Today, when you ask someone what a carpet is, you would be told that it is a decorative thick textile that is used as floor covering – and you are right. If you asked the same question in the 19th century, however, you’d be given a slightly different answer.
See, the word carpet then was used to mean any type of cover, be it for tables or walls. It is only since the innovation of machine-made products has the word been used to exclusively mean floor covering. Indeed, the changes carpets have gone through these past centuries are not limited to the meaning of the word.
Before the mass-produced carpets dominated the market, centuries ago, handmade carpets were considered more than a covering. They were actual works of art comparable to some artistic masterpieces like paintings and sculptures.
Designs have varied through the ages and there seemed to be a distinct pattern for each century. For example, a prominent field design of Persian carpets for the court during the Shah Abbas period in the 14th century was the so-called vase pattern. During the 15th and 16th centuries when Spanish rugs were abundant, the trend was just a simple rectangular paneling which was really a large-scale check.
Another popular carpet design then was the medallion composition, which was an elaborate motif usually found on the center of the field and complemented with corner pieces (quadrants of the center medallion itself). There were also some multiple-medallion designs like a chain or succession of medallions or alternating medallions which were typical of Turkish carpets during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Designs were transferred in various ways back then. It can be done directly from the mind and the hand of the artist or weaver. It could also be transferred indirectly and come from a pattern that was first drawn on paper. There were full sized squared drawings called cartoons and each square represented one knot of a specific colour. This cartoon was placed on the loom and the design was translated directly onto the carpet. Cartoons were especially useful when multiple number of carpets with the same designs were made. Since they were hand-woven, irregularities in design were inevitable. But that, of course was part of the hand-woven charm.
Until the late 19th century, rug and carpet makers only used natural dyes which came from various plants like indigo, madder, genista, sumac, and more. They were just improved using chemicals like alum. Natural dyes provided colours that were subtle and unique. In the 19th century, synthetic dyes were made but because natural ones proved to be superior in quality and durability, the latter remains to be preferred to this day.
Truly, carpets have changed throughout the centuries, not only in the way they were made, but also in their design and purpose. What remains though, is how carpets are still valued anywhere in the world and they still lend that elegant air to any room.