The History of Rugs

Rugs and carpets are a mainstay in many homes today: They cover hardwood floor for the chilly winter months, they provide a stylish focal point to a room, and they come in many different shapes, sizes and fabrics. But rugs have been around for ages, and people as far back at the BC era made rugs for these very same purposes. This article will cover a brief history of rugs and show their progression into today's home decor.

For the purpose of simplicity, we will group carpets and rugs together, essentially defined as a layer of pile attached to a backing. Pile generally consists of tufts of fabrics, which can be animal wool or fur, or something synthetic like many present-day rugs.

The earliest rugs may date back to the beginning of human civilization and domestication of animals, when they would use the wool from sheared sheep to weave and spin into rugs and fabrics. The earliest surviving rug is called "Pazyryk Carpet", which dates back to the 4th or 5th century BCE. It was from a burial mound, consisting of rich colors with a border of griffins. Its preservation was made possible because it was frozen in ice, which helped prevent the deterioration of the fabric.

[photo] The Pazyryk Carpet, the oldest surviving rug

Some of the earliest carpets were Persian, dating back to the Bronze Age; however the earliest surviving rugs were from the 16th century. These Persian rugs were normally made from wool or silk and depicted many abstract images. Other early rugs from areas like modern-day Turkey and Pakistan incorporated beautiful, lavish designs that reflected the culture and other art forms of their time.

The art of rug-making migrated over to Europe a bit later, and the earliest European rugs were probably created in Spain, which held close proximity to the Middle East and African areas were rugs first originated, and who were influenced by the Moors. The Synagogue Carpet is the earliest known to Spain, dating back to the 14th century. World events like The Crusades also brought rugs and carpets to Europe, especially Oriental rugs, which are still known today for their quality and beauty. These rugs were oftentimes hung on the walls as a form of artwork, or displayed on tables. It wasn't until later that rugs were places on floors where one would walk.

Other countries, like France, saw beautiful rugs from other regions and commissioned similar ones to be made. In the 17th century, King Henry VIII began the Savonnerie manufactory, which produced some of the finest knotted-pile carpets in Europe, styled after Turkish rugs. These rugs would oftentimes serve as lavish works of art, with the original designs created by painters, then hung in royal locations such as Versailles.

[Photo, right] Savonnerie tapisserie, 18th century, Versailles

However, evidence of rugs in Europe extends further back in time, as many Renaissance paintings depicted Oriental and Middle Eastern rugs. These were often in scenes with royalty or religious themes, as the rugs represented luxury, status and wealth. The first Oriental carpet in a European painting was displayed in Fra Bartolomeo Annunciation in the year 1252. After the mid-16th century, the depiction of rugs in European paintings faded, partly because the trend for highly detailed objects in paintings subsided, but also potentially because the use of prayer mats or rugs became realized as an Islamic tradition and ceased to be represented in Christian paintings of Europe.

[Photo] Fra Bartolomeo Annunciation, 1252

Today, carpets and rugs are manufactured and machine-produced, but some of fine quality are still hand-made as they were centuries ago. One can find Persian and Oriental rugs similar to early rugs, as well as new, modern designs in just about any shape and color. Rugs have a rich history, and their use as both art work and practical furnishing will always have a place in homes around the world.