Posted on: May 14, 2018
A Brief History of Oushak Carpets
Oushak rugs are among the most popular Oriental designs in Occidental home decor. Continue reading to learn about the history and transformation of these rugs over the last century.
Uşak is a town in the western plateau of present day Turkey whose name has become synonymous with the Oushak carpet. Throughout its long history, the economy and livelihood of this town has been strongly influenced by the rug market.
Prior to the European Renaissance when European markets started to heavily affect carpet production in Uşak, Oushak rugs were woven in nomadic tribes for the weaver’s own needs. Like many village rugs of this era, this meant that the carpet’s creator was responsible for harvesting the cotton used in its loom’s foundation and the wool used in its pile, hand-spinning each material into a refined yarn, coloring the wool using natural dyes obtained from the surrounding fields, and employing weaving techniques that were passed down to them from their mothers. In a similar way that the weaving skills continued through generations, so too did the designs of these rugs because they were improvisationally woven through memory. City rugs, in contrast, were often knotted in accordance with a drawing that color-coded every knot.
The carpets pictured below are antiques from Konya, another historic rug center that is about 300 km (180 miles) east of Uşak. They are a fitting representation of the motifs that characterized many rugs made in Central and West Asia during the12th century. The stylized flowers, called “gol,” are typically depicted as symmetrical and octagonal medallions that repeat to make a pattern. These particular designs were popular during the rule of the Seljuk Empire, a Turko-Persian dynasty who reigned from China to the Mediterranean at its peak.
Under Ottoman rule, Uşak became a major rug manufacturing center in part because oriental carpets were in fashion with European courts. In the 15th century, Renaissance painters such as Lorenzo Lotto and Hans Holbein the Younger popularized Oushak carpets by using them to set the scene in their paintings. According to their depictions in these works, Oushaks consisted of red and gold hues with accents of blue. Some of the Oushak designs drew inspiration from and built upon the preceding “gol” motifs, with more detailed and ornamental geometric patterns formed of symmetrical crosses or octagons. Others branch off into arabesque patterns.
By the late 17th century, European merchants moved their purchasing power to European markets. At this time, the French Aubusson tapestries and Savonnerie rugs were in fashion. Because of the loss of European buyers, many weavers of Oushak carpets could no longer make their living weaving, and as such, had to find work elsewhere. There was, however, still a niche national market of upper class Anatolians who were interested in owning Oushaks, but this limited group could not sustain the previously thriving Oushak economy.
Generations later in the late 19th century, Oushak rugs came back in vogue across the global market. They offered a transitional style that was suitable for the new, less ornamental designs that were born from the Industrial Revolution. Even in today’s modern designs, Oushaks are a popular choice to add character to unadorned furniture. But because of the collapse of the rug market, the weaving tradition in Uşak could no longer continue production at the same capacity as before. Much of the the town’s weaving traditions were lost as mothers were no longer passing down the knowledge to their daughters because rug making was no longer a viable way to make a living. As a result, most of the hand-made production moved to nearby villages and Uşak became a center for factory-made carpets. As Uşak recaptured the commercial rug market, they once again modified their traditional designs to fit the needs and trends of the market. This has diversified the styles and designs that are now considered Oushak, but one can still see traces of influence from the octagonal and symmetrical “gol” motifs and European decorative designs.
At Orley Shabahang, we have reproduced several antique Oushak designs to the caliber and splendor of the original pieces. Like the nomads who were making these designs before the introduction of the market’s influence, Orley Shabahang creates these heirloom carpets with handspun wool derived from the lanolin-dripping backs of Persian fat-tailed sheep. The wool is then dyed with organic vegetable dyes and is hand-knotted in the homes of the artisan weavers who create these exquisite works of art that are sure to be the antiques of the future.