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Dekek Powell, Rug Masters, Gillette, WY

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Scott Gwilliam, Rug Worx, Mesa, AZ

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Jan M. Sandler, JMS Enterprises, Hatboro, PA

Rug History

I have to admit, I have a passion for rugs; hence the nickname “Rug Lady.” I consider rugs “artwork for the floor.” I owned and operated a retail rug store for five years and became familiar with all types and styles of rugs, both old and new. Unfortunately, living so close to Dalton, GA, the carpet capital of the world, I couldn’t compete with the “big boys” and finally closed my store. But while in business, I acquired literally hundreds of rugs, several of which I still have in my home. They are not only decorative, they are functional too.

The terms rug and carpet are often used interchangeably. However, the term rug usually refers to a floor covering that is not fastened to the floor and doesn’t cover the floor completely. As the word “rug” is derived from “rugged”; thus the term also suggests a deeper, shaggier pile. A carpet, on the other hand, covers a room’s entire floor and is nailed, tacked or glued to a subfloor.

The history of rugs is the history of humankind itself. Since we humans have a natural desire for an atmosphere of coziness around us, the caveman (or more probably cave woman) felt the need to put the hide of some furry animal on the cave floor for both comfort and warmth. Although we don’t have the same inherent need as our ancestors, a similar inclination motivates us today when we put rugs on our floors.

The use of rugs as floor coverings is almost as old as recorded history. The rug started out as a sleeping mat to provide humans with protection from the elements while resting. At first, animal skins were used and, later, coarse fabrics of an ordinary weave. The rug was also used as a shroud for the dead and a bundle in which to carry possessions and tools. It was an important element for those who were forced to follow after their flocks or herds. It transformed the cold, hard ground into a bed. As populations gradually turned to a more settled life, rugs changed from being private possessions into objects for barter and trade.

Rugs are made of animal, vegetable and in more recent times, man-made fibers. Wool is considered the classic fiber for rugs because it offers a balance of resiliency, durability, cleanability, and economy. Practically all hand-woven Oriental rugs were made of wool, although a few silk pieces were made in the 17th and 18th centuries as prayer rugs. Even camel and goat hair was used. After people learned to weave, they made floor mats from grasses and other plant materials.

No one knows exactly when rug-making began. Textile fragments dating back several thousand years have been discovered all over the continent of Asia. The earliest fabric floor coverings are believed to have originated in the Orient. Egypt is given credit for the beginning of rugs around 3000 B.C. Gradual improvements in weaving and design produced more elaborate tapestry weaves.

The earliest known fabric made with pile is called the Pazyryk rug. It was made around the 400 B.C. and was discovered in a tomb in southern Siberia. Pile fabrics are materials consisting of a strong backing of ordinary weave with extra threads knotted in to form a somewhat raised surface.
The weaving of pile rugs developed in India before the 12th-century a.d. and spread to the rest of the East. In the Orient, rugs usually were made of pile fabrics knotted by hand, although other weaves were employed as well.

Crusaders who traveled to the Middle East during A.D. 1100 and 1200 probably brought rugs to Europe. Hand-knotted rugs were made in Europe by the Saracens of southern Spain as early as the 13th century. Rug making evidently was widespread, because the Moors who invaded France in that century, are known to have founded several rug factories there.

Rug making was a flourishing business in Persia in the 14th and 15th centuries, reaching its height during the reign of Shah Abbas in the 16th century. Isfahan (location?) was the center of the Persian rug industry, which created intricate patterns in rich colors and in deep pile weaves. Fine Persian rugs often had as many as 1,000 knots per square inch. These rugs, as well as those made in Turkey, were imported into Western European countries as early as the 15th century. England started making pile rugs in the 1500s.

During the reign of King Henry IV, 1553–1610, a group of Persian weavers was persuaded to leave Isfahan and work in the Louvre Palace in Paris. In 1628, a carpet factory was started in a former soap factory (savonnerie) at Chaillot, France. French weavers of Savonnerie rugs created designs in vibrant colors on deep backgrounds based on Oriental motifs. Later designs followed French period styles.
During the 1700s, England was the center of the European rug and carpet industry. English inventor, Edmund Cartwright, developed the power loom during the 1780s.

