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Origins and uses

 
What are kilims? The word kilim simply means a flatwoven rug, or rug without a knotted pile. There are many variations used in different languages: gelim in Iran, kelim in Afghanistan, kylym in the Ukraine, palas in the Caucasus, bsath in Syria and Lebanon, chilim in Rumania and kilim again, in Turkey, Poland, Hungary and Serbia. Moreover, fiatweaving is found in some form all over the world, from the Great Plains of North America to Scandinavia and Indonesia. At times there is only a structural similarity in what is produced, but the disciplines imposed by the materials and techniques often result in strikingly similar designs and compositions.
Until recently the kilim in general has been considered the poor relation of the Oriental knotted carpet by collectors and traders alike. For generations this view has prevailed, and the majority of books on rugs dismiss the kilim in a few sentences as an inferior and simple tribal product. In the last two decades, however, there has been an explosion of interest in the decorative, utilitarian and collectable qualities of these remarkable objects. Today, kilims captivate an ever-widening audience throughout the Western world.
The technique of flatweaving, the simple interlocking of strands of wool, hair or vegetable fibres, must have developed from the basic needs of the earliest civilizations for clothing, shelter and storage, and for simple comforts such as floor coverings and pillows. There are many historical references to weavers and woven cloth; the Iliad and works by later classical authors make it clear that weaving was an established and flourishing occupation of the time. Egyptian tomb paintings from the same period, and earlier, depict women weaving cloth and there are many biblical references to weavers and their tools. The domestication and selective breeding of the sheep, goat, camel and horse meant that wool and hair for weaving were readily available, and dyestuffs were synthesized from animal and vegetable sources. Production of the finest spun wool and dyes in the ancient world was sophisticated and international in character; fleeces from the Caucasus and dyestuffs from North Africa and India were traded throughout the Mediterranean and Asia, and the finished kilims were also important objects for trade and barter. Very few ancient flatweaves have survived to provide us with clues to the ancestry of the kilims woven over the last 250 years; animal hair and vegetable fibres rot and disintegrate over the centuries unless they are preserved in extraordinary circumstances. It is certain, however, that the kilim has been an essential piece of decorative, practical and portable furniture for the peoples of the Middle East and Asia for a very long time.
Kilirns, together with jewelry, clothing, tent furnishings and animal trappings, helped to form the identity of the village or nomadic tribal group. Kilims were made for use on the floors and walls of tents, houses and mosques and as animal covers and bags; most were made for family and personal use, although some villages and towns of Persia and Anatolia became famous for their fine commercial production in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Family wealth was stored up in kilims, knotted rugs, precious metals and animals and at times of famine or crisis any of these possessions could be bartered for grain, or exchanged into local currency for use in the nearest market town.
Kilims have always played a central role in the family as part of the dowry or bride price. Then, as now, the crucially important occasion of marriage involved much more than the union of two people. The girl, betrothed at an early age, became an instrument of liaison between families, to the mutual commercial, financial and political benefit of all parties concerned. The joint wealth of the two families was consolidated with rugs, jewelry and other items; the dowry also consisted of animals and grazing, water and irrigation rights. The young girl, learning alongside her mother and other members of her family, made her own dowry of kilims and textiles as a labour of love. Each piece embodies the inheritance of family traditions and tribal folklore. The position and status of a family were directly related to the quality and quantity of the bride’s dowry, and this explains to some extent why the kilim has in the past had so much effort, craftsmanship and creativity lavished upon it with no prospect of financial gain from the marketplace or bazaar.
The ritual of marriage and the strictly conservative Islamic lifestyle of the nomads called for the handing down of traditional types of kilim, as this dowry of two generations of a respectable north Afghanistan family — recorded by Parsons —testifies: 1 Pardeh (woven curtain to divide the male and female parts of the tent), 1 Jaloor Paidar (tent door hanging, knotted or flatwoven), 3 Jaloors/Tobrehs (door hangings and large bags), 2 pairs Juvals (the largest tent or camel bags), 2 Namak Donneh (salt bags), 2 pairs Kola-iCherga (tent-pole bags), 1 large carpet or kilim (11’x 6’), 1 Namad (felt), 2 small kilims (6’ x 3’), 3 Parpak (tent bands).
These kilims were used in the traditional manner in the home, as floor coverings, cushions, stroage bags, bedding covers and for ceremonial and welcoming purposes; the display of wealth was ostentatious, with valuable dowry kilims and textiles piled about the room, a veritable savings bank of weavings. This simple, pre-industrial, nomadic and village lifestyle has ensured an abundant supply of traditional kilims, with different tribes weaving their own distinctive designs that have evolved over many generations. But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, tribal groups began to lose their cohesion in the face of commercial and government pressures. Once tribes became sedentary and had to survive by trade and barter, they copied whichever designs were fashionable and saleable, and certain nomadic articles, such as storage bags, were no longer made. Marriages between tribes became more common, increasing the intermingling of often totally different cultures, and confusing the heritage of traditional arts. These changes were often accompanied by a decline in craftsmanship, but the fusion of clans and tribes of fundamentally different origins has sometimes resulted in exquisite and unusual kilims which have appeared on the market during the last thirty years.
Workshop production of kilims in villages usually indicates a nomadic tribe that has settled, in ancient or modern times, continuing to weave for domestic, and latterly for commercial reasons. In Turkey, for instance, kilims can be recognized by their tribe and area of origin to within a group of villages or even a single village. This compares with nomadic groups, who weave kilims within a much larger area, at their summer or winter quarters and sometimes at camps during a migration. The confusion of origins and names reigns supreme in Persia, where thousands of sedentary peoples from many different tribes have been forcibly relocated from one end of the country to the other in the course of its stormy history. The last such mass movement occurred as late as 1834, and one can imagine the chaos and tribal flux caused by it. The result is seen in the Persian kilims around Garmsar, for instance, which show a diversity and confusion in designs, patterns and colours.
Whatever the social and political upheavals, production of kilims continues unabated; but the traditional life of both the sedentary and nomadic tribespeople of Asia has come under a pincer- like attack since the 1 950s. On one hand there is the attraction of the towns, on the other, the lure of profits to be made by producing kilims and textiles for the expanding European and North American markets. These factors, combined with the surge in tourism since the 1960s, have reduced the sources of original tribal kilims to a mere handful; only the least accessible areas are still weaving and dyeing in the traditional way. Afghanistan was, at least until the recent turmoil, the last reservoir of old and unusual kilims, and the major source of traditional kilim production.
By contrast, there can be no doubt that present-day Turkey has become the centre for the village and workshop production of kilims for export and trade; orders are placed by telex and many designs and colours are inspired by Western interior designers. Chemical dyes are used, and yet it is interesting to see the re-emergence of the rich, glowing colours of natural dyes, matched with ancient and often long -forgotten motifs and symbols, to satisfy an ever growing demand for more traditional kilims.
It is clear that the reasons for making kilims have changed greatly in recent years. Utility and religious and cultural significance have largely been replaced by profit and commerce. By looking at many different kilims, old and new, from many different areas, one can begin to appreciate those that seem to be original and not mass produced: These are the genuine article — kilims which retain their true ethnic identity, woven without compromise and with a craftsmanship that reflects love and heritage in their making.

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