While the preponderance of antique Oriental rugs were woven from sheeps hair, there were villages and encampments of Northwest Persian Azerbaijan and Kurdistan during the 19th and turn-of-the 20th-century rugs where undyed camelhair was employed to create distinctive and highly desirable works of art.
Over the years, since founding Claremont Rug Company
in 1980, we have had an enthusiastic and knowledgeable following among our clients, who find myriad uses for them in their residences. In this first installment of a two-part series, I will discuss some of the more interesting facets of this collecting niche and point out the many nuances that make them so attractive, despite their relative rarity.
Many clients place their camelhair pieces in gallery halls or great rooms, as their neutral hues and often more sparse patterns provide an effective counterbalance to the large-scale designs and multi-colored palette of many contemporary paintings. Also, camelhairs color spectrum, a surprisingly wide range of earth-tones from blonde to tan, wheat, walnut, and even chocolate brown, effectively lightens and adds distinction to smaller areas or hallways.
Remarkably little can be found about camelhair rugs in the rug literature. For this article, I am relying primarily on the many interviews with tribal elders I spoke to decades ago and my experience of working with the rugs themselves over the past almost half-century. I find the best of these rugs extraordinarily intriguing artistically, as the use of this undyed natural fiber amplifies the weavers folk-art expression.
Camelhair rugs stem mainly from the villages of Bakshaish, Serab, and Malayer and the weavers of the immense Kurdistan province, including the rugs from the town of Bijar. Weavers from many other Persian and Caucasian styles also occasionally created rugs with precious, undyed camelhair. Here are some of the distinctive attributes of the major camelhair weaving groups:
Top-level (Levels 2 and 3 on our Antique Rug Pyramid ©) 19th-century Bakshaish camelhair carpets are incredibly inventive, and as with their all-wool counterparts, are quite difficult to find and widely sought after. The oldest ones offer the most spontaneous and elemental rug designs and the softest color palettes.
From this group, those woven before 1870 most often evoke a decidedly tribal context with shield, dragon, and unusual tree patterns. In the fourth quarter of the 19th century, designs became somewhat more stylized and botanical, with more saturated palettes of color. One of the most memorable Bakshaish formats presents a grand, intentionally asymmetrical central medallion and broad, startling mid-tone blue-toned corner pieces that often contain dragon motifs. Spellbinding camelhair fields with Tree of Life or Garden of Paradise allover designs are highly desirable to collectors.
Natural light to rich browns of camelhair combined with Bakshaishs renowned spontaneously drawn artistry convey an emotional stratum that is innately familiar. At the same time, they have a never seen before quality. Camelhair has this effect in general but seems especially suited to the Bakshaish tradition. At Claremont, we have a small but exceptional collection of Bakshaish camelhair rugs in area sizes, corridor or runner shapes, room size, or even oversize (in quite limited numbers).
South of Heriz and a bustling carpet market center for all the tribal and village weavings being created in the 19th century in this pocket of Azerbaijan, Serab claims a prominent place in camelhair rug creation as the only weaving tradition that used camelhair more often than sheeps wool for their rugs.
The Serab rugmakers particular contribution is the use of camelhair and undyed ivory sheeps wool to create stunning understated field patterns, much like damask, in a great variety of designs, imbuing a geometric elegance to their weavings. Upon this intricately woven and mesmerizing background, most often single or multiple diamond-shaped medallions float, evoking a sense of quiet grandeur. Serabs are often finely knotted for rugs with geometric designs. For these reasons, our clients choose Serabs as companions in combination with more formal carpets, especially where a runner or gallery carpet is required. As most town and city weaving centers virtually never wove runners and corridor carpets, elegant Serabs are the natural choice for halls and passageways.
Celebrating the seemingly endless tonal variations of camelhair, antique Serab rugs and runners are often framed with a wide guard stripe in unadorned camelhair, displaying this fibers constant striation of tonalities. In some cases, these areas would reflect the tribal notion of sprinkling, where tiny motifs playfully dot the expansive borders.
Serab artisans wove a preponderance of the inspired corridor carpets (i.e., rugs longer than twice their widths, known in the field as kelegis), as well as somewhat narrow room sizes. Interestingly, they also occasionally wove sumptuous oversizes and palace-sizes.
A Bit of History
Camels changed the course of history by the 8th century B.C. As the historian, S. Frederick Starr writes in Lost Enlightenment, the camel replaced the wheel and the ox-drawn cart in Central Asia. Finding the two-humped Bactrian camel superior to the Dromedary, merchants of the period discovered this animals capacity to carry up to 500 pounds of goods. As camels are significantly stronger and more adaptable to a broader range of climate conditions, they were considered more valuable than horses. Caravans owned by wealthy merchants as long as 1000 camels could transport the equivalent of a 10-12 car freight train. Soon the Central Asian desert, traversed by hundreds then thousands of caravans, became the site of the wealthiest cities in the world for several hundred years.
In Part Two, I will continue our tour of the camelhair weaving styles and discuss the tribal peoples high regard for this lanky animal.