Tapestry rugs were crafted in Aubusson, a small town in central France, which has since become the trade name for carpet and rug designs woven there. In 1825 the factory was transferred to the Gobelin family and is still active. The same name is given also to rugs of this type made at Aubusson and elsewhere in France. Brussels became an important center of tapestry weaving in the 16th century and, by the 18th century, had become one of the principal sources of floor tapestries.

A similar floor covering was developed in the town of Wilton in England. Here, an important refinement in the hand-knotting technique, known today as a “Wilton weave,” was perfected.

In North America, the most common rugs during colonial times were braided rugs, hooked rugs, and rag rugs made from scraps of cloth. In the United States, the first factory for carpet weaving was started in Philadelphia in 1791.

The Jacquard mechanism was invented about 1800 by the French weaver, Joseph Marie Jacquard. Erastus B. Bigelow, a Massachusetts inventor, perfected a power loom for making carpet in the early 1840s. In 1841 a steam engine was harnessed to an in-grain loom, raising daily production more than threefold. The first looms produced carpet about 68 cm (about 27 in) wide, which were cut into appropriate lengths and sewn together. A power loom for producing Axminster carpet was patented in 1856.

In the West until the 19th century, the most common floor coverings were flat-woven fabrics, because few families could afford the more costly Oriental and domestic hand-knotted pile rugs. The demand for hand-woven rugs, whether Oriental or European, continued throughout the 19th century. They were the preferred floor covering in rooms furnished with English, French or Italian furniture.

During the early 20th century, decorating became much simpler. In the early twenties, Oriental rugs went out of style, being replaced by machine-made carpet of a single color, or of an overall pattern. Decorators found it easier to integrate a carpet of one color into a room scheme, rather than a rug with designs that were bold and complicated.

During the twenties, the favorite decorator carpet color was aubergine (eggplant). Aubergine carpeting was popular until the mid-forties when it was replaced by gray carpeting, which remained neutral whenever the room’s color scheme was changed. Next in popularity came beige, which has remained the most popular carpet color even today.

The tufting machine for carpeting was introduced in the early 1950s. By the mid-1950s, more tufted rugs and carpet, rather than woven ones, were being produced in the United States.

Today, rugs are more popular than ever, especially with the reintroduction of hard surfaces, such as wood, laminate, stone, marble and tile in our homes and offices. They come in many shapes and sizes to fit the needs and decorating styles of consumers.

Room-sized rugs are like wall-to-wall carpet and can be used in almost any room. They extend to within eight to twelve inches of the wall, leaving a border of flooring exposed around the room.

An “area rug” is a medium-sized rug used to delineate a section of the room in which particular activities take place, such as dining, music, conversations or games. An area rug can also be a variety of shapes: oblong, oval, square round or even free-form.

“Accent rugs” are smaller than area rugs. They are used primarily to give a touch of color or interest to the floor. Also, they can have a utilitarian purpose, such as a “walk-off mat” at a doorway to keep soil from being tracked into a home or office.

Just like carpet and upholstery, rugs get soiled, and you, the cleaning professional, need to be knowledgeable about them before you attempt to clean them. I hope this brief history gives you a better appreciation and understanding of the rugs your customers may ask you to clean. Knowing the type of rug, the approximate age, the construction and the fiber content will save you a lot of time, effort and possibly money in the future. Because rugs are usually more delicate and more expensive than carpet, you have much greater liability. Be very cautious!

Ruth Travis

The Rug Lady

Ruth is the Director of the WoolSafe Program in North America, and an IICRC-Approved Instructor for Rug Cleaning and Color Repair. She is also an IICRC-Certified Carpet Inspector specializing in cleaning related issues and color correction.  She also works as a consultant for Chase Carpet and Rug Care in Denver where she oversees their rug cleaning operation.  

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