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A NEW LOOK AT SOME ANCIENT CARPET FRAGMENTS


Preface to the Exhibition

Notwithstanding more than 100 years of investigation and the collection of a significant amount of data, little positive provenance information has yet emerged to pinpoint the origins of most Oriental carpet designs. Progress has been made
on several fronts particularly the recognition these designs did not exist in a vacuum and must be studied by taking other decorative arts into account. Clues garnered from diverse objects such as pottery and other findings from pre-historic archaeological excavations; metalwork from the bronze age and later periods; calligraphy from 9th century; architecture beginning in the 12th century; miniature painting from the 13th century and book-binding and wood-work from the 14th century have encouraged a number of important insights. However, the origins of the designs found on historic and later complex patterned weavings still remain mysterious and undetermined.

Obviously the weavings themselves hold the greatest store of facts to assist in unraveling these questions and it is there more concentration must be applied.
This can be done in several ways. The first is by the employment of the various analytic techniques developed by cutting-edge forensic sciences. Utilization of these new tools will facilitate the identification of important key elements that have hereto remained hidden. Once this is accomplished the sources of the raw materials and their various production methods will become identified. Collating these results will provide statistical profiles and examples, even those that formerly appeared unrelated, could then be grouped together based on verifiable criteria. These scientific findings, rather than the less positive comparisons of technique and design used today, will definitely improve chances for solving provenance questions.

Similar intensive studies of the existent raw materials like wool, dyestuffs and water supplies, which are still present in the eastern Mediterranean areas where many of these historic weaving are believed to have produced, is a second area of inquiry. Collecting and comparing these results to those gathered from the weavings themselves will undoubtedly add other valuable criteria for these profiles. In conjunction with scientific field investigation, a far more intensive search, both above and below ground level for historic weavings will also add new examples to the relatively small number now known and likewise assist in answering these questions.

However the third and perhaps the easiest - a re-examination of the small number of known historic weavings – can also yield new findings and discoveries. Since the first two are beyond the possibilities of this writer and The Weaving Art Museum at the present time, this third method has been chosen to present our Sixth Exhibition “A New Look At Some Ancient Knotted-Pile Carpet Fragments”. The examples selected for this inquiry come from the largest and most comprehensive grouping of early historic cut-pile carpets - The Lamm Collection. Both individually and as a group these wondrous little fragments provide a valuable source of material to answer the intriguing question: What were the origins of Oriental carpet designs?


Introduction

The Lamm fragments are preserved in the collections of two Swedish museums and one of them, the National Museum in Stockholm, published a selection of them in a small catalog titled “Carpet Fragments”(1). While the largest is not even a quarter of foot square, their importance to carpet studies is nevertheless well known to motivated researchers and carpet cognoscenti although they are virtually unknown elsewhere despite this publication almost twenty years ago. It is also for this reason The Weaving Art Museum has decided to make them available now and this presentation will allow viewers a unique trip back in time to glimpse and wonder at their beauty and history.

In addition, their re-examination will provide some new ideas concerning both their own inter-relationships and those they maintain with other historic archetypal weavings. But most significantly it will shed some new light on the difficult questions surrounding the origins of some later knotted-pile and flat-woven Oriental carpet designs and types.

Before beginning a short commentary on the collection’s history and a brief description of some technical terms necessary to understand them, I would like to take this opportunity and express my thanks and gratitude to Ms. Margareta Nockert of the National Museum in Stockholm and Ms. Marianne Erikson of the Rohsska Museet in Gothenburg, who provided access to the respective textile collections under their curatorial authorities. Without their help I would not have been able to examine and photograph the examples published in the “Carpet Fragments” catalog, as well other historic textiles conserved in their museum’s collections.

An important part of this re-examination was making new structural analyses and in doing so there were deviations from those previously published by Lamm. I have noted where these occurred and will explain the relative importance of making structural analysis later.

For this online exhibition a baker’s dozen of 13 examples from the Lamm Collection have been chosen and each of these is presented as a separate Plate in the exhibition. Along with them a number of additional ancient weavings from other sources are also included and they appear as figures used in the text. Most of these are knotted-pile but a few are slit-tapestry or soumak and these different techniques, in addition to other relevant comments, will be noted in the short descriptions accompanying each figure illustration. Also, when appropriate, other weavings that demonstrate connections to the Plates or figures will be referenced and illustrated.

