The Persian carpet or Persian rug (Middle Persian: bōb, Persian: فرش farsh, meaning “to spread”; sometimes قالیqālī) is an essential part of Persian art and culture. Carpet–weaving is undoubtedly one of the most distinguished manifestations of Persian culture and art, and dates back to ancient Persia. In 2008, Iran’s exports of hand-woven carpets was $420 million or 30% of the world’s market. There is an estimated population of 1.2 million weavers in Iran producing carpets for domestic markets and international export. Iran exports carpets to more than 100 countries, as hand-woven rugs are one of its main non-oil export items. The country produces about five million square metres of carpets annually—80 percent of which are sold in international markets. In recent times Iranian carpets have come under fierce competition from other countries producing reproductions of the original Iranian designs as well as cheaper substitutes.
The designs of Persian carpets are copied by weavers from other countries as well. Iran is also the world’s largest producer and exporter of handmade carpets, producing three quarters of the world’s total output. Though in recent times, this ancient tradition has come under stiff competition from machine-made products. Iran is also the maker of the largest handmade carpet in history, measuring 60,546 square feet (5,624.9 square metres).
Persian carpets can be divided into three groups; Farsh / Qāli (sized anything greater than 6×4 feet), Qālicheh (قالیچه, meaning “small rug”, sized 6×4 feet and smaller), and nomadic carpets known as Gelim (گلیم; including زیلو Zilu, meaning “rough carpet”). In this use, Gelim includes both pile rugs and flat weaves (such as kilim and soumak).
The art of carpet weaving existed in Persia (or Iran) in ancient times, according to evidence such as the 2500-year-old Pazyryk carpet, dating back to 500 B.C., during theAchaemenid period. The first documented evidence on the existence of Persian carpets comes from Chinese texts dating back to the Sassanid period (224–641 AD). This art underwent many changes in various eras of the Persian history to an extent that it passed an upward trend before the Islamic era until the Mongol invasion of Persia. After the invasion, the art began to grow again during the Timurid and Ilkhanid dynasties.
With the passage of time, the materials used in carpets, including wool, silk and cotton, will decay. Therefore archaeologists are rarely able to make any particularly useful discoveries during archaeological excavations. What has remained from early times as evidence of carpet-weaving is nothing more than a few pieces of worn-out carpets. Such fragments do not help very much in recognizing the carpet-weaving characteristics of pre-Seljuk period (13th and 14th centuries AD) in Persia.
Wool is the most common material for carpets but cotton is frequently used for the foundation of city and workshop carpets. There are a wide variety in types of wool used for weaving. Those of which include Kork wool, Manchester wool, and in some cases even camel hair wool. Silk carpets date back to at least the sixteenth century in Sabzevar and the seventeenth century inKashan and Yazd. Silk carpets are less common than wool carpets since silk is more expensive and less durable; they tend to increase in value with age. Due to their rarity, value and lack of durability, silk carpets are often displayed on the wall like tapestries rather than being used as floor coverings.
Persian rugs are made up of a layout and a design which in general included one or a number of motifs. The Iran Carpet Company, a specialist in the subject, has attempted to classify Persian carpet designs and has carried out studies of thousands of rugs. Their results show that there have been slight alterations and improvements to almost all original designs. In its classification the company has called the original designs as the ‘main pattern’ and the derivatives as the ‘sub patterns’. They have identified 19 groups, including: historic monuments and Islamic buildings, Shah Abbassi patterns, spiral patterns, all-over patterns, derivative patterns, interconnected patterns, paisley patterns, tree patterns, Turkoman patterns, hunting ground patterns, panel patterns, European flower patterns, vase patterns, intertwined fish patterns, Mehrab patterns, striped patterns, geometric patterns, tribal patterns, and composites.
Design can be described in terms of the manner in which it organizes the field of the rug. One basic design may serve the entire field, or the surface may be covered by a pattern of repeating figures. In areas using long-established local designs, the weaver often works from memory, with the patterns passed on within the family. This is usually sufficient for simple rectilinear design. For the more elaborate curvilinear designs, the patterns are carefully drawn to scale in the proper colours on graph paper. Each square thus becomes a knot, which allows for an accurate rendition of even the most complex design. Designs have changed little through centuries of weaving. Today computers are used in the production of scale drawings for the weavers.