Carpets and Rugs of Afghanistan


Carpet weaving hand tools

The increasing demand all over the world for Afghan carpets, rugs and other piled goods, as well as killims has stimulated a lively interest in this time-honored craft.  The production of Afghan woven good is extremely varied, and falls into two main classifications: namely the Turkoman and the Beloutch and the Beloutch-type.  Both are produced by pastoral people of entirely different origin, yet who had the same needs and a constantly available source of wool.  Thus, many of their products were made to serve similar purposes, though each is quite distinct in technique of weave, in color and design.

Not least of the charms of the Afghan carpet is that it is among the few products left the world today that is still made entirely by hand.  Carpet production in Afghanistan is from beginning to end a cottage industry, and for the buyer, represents good value in terms of wear, beauty and adaptability to surroundings.  Another characteristic of Afghan carpets is that they are wholly of wool and all designs are rectilinear.

The Turkoman Carpet

All Turkoman carpets are woven in the north of the country between Maimanah to the west and Kunduz to the east, apart from Sarouq carpets which are made in Maruchak and Mauris which are made in and around Herat in the west of Afghanistan. The word Mauri means "from Merv" the city in the Turkmenistan from which the weavers of these goods originated and include members of the Tekke, Yamoud and Sarouq tribes.

The wool used in Turkoman weaving is renowned in the trade for its lustrous and hard-wearing properties.  It comes from the famous indigenous breed of Karakul sheep, which is equally renowned in the fur trade for its Karakul lambskins. The Karakul sheep is a fat-tailed breed having a dual fleece, that is, two types of wool growing simultaneously.  The outer fleece has longer staples than the soft crinkly wool of the inner fleece, which when carefully sorted and blended produce ideal carpet wool.

Carding and spinning is carried out by hand, by both men and women.  The balls of wool are made into skeins which are then dyed, either by the weaver's family in its own compound or by professional dyers in the bazaar. 

Though aniline dyes have been used since their invention at the turn of the century, there is now a growing tendency among the Turkomans to revert to the use of natural dyestuffs.  Those most commonly used are madder, the root of a spindly bush which grows abundantly in many of the carpet-producing areas, for red; walnut peel for dark brown; pomegranate peel for light brown, and sparak, a wild flower from the steppes, for yellow.  The blues in Turkoman carpets are generally indigo.

Weaving- traditionally on a horizontal loom - is usually done by women.  All sizes of carpets and rugs, ranging from mats to runners to the "over-sizes", are made throughout the year.  Larger carpets, however, because they are usually woven in the open are mainly produced during the summer months.

The majority of Mauri carpets and rugs are of single weft, whereas in the main other Turkoman goods are double wefted.  The Persian or Sennah knot is generally used.

When weaving a carpet, no set plan is followed:  the design is entirely executed from memory - a testimony to the fact that Turkoman designs and symbols are of unknown age and representative of their own particular culture.

Most Turkomans in Afghanistan belong to the Ersari tribe, a large ethnic group sub-divided into clans, many of which have their own individual carpet motifs and designs whose origins and symbolic meanings are far from clear.  Perhaps the two best-known designs are the "fil-poi" or elephant's foot, a large octagonal gul and the smaller Tekke gul, or "Bukhara pattern" as it is now called in the trade, and within these motifs there is a wide variety.  In addition, there is a large range of different Ersari designs.  Other Turkomans who weave carpets in Afghanistan are the Tekkes, Yamouds and Sarouqs, who all have their distinctive weaves and designs.

Besides carpets and rugs, the Turkomans produce countless items made with wool for their daily domestic needs - wood and metal being unobtainable or difficult to come by.  For example, the doorway of the yurt, the circular wood-framed tents in which Turkomans live, is closed by a type of carpet called a "purdah" (curtain), also called a hatchlou or Ensi, fringed at the bottom and having at the top a cord with which to tie it to the framework.

Other items still woven by the Turkomans for their daily use include:

  • the juwal, often made in pairs is a large bag used for storing clothes or larger household goods, and was kept hung on the inside of the yurt.  When migrating these bags were tied one on either side of the camel, whence the western name of "camel bag".  Though these are still made, only on very rare occasions, such as the escorting of the bride to her new home, will one see juwal on a camel;
  • the khourgine or donkey bag, is still very much in use. This bag is in a joined pair and used as a saddle bag for horse or donkey, as well as over a man's shoulder.  These are also made in a flat weave.
  • the torbah, a single bag, either knotted and piled or flat-woven, in different shapes and sizes according to is purpose, includes the much sought-after namak donne used for storing the rock-salt.
  • Another decorative furnishing is the jallar, a woven bag hung over the inside entrance of the yurt, distinguished by its fringes and sometimes having long side-pieces, when it is called jallar poidar or jallar with legs.

