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Ethnographic Rugs from Midwest Collections
The Chicago Rug Society, 1993

by Saul Yale Barodofsky

This article attempts to place in context, and to identify, a large group of tribal, nomadic and village weavings which have been traditionally labeled as merely "Turkish." We will not deal with any of the workshop or commercially woven carpets. We will discuss color or dye usage, pattern or design, weaving techniques or structure, and the intended uses of tribal weavings. But first, we will view this area in its historical and cultural context.


Modern Turkey is all that remains of one of the world's largest empires - the Ottoman Empire. At its height, this empire included North Africa, the Middle East, much of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, parts of Persia, and of course Anatolia. Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, was both a destination and an ancient crossing point for the Silk Route. Many cultural threads came together there. The empire was truly polyglot, commingling many different peoples, races, cultures, languages, religions and life styles. Every one was welcome provided they obeyed the laws and paid their taxes.
Historically, when the first Turkic tribes arrived from Central Asia in the 11 th century and began the long death of the Byzantine Empire, they found already settled peoples awaiting them. The intermingling of these indigenous peoples with the successive waves of Turkic nomads and their allies created what we now call "Turkish" culture. "Turkish" tribal and nomadic weavings are the result of complicated interactions of many peoples and places. Their uniqueness is as much a result of their history as of their geography.


It is important to understand the function of these weavings. Tribal and nomadic textiles were always intended for a specific and personal use. Here are two points to hold in mind:
1. Most nomads and villagers lived in a barter economy. They could not purchase furnishings. What they wanted, they made themselves. They used what was readily available to them (various kinds of wool and locally gathered dyes) and wove or felted home furnishings.
2. Their intention was to produce weavings and furnishings for their own use rather than for sale to the "West."
It is also helpful in identifying Turkish tribal and nomadic textiles to note that they are of a size and kind that are useful in a nomadic lifestyle. Room sized carpets (9' x 12') would not fit in a tent, let alone be easily carried by a donkey or camel. Nomads used small looms. Thus nomadic carpets tend to be smaller (3' x 5' to 5' x 10'). Most nomads used kilims rather than carpets because they are much lighter to carry and cover the same amount of space.
Pile weaves were used for floor, bed, divan, and prayer. Kilims were for wrapping, dividing spaces, presentation, decoration, eating and floor covering. Bags were woven for all manner of carrying and storage. These include saddle bags, pillow bags, grain bags, spoon bags, Koran bags, etc. Decorative items for home, person or animals were also an integral part of tribal and nomadic weaving. These include articles of clothing, belts, bands, saddle covers, girths, etc
Decorative and functional pieces were woven for dowry purposes. Such weavings were the "crown" of a young girl's achievement and were saved for future generations. It is because of the dowry process that we still have 18th and 19th century examples of these weavings.


As a generality, Turkish tribal and nomadic weaving use the same variety of structures and techniques as do other weaving groups. These include knotted pile and kilim weaves employing plain weave, eccentric wefting, soumak, various kinds of weft wrapping, brocading, and embroidery. Felt and applique are also used. Mixed technique is rare, as are interlocking wefts in kilim weaves.
Specifically, knotted pile weavings use the symmetric knot. Kilims and bags use slit weave tapestry, as well as cicim, zili and soumak structures. There is also the additional feature of overstitching, which is used to highlight selected colors on kilims. Overstitching is widely used in Kurdish weavings.


Sheep wool is used predominately, although angora and camel wool are also used. Cotton is found in some pieces from southwestern Anatolia, where it is locally grown. Often, it is used to highlight other colors. Silk is found in embroideries from Western Anatolia, where it is locally produced. rior to the early 20th century, these fibers were all hand spun.


In general, the color palette tends to be vibrant with geometric design and bold usage in a well-balanced presentation. Certain geographic areas feature specific color usage.
    In Western Anatolia (Bergama, Yunja) - deep burgundy, reds and indigo blue.
    In Central Anatolia white ground for Konya and Aydin kilims and yellow for early Konya carpets.
    In Eastern Anatolia (Yuruk/Kurd carpets and kilims) - "cochineal" purple and reds.
Dyes and patterns are specific to certain time periods. Naturally, early pieces are of a different design, handle and color than later pieces. This is true of Seljuk carpets compared to 17th century Ladiks and of 19th century Konya mountain prayer rugs compared to early 20th century pieces from the same villages. For Konya mountain carpets, distinctions are due to the introduction of synthetic dyes rather than to any structural or design differences. Although synthetic dyes were invented and marketed in the 1860s, it is usually understood that "pre-synthetic" means before 1880.


Most nomadic or village weavings use specific structures and patterns for particular functional weavings.
    Large wrapping kilims may be banded patterns in plain weave (i.e., Ketemuslu village in the Konya mountains).
    Bags are woven in soumak or pile, (rarely slit weave tapestry) to insure that the contents remain inside.
    Dividing or hanging kilims are woven in slit weave tapestry to permit more intricate patterns and to allow air and light to enter the tent.
    Sleeping and "hospitality" carpets (yataks from all areas, badannies from the Kurds, and tulus from the Konya region) are very loosely woven with long pile sometimes with mohair - to ensure warm and comfortable sleeping.
There is a relationship between the structure of the weaving and the pattern or design. Soumak allows a more detailed pattern. Weft float brocading allows fine detailing in open spaces. Slit weave tapestry allows for a more complicated geometry. Finally, many villages use a specific pattern for each different weaving depending on its function. Grain bags will have a different pattern from spoon bags the construction may also be different. Eating rugs (sofreh) will have a different pattern and structure from wrapping or covering kilims, and so on.


Paramount to the understanding and identification of "Turkish" tribal, nomadic and village weavings is the vast variety of patterns. Note that in the late 19th century, there were over 50,000 weaving villages and groups in Anatolia alone. Each of these villages and weaving groups used specific designs for specific functional weavings. As an overview then, it is helpful to consider "Turkish" weaving in four broad groups: Western, Eastern, Central and Tharacian. Western Anatolian weavings have a specific "Caucasian" flavor. This is due to the predominance of nomadic peoples who passed through the Caucasus before settling in Western Anatolia in the 13th century. Eastern Anatolian weavings have a distinctly "Kurdish" flavor. Most of Eastern Anatolia is Kurdish and their design influence predominates in weavings from the area. Central Anatolia is perhaps the most "Turkish" in flavor. Konya was one of the main capitals or the early Seljuk Turks, and even today remains an area averse to major change. Thracian identifies parts of the Western Ottoman Empire or Eastern Europe. Weavings from this area are called Sarköy, Thracian, Manastir or Gertchmae. Their flavor is Bessarabian.
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