A Brief Note on the Lamm Collection

All the fragments published in “Carpet Fragments”, which were only a small portion of his collection, were collected by the Islamic art scholar Carl Johan Lamm during his extended stays in Cairo, Egypt during the 1930’s.(2) Most of these were first published in the 1937 Yearbook of the Swedish Orient Society where Lamm used them solely as secondary source material to place the Marby Rug, which had been recently discovered in a Swedish church, “…in the early evolution of Oriental carpet knotting.”(3). This online exhibition will focus only on some of them leaving the rest and the Marby rug aside for now.

Only black and white illustrations accompanied Lamm’s 1937 commentary and it was not until the “Carpet Fragments” catalog was published in 1985 that color pictures of these important fragments of carpet weaving history became available. In preparing this exhibition for The Weaving Art Museum, the photographs used to make the digital scans were the photographs taken while this author was in Sweden. These, more than the ones in the printed catalog, more faithfully reproduce the colors and details of the original weavings and are reproduced here for the first time.

Thirty-five of the 40 examples from the Lamm Collection published in the “Carpet Fragments” catalog are now in the National Museum and the five others in the Rohsska Museet, in Gothenburg. Lamm’s original commentary included drawings of reconstructions showing how he thought these carpets might have originally looked along with his observations and structural analyses. The inclusion of structural analysis and many of his ideas about Islamic Art were far ahead of many of his contemporaries and prove Lamm’s prescience in not only having collected these “scraps” but realizing how important they were to the history of pile carpet weaving in the Near East. It is unfortunate other carpet scholars, like von Bode, Sarre and Erdmann, are much more well known and it is my personal hope this small presentation will introduce Lamm and his work to a new generation of collectors and a wider audience of the general public.

The Plates and the 27 other fragments not illustrated here were all purchased in Cairo and, while Lamm provided no exact provenance for them, he did indicate they were most probably found in al-Fostat.(4) This is the name given to the oldest part of Cairo where both ancient rubbish heaps and tombs have been located and it is interesting to note Lamm suggests his purchases more than likely came from the former and not the latter type of location. But wherever these rare pieces were found one important fact does remain - each one is unique.

In the ensuing 70 plus years since their first publication only a few other equally historic examples of cut-pile carpet have yet to surface. This has guaranteed them and their first custodian, Carl Johan Lamm, a very special place in the history of Near Eastern knotted-pile carpet weaving. The valuable information they convey comes from a time-period that would be all but lost without them and remains their own, as well as Carl Johan Lamm’s, greatest contribution to the study of oriental carpet design.

A Brief Explanation of Structural Analysis


Structural analysis is a notation process used to delineate the exact textile techniques used to produce a weaving and to describe the materials used in the production process. Here is a list of the key terms used in this presentation and an explanation.

  1. A carpet is technically not a weaving but rather a process of knot tying. These knots are tied onto a structural foundation that has two main components, warp and weft. The knots of various colored threads are tied onto pairs of adjacent warp threads according to the dictates of the pattern. It is the two ends of the knots that make the pattern. Each row of knots is held in place by the weft thread, the second component. There are two main types of knots:
    Fig. 1

      a. The Symmetric knot: this type of knot, also known as the “Turkish” knot, is technically described as discontinuous knotted-pile wrappings done on adjacent warp threads,(fig.1) which provide the pattern element of the weaving. The structural components, the warp and weft, are hidden from view but necessary, for without both of them there could be no structural integrity to the weaving. Basically the weaver wraps different colored threads around two adjacent warp threads to form each knot in a horizontal grid that progresses as each succeeding line of the pattern is completed one by one and knot by knot. These knots are very similar to the individual pieces of tile in a mosaic and when viewed in their entirety the overall pattern of the design is produced.
    b. The Asymmetric knot: this type of knot, also known as the “Persian” knot, is technically described as discontinuous knotted-pile wrappings done on adjacent warp threads, which provide the pattern element of the weaving. However unlike the symmetric knot, where the two ends of each knot completely encircle each warp thread and therefore appear between them giving a symmetric appearance, only one side of the asymmetric knot thread completely encircles a warp thread and the other warp is only partially
    Fig. 2
    encircled. This asymmetry gives this knot its name and if the left warp is completely encircled (fig.2) , the term open right is used. When the right warp is completely encircled (fig.3) it is known as open left and in both instances a warp thread always appears in-between the two halves of each knot. The
    Fig. 3
    structural components, the warp and weft, in common with the symmetric knot are also hidden from view. But they are just as necessary, for without both of them there could be no structural integrity to the weaving. Basically the weaver wraps different colored threads around only one of the adjacent warp threads and under the next to form each knot in a horizontal grid that progresses as each succeeding line of the pattern is completed one by one and knot by knot. Again in common with the symmetric version, each of the knots are similar to the individual pieces of tile in a mosaic and when viewed in their entirety, the overall pattern of the design is produced .