The horse, especially prized and the camel have always been very much part of the traditional Turkoman way of life, consequently saddle cloths and various decorative trappings for these are still being made for everyday use.

Although this list is not conclusive, it is hoped that it will give some indication of the variety and richness of the woven items produced by the Afghan Turkomans.

The Beloutch and Beloutch-Type Carpet

Herat, in the west of Afghanistan, is the major marketing centre for a wide region where a large and varied production of carpets, rugs and flat-woven pieces, including killims, is woven; goods from this area are traditionally known as Beloutches.  Some of the these goods are made by nomads and semi-nomads, many by people now sedentary who, though not strictly of the Beloutch tribe, have acquired some their techniques while imparting to their work their own tribal charm and rustic character which is so much sough-after today.

In such a large region, inevitable there is a broad variety of weaves and designs as well as types of wool used.  Generally speaking, the majority of wool comes from the local strains of the Ghiljai and Gaadi breeds of sheep, whose soft wool readily develops a natural sheen though use. The Beloutch production, like that of the Turkoman, is entirely hand made, from shearing and spinning into dyeing and knotting.  The Herat Beloutches are all wool as opposed to the Meshed Beloutches from Iran which have cotton warps.  A wide variety of both chemical and natural dyestuffs are used.

Weaving, always on a horizontal loom, frequently takes place in the open under a shelter just outside the weaver's tent, and is always done by women and girls who learn this craft when very young.

Besides carpets and rugs, the Beloutches, like the Turkomans, make knotted and piled bags of different shapes and sizes used for storage purposes.  In addition they make baby cradles, saddle bags, harness for camel and donkey and sometimes horse, and all the numerous things required in daily life, as well as the decorative and functional pieces which play such an important role in betrothals, marriages, and dowries.

For the nomad of this area, the prayer rug or jai namaz is above all a vital need and is perhaps his most significant personal property. On this prayer rug, he, whose unsettled life, is a constant struggle with nature and the elements, makes his devotions to his Creator five times a day.

Killims are a flat-woven fabric made of wool.  The variety of weaving techniques, of designs and colors is considerable, ranging from the simple yet charming striped killims of the Pasthun-speaking kouchis to the elaborate Beloutch killims of subtle design, often with decorative embroidery of great richness.  The different types of killims made in this region are becoming very popular in Western markets, as are those of woven by Uzbeks, Turkomans and Hazaras in other areas of Afghanistan.

Flat-woven domestic pieces such as grain and flour sacks are also made in the Beloutch area, often with either woven or embroidered patterns, and bags of all shapes and sizes, sometimes highly decorated with cowrie shells, small mirrors, buttons and tassels.

All the items mentioned above are sought in the Western markets because they are both decorative and useful.  For instance, killims can be used either as floor coverings (the purpose for which they were woven), wall hangings, bedspreads, etc. Donkey bags make excellent newspaper or knitting holders when draped over the arm of a chair.  Juwals and the large torbahs when stuffed become striking floor or chair cushions.  Tent bands enhance pelmets or curtains; camel halters and neckbands, the gaily decorated cradles and small bags make handsome wall ornaments, while a camel bell can be hung in many places, including outside the door.

Photos:


A classical Mauri rug, locally called "rangi tchoub" because the yarn has been dyed with
vegetable dyestuffs.  These very fine pieces, often single-wefted are woven in Herat City.



Sarouq rug. One of Afghanistan's finer quality rugs and which comes from Maruchak.



This fine quality rug bearing the "Kepsi Gul" of the Yamouds comes from Andkhoy.  Like all the best
quality Afghan pieces, the yarn is hand-spun Karakul wool, and this piece contains some natural dyestuffs.



The Ghaba Saqal, from the Ersari sub-clan, whose striking
design adds to the wide variety of production from the Andkhoy area.


The above is from an illustrated catalog published by The Export Promotion Department, Ministry of Commerce, Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (Post reign of Mohammad Zahir Shah) There was no exact publication date on the catalog.

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