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Hamptons Life

Jun 13, 2018 10:30 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

The Art Of The Kilim

Kilim rugs at Studio 11 at Red Horse Plaza, East Hampton.  JACK CRIMMINS
Jun 13, 2018 10:54 AM

From time to time, I will explore the fascinating world of rugs and carpets.

Because there are so many types and styles, I try to look at them one type at a time. One of the oldest types of rugs are the kilims, which are a flat tapestry woven carpet traditionally made in Turkic countries, Iran and Central Asia. Since kilim rugs are often cheaper than pile rugs, kilims are a good place for carpet collectors to start.

Until recently, kilims were considered inferior to their elevated cousin the pile carpet, mostly because their origin lies in the nomadic culture of the Caucasus Mountains. Flat woven rugs are found across the world and each region has a different name and sometimes different pronunciation and spelling for the same type of rug. For instance, kilim is the most widespread word used to identify a flat woven rug in the Middle East, but other variations are gilim (Persian), kilem and lelem. The word kilim is Turkish, meaning made entirely by weaving horizontal wefts that cover the vertical warps. What are wefts and warps, you might ask? Picture a grid map of Manhattan, the avenues (going north and south) are vertical warps and the streets (going west and east) are the horizontal wefts.

Once overlooked as utilitarian, low-status items, kilims are now prized as authentic folk pieces. This has happened only in the last 40-odd years. Up until the fall of the Shah of Iran in the late 1970s, a typical rug/carpet dealer wouldn’t even admit he sold kilim rugs because they were of nomadic origin—therefore dirty and inferior to Persian carpets. The rug dealers couldn’t even understand why anyone would want to buy them in the first place, and often used them as wrapping for Persian carpets made for export. I have an industry friend and rug importer who said he wanted to buy kilims in Tehran and the dealer would agree to sell them to him only by the bale and, of course, wouldn’t lower himself to show him any of the rugs beforehand. The bales arrived in New York and, to his dismay, one of the six bales contained sand. Apparently, while the bales were en route, the shipyard workers assumed the bales contained fine Persian pile carpets. Then, discovering they were merely kilims, they threw them away (or stole them) and filled that bale with sand, not bothering to molest the other bales because even stevedores didn’t think much of kilim rugs.

Traditionally, kilim rugs were woven by the women of the Caucasus, including young girls who made small rugs, which would be used as dowry gifts. Many kilims are long and narrow because they were used to cover the nomadic tents in winter to keep in the heat from the fire, or used around the fire inside the tent like runners. These rugs were woven on portable looms because they weren’t in any one place for long, and the tints, dyes and wools could be inconsistent for the same reason. There can be an incredible difference between one area and another in rugs of this type due to the fact that they didn’t produce dyes in large vats. Their dye batches were only enough for the time they’d be in one place. The wools used are from both goats and sheep; sometimes hair is used as well, and the dyes are generally vegetable based. These techniques make it difficult to produce continuous vertical separations of color in the design, so kilims have a stepped or crenelated effect. In other words, they vary. This is not a defect; it is a reflection of how they were made. Some are even done in two pieces then sewn together. Some are sewn from several pieces, creating what is called a slit weave. Each has its own character, which adds to its value as a work of art.

As a side note, the nomadic people of northern Iran came under scrutiny by the late Shah, who was determined to prevent them from wandering into adjacent countries like Russia and Pakistan. He set up a plan to give them permanent housing in villages, where they could be modernized and civilized, and the children educated. One might be inclined to see this as a benevolent plan for his people, but the nomads had no intention of settling down in one village—that was not their way. In addition, the weaving by the girls and women would come to an end, since there would be no need for kilims as saddlebags, tent covers, tent floor runners and, most important, as dowries. In the mid-1970s, the Iranian clerics outside the cities were inciting the people to reject the overreach and despotism of the Shah as ungodly and against tradition. I often wonder if the situation in Iran would have turned out differently had the Shah not decided to interfere with his village programs and the education of girls.

By 1980, the humble status of kilims as domestic utilitarian pieces ceased to be seen as a drawback and instead became the very reason for collecting them. They are also valued for both the use of sharply contrasting colors and muted colors. Kilims that feature sharp contrast in design motifs can be used as centerpieces while more muted tones are best applied as an accent piece. Set kilims alongside furniture or underneath tables and chairs to allow the room’s dynamic to flow more elegantly. In any case—since kilim is a flat woven tapestry-type weave—kilim rugs need padding underneath or to be lain over another rug to avoid abrasion with the bare floor.

Kilim motifs include “elibelinde,” a stylized female figure of motherhood and fertility, and “nazarlik,” which is meant to be a defense against the evil eye. Others are for safety from wolves and scorpions.

In today’s times, anything that is not being made anymore is probably worth collecting. Despite their lowly origin, kilims have become increasingly collectible in recent years with quality pieces commanding high prices.

Kilims were once considered inferior rugs because they were handmade, with handmade dyes, on handmade looms, by young nomadic girls. Now, those very things are what the collector or anyone who appreciates handwork looks for and admires.

If you like the idea of a one-of-a-kind rug that won’t cost a sultan’s ransom, consider a kilim. For authentic antique kilim rugs in the Hamptons, check out Studio 11 at Red Horse Plaza, East Hampton. Other varieties of kilims and reproduction kilims can be found at Carpetman in Southampton as well as retailers like Restoration Hardware.

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