are several ways of beginning the felting process. Some felters use a rope and a foot and step on the rolled mass of wool. Others get on their knees and push it back and forth with their hands. One felter in Ramsar stands on the roll and uses a stick to propel himself across his studio floor. This is done for about three hours.
The namad is then untied from the tarp and beaten and rubbed by hand on the floor. The workshops that make felt for the nomads use a primitive machine that compresses the roll between two planks. During this rubbing, boiling water is repeatedly poured over the area being rubbed. Some felters add other substances like soap, which they believe aids the felting. I have even heard of camel urine being used, although I don’t know of any felter in Iran who uses it.
After the rubbing is complete and the desired stiffness is achieved, the namad is more or less finished. The longer it is rubbed, the stiffer and stronger the felt becomes. At this point it is sometimes burned with a blowtorch, singing off loose hairs, or rubbed with a hot brick. It may also be washed to remove the singed hairs and hung to dry.
The following images are examples of namads from different regions.
This namad is quite large and is from Turkmenistan. It is an older piece for a felt; perhaps 20 years old. The Turkoman women do the felting. They are usually two sided, with different designs on front and back. Because of this, they are very thick.
The following namads were made by Haj Ali Halajion. He lives in Ramsar, a town with significant felt producing at one time. During a visit, my husband shot a lot of footage of him making namads. An edited version of the video tape is available in VHS format.
It takes four men to make such namads, which are 3 meters long. The men sit in a line and hum rhythmically in order to synchronize the rubbing motion. The design on the left, called tabarzin, means battleaxe. It is a horse related motif.
This grey oval namad is a horse blanket. This is a common use for felt throughout the Anotolian Steppes. I think the motif is a tree of life symbol.
The traditional use for a namad of this shape is as a hearth rug.
This namad was made by his neighbor.
I have not seen this central motif in namads made by anyone else. I think it is interesting and would love to know more about it.
These namads are from Central Iran.
The colors of this namad reflect the modern tastes of Iranians living in this region.
This namad is very similar to one from Shiraz (ca. 1973) in the Royal Ontario Museum. My husband was told by its maker that the design is called sehozi, which roughly translates as "three pools". It refers to the small pools or fountains found in courtyards of traditional Iranian homes.
This namad was made by the same person.
This shape is traditionally used as a smoking rug, for smoking of the ghalyoon or opium. It is also used under a grill for cooking or making tea.
This is a namad that I designed and commissioned. It was made by Asghar Aliyari.
Some Concluding Remarks
It is clear to me that a lot remains to be learned about this topic. I think it is interesting to ask why felt rugs are so under-
represented in Western literature? I s it because of their absence from the marketplace? Perhaps a more compelling question would be, who decides what is valuable?
I come from the perspective of being an artist. I have seen firsthand the coronation of a particular artist that insures the respect of the art world and a successful career. It can appear to be influenced by the potential for marketability rather than historical relevance.
All photographs were taken by Bamdad or Melina Raissnia.
Gervers, Michael and Veronica. "Felt-making craftsmen of the Anatolian Plateaux". In, The Textile Museum Journal, Vol IV, no. 1, December, 1974. pp.14-29
Gervers, Veronica, "Felt in Eurasia". In, Yoruk, The Nomadic Weaving Tradition of the Middle East, Anthony N. Landreau, ed. Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, 1978. pp.6-22
Burkett, M.E., The Art of the Felt Maker, Abbot Hall Gallery, Kendall (Great Britain), 1970. 111p.