Thirty years ago, in 1969, the Textile Museum in Washington D.C. published a
small paperbound catalog entitled : "From the Bosporus to Samarkand - Flat Woven
Rugs". This landmark effort was the first to spotlight this group of weavings
generally unknown to most rug-collectors and almost totally unknown in the general
public. How well I can remember the first time I saw it in a specialist bookseller's
shop on Madison Ave. in New York City sometime that winter and especially the
soumak bag on the cover and one of the embroideries pictured within. Those two
weavings focused my interest in Oriental Carpets on flat-weaves and began the
search for similar impressive examples.
The best and most important of those are now on loan to the Weaving Art Museum
and illustrated in this virtual exhibition. Perhaps they, too, will stimulate
a new generation of collectors and the public at large to appreciate, collect
and also study these fascinating objects.
Prior to the mid-nineteenth century exemplary flat-woven bags and larger weavings
were produced in the area known as the Caucasus. Within this geographically
isolated region numerous settled, semi-settled and nomadic tribal groups maintained
lifestyles requiring the production of such weavings for utilitarian as well
as possibly for religious or other non-secular purposes. The high mountain plains
and valleys provided ample grazing land for the flocks of sheep and goats these
peoples depended upon and the immediately adjacent surrounding lowland areas
provided shelter during the cold winter months.
These lifestyles were closely followed until outside political and economic
forces during the mid-nineteenth century disrupted and then eventually destroyed
them as well as the traditional ways and reasons a weaving was woven. New commercial
synthetic dyes and dyeing methods became readily available and ever increasing
export markets created an important new reason to weave.
Eventually, foreign inspired design combinations replaced traditional ones and
the complete destruction of traditional weaving cultures which had existed for
centuries was ensured. While the story of the loss of this tradition is historically
significant, the focus of this exhibition is not to examine this situation or
how it affected the weaving art but rather to concentrate on displaying a number
of weavings which were produced before these factors began to irreprobably destroy
traditional weaving methods and designs.
Made almost exclusively of animal fibers, most weavings were intended solely
for utilitarian use and are often undecorated or display designs that are far
too generic to be icons or sacred symbols. A very limited number of others,
like those shown here, express a rich visual language and were never intended
solely for utilitarian purposes. Their visual power and the choice materials
chosen for their construction made them valued status items and it is thought
that they may even have been used as accessories in religious or cult practices
which, like these weavers themselves remain unknown. Many of the examples shown
here are prototype models which have been copied many times over by the numerous
later examples often encountered in books and other publications. When they
are examined side-by-side with these, their loss of iconographic content is
obvious. Presently very little is known about these weavings or their message.
However, a very small number of symbols have been deciphered and, perhaps, the
best example is provided in the description of plate one.
Soumak technique, like that used to make a kelim, produces a patterned weaving
with a flat surface of discontinuous horizontal threads known as weft. The variously
colored weft threads are wrapped around the warp threads, the primary structural
component. In kelims, they are passed over and under adjacent warps. But unlike
kelim weaving there are no slits at each color join and there is a supplementary
weft thread which, along with the pattern weft, provides the second component
necessary to create a structurally sound woven object. These structural wefts
are invisible from both the front and back of a soumak weaving and can only
be seen by bending the weaving in the horizontal direction. There are, however,
some later groups of soumaks which lack structural wefts and the added strength
Because of the necessity for a structural weft after each row of weft wrappings,
soumak weaving, like that of pile-carpets, proceeds a row at a time, again differing
from kelim where color areas can be "built-up" independently from each other.
There are also several different soumak techniques - plain and countered as
well reverse. These styles can also differ somewhat depending on the many possible
combinations of warp threads are used for each individual wrapping.
Diagram 1 shows 4/2 plain soumak weave while diagram
2 shows a 4/2
countered weave. Notice how the pattern
wefts advance across 4 warps and are then turned back over two in both examples,
while the countered example has only ONE structural weft between each row of
pattern weft and the plain example has TWO structural weft for each row of patterned
Diagram 3 shows a typical kelim weave with uncolored structural warps
and colored weft threads. The kelim's weft threads provide both the necessary
secondary component of the weaving structure and the pattern. Because
kelim weaving has only two components, warp and pattern weft, it should be considered
a simple weave and soumak, on account of the presence of separate pattern and
structural wefting, a complex weave.
Since the publications of the Bosporous to Samarkand, a rather steady trickle
of articles and books have discussed this topic and added countless illustrations
of soumak bags and kelims to what now comprises a significant body of research
material. Many differing theories have been postulated to answer the basic questions
every researcher is confronted with : Where, when and who made these weavings?
Recently several publications and their well-meaning authors have confidently
put forth answers to these questions. But while the historical context to which
they refer and attempt to place specific weavings or groups of weavings is accurate,
the provenance of any antique weavings to a specific place, time or weaving
group should still be considered pure speculation. No direct evidence providing
positive proof has yet to be presented and, unfortunately, it seems that the
opportunity to collect any relevant ethnographic research has long since disappeared.
However, the weavings themselves may possibly provide the only available and
viable answers. It is precisely for this reason that the Weaving Art Museum
hopes to soon begin to fund research which will add the technical as well as
the ethnographic data necessary for conclusive provenance. Until then, these
weaving can only be placed into a groups based solely on similarity of design,
materials and technique. The text accompanying each illustration will refer
to these criteria and use them as the basis for designating certain weavings
Regardless of the lack substantive factual data, the physical beauty and mystery
these weavings demonstrate provides ample reason for mounting this virtual exhibition
in a new medium that will hopefully provide an even wider audience.
WRITTEN AND CURATED BY JACK CASSIN
All Materials ©1998 WAMRI - The Weaving Art Museum and Research Institute. All
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