Wool from the Mountains

Zagros Mountains Khuzestan

By Ninara (Flickr: IMG_6062) [CC BY-SA 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Geography and climate have played a paramount role in the development of rug types as we know them today. The Zagros and Taurus Mountains, at the convergence of the Iranian, Anatolian, Eurasian, and Arabian tectonic plates, have a high level of seismic activity. The traditional centers of rug manufacture in Iran, Anatolia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia are marked by rugged, mountainous terrain, rendering travel, contact and communication difficult. Therefore, traditionally each tribe, village, or city has been self-sufficient in its weaving.  Each weaving group has relied on local resources for wool and dyestuffs, and has carefully guarded precious streams and woods for water and timber. The physical barriers of the land helped preserve local, tribal, and familial weaving methods and styles as distinct. The differences in local tastes combined with the variability of regional flora and fauna influenced each tribe, village, or city to produce rugs of unique character.

High in the mountains, where the wind blows cool and dry, sheep produce fleeces finer and silkier than their counterparts do on the plains.  The three types of domesticated sheep of Southwest and Central Asia, the fat-tailed sheep, the long-tailed sheep, and the fat-rumped sheep, grow wool perfect for carpet weaving. The fat-tailed sheep is famous for its coarse, long-staple wool that is strong and durable, with a lustrous shine, and especially receptive to dye. The long-tailed and fat-rumped varieties of Afghanistan and Turkestan display color variation that can be used to spin uniquely colored yarns from the same animal. In some regions where volcanic soil deposits such as copper remain high, such as the region of Mt. Sabalan south of the Caspian Sea, sheep consume mineral-enriched plants as they graze, resulting in the highest quality of wool, as measured by natural lanolin content. This enriched wool has made Heriz rugs among the most durable in the world.

Typically sheep are shorn in springtime or early summer. When possible, sheep are driven through a stream prior to shearing, to cleanse them of grime and dirt.  Sheep are shorn using hand scissors. The wool is usually washed repeatedly, then sun-dried before being carded and spun. Soft-water proves ideal for cleansing wool, and rights to good streams and wells may be passed down for generations. Carding, by either fingers alone or with a comb-like instrument, detangles raw wool and orients the fibers in a uniform direction. The carded wool may then be spun by a variety of methods ranging from a dangling stone weight to a hand-turned wheel. Regardless of spinning technique, wool is spun with either a clockwise twist or a counter-clockwise twist. Handspun wool, which has a loose twist of fibers arranged parallel to its length, gives rugs a smooth surface and a beautiful sheen. In contrast, machine-spun wool often includes frizzy, broken fibers, and rarely exhibits the luster of handspun wool.

Silk rugs date back to at least the sixteenth century in Sabzavar and the seventeenth century in Kashan and Yazd.  Silk is much finer (and far more expensive) than wool, and proves much less durable. Because of their innate fragility, silk rugs are usually displayed on walls rather than used as floor coverings. Sometimes silk and wool fibers are mixed to produce rugs with a luxurious feel and shine.

Traditionally the weft and warp of rugs have been made from wool. For well over a century, however, cotton warp has often been used as the foundation for knotting of pile. The advantage of cotton warp is that moth larvae (which subsist on proteins) have no taste for it. While moths eat wool pile and proceed to consume wool foundation as well, a cotton foundation will remain intact, making the rug easier to repair.