F.G. sent me a photo of her little dog perched on two ottomans covered in a tribal-style wool fabric — and asked what they were. That flat weave tapestry is kilim that has been re-purposed for upholstery fabric. Kilim rugs have a long tradition of many uses, so the modern ottomans fit with the history of the pileless tapestry which is always found in geometric designs. Kilim was used for almost all fabric uses within a traditional Middle Eastern home for 2,000 years.
Why no pile? Because a flat continuous weave meant durability – no threads are cut, and the rug is reversible. So, these rugs could be passed on for generations.
The technique of weaving is usually slit weave (more about that) but because the kilim rug has been around for 2,000-plus years, weaving techniques, intended uses and designs themselves have reflected changes in empires, changes in climate, economic changes and cultural changes. If only we could read the patterns in the geometric designs and their symbolism, we could trace those influences over time. I can show F.G. a little of how I look at kilim rugs, however, and what I look for as to levels of value. They are popular today as flat floor coverings, and have had many reproductions of all levels of value and levels of “cultural reinterpretation.”
The kilim originated in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) between the Black and Mediterranean Seas. As cultures crossed paths in this area, so did styles of kilim, and as Western traders moved to trade as well as other Eastern traders, kilim patterns changed.
Historically, the style was developed thousands of years ago in the former Persian Empire (Iran, the Balkans and Turkic Cultures). Indispensable for life, they were used for tent coverings, wall hangings to keep heat out or in, as saddle blankets, for shoes, for prayer rugs, for wedding proposals, etc. The oldest kilim is found in 5th Century China, made in the same way as kilim are today: weave colors are looped, and the colors are separated by a clear slit/space. This means that a crisp geometric design is achieved, thus the medium and the design are one. Bend a good kilim and you will see those slits between the colors. Weavers will understand that there are usually 14 wool thread warps and 16 threads weft (sometimes of cotton).
Lest you think the geometric designs are just stylistic, they are also symbolic, and I mention a few: A diamond or chevron shape with a black square to the center protects against the evil eye. A crooked snake-like head on a line indicates protection from stings. Stylistic teeth in an octagonal shape indicates a Shepherd’s flock, which was protected against the mouth of the wolf.
For the last 200 years of European home décor, the wealthy favored deep pile Persian rugs, and the flat weave, simpler kilim was considered merely functional tribal craftwork. Because the Western market favored deep pile Persian rugs, makers made what the West wanted, and the more traditional symbolic patterns were not easily adopted into the fine mansion homes. Because of the taste for “richer” rugs, the kilim was allowed to develop into the 20th Century as it had always flourished, free from Western tastes. But in the 1980’s the flat weave rug was recognized as a design feature in a modern Western home, and textile historians bemoan the popularity of the kilim in the Western market, as the market has changed the way weavers weave kilim.
What to look for in Kilim is an effect called abrash, which is the fluctuations of color found only when the dyer is using non-chemical (vegetable) dye, which cannot be colorfast, and which takes color differently depending on the oil content of the wool being dyed. Modern kilim are generally dyed with aniline (chemical) dyes, which give them a uniformity of color and very bright colors. The technique of dying is a value indicator; and certain villages still stick with vegetable dyes, in the traditional way, but these kilim are of course more expensive.
Another key to value is the place of origin, with Anatolian (Turkish) kilims being the most desirable. Generations of weavers there have made kilim in panels of three feet each, because that is the width of a floor loom, which has been around for centuries. Look for panels of 3 feet each, sewn together. The value of F.G.’s pair of kilim ottomans is $600 for the pair. The dog is priceless.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.