To write effectively and intelligently about afghan carpets from the tribal areas of Afghanistan and the former central Asian States of the USSR would require many years of experience and personal knowledge of these carpet making regions. Unfortunately, we don’t qualify in any of these areas, but I do have a number of reference books written by experts in the field- and the following is a compilation of observations from these volumes.
This clause will only serve to help put the background of the carpet making areas in central Asia in some perspective, and to help identify some of the more recognizable afghan rug designs and characteristics of carpets from these areas. When one considers the source of carpets from Afghanistan and the Former States of the USSR one must realize that the tribal peoples of the mountains really dont comprehend or honour modern geopolitical borders. Specific tribes exist on both sides and across the modern borders as if they didn’t exist. The Baluchi tribes for example, extend from Eastern Iran through Western Afghanistan and into Pakistan. Similarly, the Turkoman tribes extend all across the northern borders.
Herat, in the Western part of Afghanistan, has a history of over two thousand five hundred years and was once occupied by Alexander the Great, and subsequently invaded by Mongols led by Genghis Khan and then Tamerlan in the 13 th century. Herat was considered part of the Persian Empire, and the Persian influence in carpet making in Herat is still seen.
Types Of Afghan Carpets
There are many names for the type of weavings found in Afghanistan and Central Asia. For example, in Herat and the Northern Turkmen tribes an ensi (or engsi) is a rug designed to serve as an internal tent door. This same design is called a Hatchli (or Hatchlu) in Iran, and a purdah (or purdhu) in other parts of Afghanistan – all of them referring to a door curtain or closure.
A young tribal girl who has been taught the art of carpet weaving from a young age would probably have the following carpets and weavings in her dowry:
One Main Carpet (ghali) 9ft.10in. x 7ft.
Two small rugs (dip ghali) 6ft. x 3ft.
One decoration for over the engsi (kapunuk)
12 small personal belonging bags 2ft.x1.5ft. and 4ft.x 1.5 ft. (mafrash & torba)
two large bedding bags (chuval or Juwal) always made in pairs
three decorated tent-bands (aq yup) 50 ft long and 2 ” to 1 ft wide
Materials: The material used for making tribal rugs are basically what these nomads have at their immediate disposal: wool from their sheep which is used in the warp and weft as well as the pile. Some tribes use goat hair for overbidding the sides (selvedges) or rugs. Camel hair is especially prized for the field areas of prayer carpets. When possible the sheep are driven into streams to wash them prior to shearing. The wool is then sorted by color and quality and then combed and spun. The wool is then dyed one person can generally can generally spin one kilo per day.
Dyes: Natural dyes are still used, but since the 1950s pre-dyed wool yarn (using synthetic dyes) readily found in the towns and villages are often substituted for or combined with the natural dyes. The wild colors (some almost iridescent) often found in many afghan rugs are surely synthetics. In natural dying, the yarn is presoaked in a fixing bath of alum, copper sulfate, ferrous sulfate, tin or urine. The yarn is then transferred to a dye bath and soaked until the desired color is obtained. The yarn is then washed and hung out to dry. Dying was usually done by the men. Natural dyes fade beautifully and often show as uneven coloring (abrash). Abrash (meaning speckled or marbled) is commonly the result of a weaver running out of wool and having to dye another lot or buying a similar color from elsewhere. Abrash in no way detracts from the value of a tribal carpet, but is a desirable characteristic of a tribal weaving. Naturally dyed wool will fade right through whereas synthetic dyes will fade only on the tips where the light hits it. A newer tribal carpet can be “mellowed” by placing it in the direct sun for several days.
Natural dyes originate from the following materials:
Reds: Madder – Root of Madder Plant – (ranges from reds to orange and purple)
Cochineal: produced from the female shield louse (Blue /red tone)
Lac Deep purple: from the excretions of a scale insect native to India Kermes. From an insect which breeds on the Kermes oak
Blues: Indigo plant (Dyers Wood)
Black: Can be achieved by using a very dark blue or by use of a bath of tannic acid, acorn cups, pomegranate skin, oak galls, and then adding to a bath iron sulphate to make the color fast. This can produce a weakness in the black wool which in carpets 50 to 100 years old can be seen as worn black areas where the remaining pile is still OK.
Yellow: Many sources including; Dyers weed; Saffron; wild chamomile; tanners sumac; buckthorn; pomegranate tree; isperek (a flowering larkspur)
Green: Obtained from walnuts and olive leaves? Or by blending blue and yellow agents
Brown: Can be natural undyed wool or by dying with fresh or dried pods of the walnut, oak guls or acorn cups.
Looms: Tribal carpets are almost always done on the horizontal or ground loom. This is due to the fact that the nomads rarely remain in one location for more than two months. The horizontal loom can be easily dismantled and packed on an animal to the new location and then staked out on the ground again. A Turkoman woman will usually take at least six months to finish a carpet 6ft.6in. by 4ft. The loom therefore can be set up and taken down four to six times before a carpet or Kelim is finished. This often results in different tensions in the warp threads and is the reason why tribal rugs often have an irregular shape. While this irregularity is part of the charm of a tribal rug, carpets which do not lie flat should be avoided.