  2. There are two other types of weavings that need explanation here. These are known as flat-weaves and they, unlike knotted-pile, are weavings in the truer sense of the word. Both of them, soumak and kelim, have long histories of use and it is believed they pre-date knotted-pile weaving. They are:
       a. Soumak: Unlike knotted-pile soumak is a flat-weave, ie. there is no knot or pile. Its proper terminology is discontinuous weft wrapping. Here two wefts are used, one is structural and the other creates the pattern. The structural weft passes over and under each successive warp thread, running in one continuous line over the loom width from edge to edge of the
    Fig. 4
    weaving(fig.4). ). The pattern weft is discontinuous, appearing on the face of the weaving only where it is necessary to form the pattern. To do this it wrapped around one warp then passes over several adjacent warp threads and is then wrapped around another one, this process continuing as determined by the requirements of the pattern. It is then cut and re-inserted when necessary to complete the pattern or left uncut and ‘floated’ across the warp thread until the pattern dictates its use again. The cutting or floating always done on the back-side of the weaving. There are many forms of this technique and they are described numerically, ie. fractionally for instance 4/1 or 3/2. The first number signifying how many warp threads are passed over and the second number how many are then wrapped. So a 4/2 soumak weave would imply the pattern weft would pass over 4 adjacent warps then be wrapped around the fourth and third warps and then re-emerge to repeat this procedure. A 3/2 soumak weave would mean 3 warps are passed over and the pattern weft would be wrapped around third warp and back under two. Soumak is capable of creating a fine yet quite strong weaving an account of the presence of both pattern and structural wefting. Because of this it was often the technique chosen to make covers and saddle-bags.
      b. Kelim: Like soumak weaving, kelim or slit-tapestry, the technical name for this technique, creates design by using pattern weft threads, again there are no knots. However, there are only the discontinuous pattern wefts, there are no structural ones. It is called slit-tapestry because at each color join the adjacent warp threads are not attached or held together in any way and this produces the characteristic slit(fig.5). The pattern weft passes over and
    Fig. 5
    under successive warp threads and is turned back and under a warp wherever the design dictates a color change: The next color would then begin on the first adjacent warp thread. These slits and the absence of structural weft create a weaving that is not strong or suited to most utilitarian purposes. It is believe slit-tapestry was the first loom weaving technique as it is very well suited for use on the first type of upright loom, the warp weighted one. These very simple structures were not framed on four sides allowing the warps to be attached at both ends but rather were warp-weighted, ie. clay weights were attached to the bottom of warps that had been grouped together. This system, though primitive, provided the loom tension weaving requires. Evidence of the warp-weighted loom has been archaeologically determined back as far as the 7th millennium B.C. The kelims made on these looms could never have been intended for anything other than decorative hangings or covers as warp-weighting combined with the lack of structural integrity inherent in slit-tapestry would not allow any others requiring more stress resistance. It is therefore easy to surmise slit-tapestry was developed solely for this purpose - creating complex patterned weavings. The earliest kelims were the first weavings to have complex patterns as an integral part of their structure rather than to have the patterns applied, ie painted or drawn, onto them.
  3. There are two different ways of spinning the threads, both structural and pattern, used in both knotted-pile and flat-weaving. When spun, each threads direction of spin is technically described as ‘S’ spun when it is twisted to the right and ‘Z’ if twisted to the left. When a strand of thread (known as a
    Fig. 6
    single ply) is combined with others, the process of twisting them together or plying, was always done in the opposite direction to their spinning. This was done to increase the structural integrity of the combined or plied thread.
  a. S ply:  If the plying is done to the right (or clockwise) it is called S ply (fig.6).
  b. Z ply:  If the plying is done to the left (or clockwise) it is called Z ply (fig.7) .
Fig. 7

 

Footnotes:

 1. Lamm, Carl Johan “Carpet Fragments – The Marby rug and some fragments of carpets found in Egypt” Nationalmuseum, Uddevalla 1985.
 2. ibid. pg. 6.
 3. ibid. pg 9.
 4. ibid. pg 9.


WRITTEN AND CURATED BY JACK CASSIN





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