The Textile Museum’s Symposium Show and Tell

On the weekend of October 17-19, 2008, The Textile Museum, here in Washington, D.C., held its fall “symposium.” This year’s theme was “Cultural Threads: Exploring the Context of Oriental Rugs and Textiles.”

The associated exhibition had generously been provided by the NYC Hajji Baba Society. The oldest rug club in the U.S. permitted the exhibition, curated by Jon Thompson for their recent 75th anniversary celebration, to travel to DC to be installed by a TM curatorial team headed by Sumru Krody, the TM’s Associate Curator for Eastern Hemisphere Collections. This installation received lots of positive comment, and it works well to place the exhibition pieces advantageously in a smaller space than it had in NYC. You should see this exhibition, first hand, if you can, but there are a number of glimpses of it available on the TM’s web site.

Here is the “front door” to that site:

This link is to the description of the exhibition on this site:

And this link is to some additional images of pieces in the exhibition provided in the “press pack.”:

Many of you will know that Jon Thompson prepared the catalog for this exhibition.

In his introduction of Thompson during the Symposium program, Dan Walker, the TM Director, praised Thompson’s provision of a doubly useful framework for what could otherwise be experienced simply as a disparate group of attractive textiles. Walker said Thompson did this by emphasizing the cultural settings in which the pieces in the exhibition were made. Walker said that this contextual framework was not only useful to collectors and rug scholars, who often look at such material, to a degree, in a kind of ethnographic vacuum, but was particularly welcome in that it made the exhibit more accessible and interesting to the general public.

Fall Symposium weekends always end with a show and tell, held in a large tent behind the Museum buildings proper. This year folks were asked to bring items that were congruent with the exhibition themes, but not redundant with the pieces in it. This spec was wide enough to acommodate a considerable variety of material.

Michael Seidman,

who has ably facilitated this show and tell session for a number of years, did so again.

Some years, the Symposium crowd thins as people rush to their return travel, but this year the tent was full.

The “drill” is that Michael directs a team of helpers

who hold up most pieces and walk left to right across the front of the tent. The walking often needs to be pretty fast if we are to finish by the scheduled time, so it is not always possible to get good photos of all of the pieces.

In truth, the show and tell is full of somewhat boisterous comment and humor, and if you are deadly serious about rugs and textiles, you likely need to look elsewhere ,and that includes the photos that I have usually been able to manage. What you will see below are, amost exclusively, rather informal images of only some of the pieces that were shown. But it is what I could do, and what I can share, given the character of the occasion and the circumstances in which these images were taken.

Michael started with textiles.

Some smaller and/or fragile textiles had been pinned to a front board and we did those first.

The larger piece at the top of the board was the wonderful embroidered Caucasian fragment below.

This fragment, estimated to the 18th century, has been reassembled from smaller fragments and has features seen in Caucasian “dragon” carpets.

Here are closer looks at the two right-side corners.

As you can see, spectacular colors.

Lower on the front board were two framed pastiches of Indian woven pieces.

Both of these framed pieces were presented with their directional center panels oriented 90 degrees from what you are seeing here. I’ve turned them for your visual convenience.

Its owner described the small piece below as an Uzbek Koran cover.

This embroidered piece is very well composed and has excellent colors, including a vivid purple. It has an ikat lining and some thought it might have been converted to a purse, since it seems too “thin” to hold all of a Koran. It was estimated to have been woven before the 19th century.

The next piece was the very small one below.

It was necessarily photographed here through a plastic wrapping, so you are not seeing it at its best. I don’t have measurements, but estimate that it was about 4 by 6 inches. One of the commenting experts suggested that it could have been made to serve as a doll house rug. Its field design is directional, exhibits a wide range of colors and the flower and animal forms of Persian “animal” carpets. It is very, very well made and its owner believes it to be very old. I think the technique was described as “counted stitch embroidery.”

The ikat fragment below is the seeming edge of a garment of some sort. It is very thin…so thin that if placed on a black ground the design is “washed out.” It had to be mounted on red to reveal itself.

It was sold to its owner as Central Asian, the dealer saying that it came out of that area when he purchased it. Harold Keshishian has asked whether it might not be Turkish, since he has a piece of ikat with a similar stripe, but different palette, that was acquired by a missionary in Turkey. There were some in the tent who thought this piece was Syrian and cited Kalter’s book on Syrian textiles.

The owner had been told that both the blue-red striped areas and the gold ground edging piece were ikat.

Gail Martin, examining it, said that the gold ground area is not ikat, but rather some other woven fabric. She noted that the piece has blue wefts (most Central Asian ikats have red wefts). The dealer who sold this piece also cited these blue wefts as a distinctive group and perhaps an indicator of greater age. Elena Tzareva, with this fragment in hand, said that it was the oldest item of ikat she had seen.

The next piece had an odd shape. The owner reported that when he bought neither he nor the dealer he bought it from knew what it was. It was seemingly part of something, but complete as it came off the loom.

Wendel Swan reported that once a well-known dealer had come to the TM with a piece with a very similar format and described it as a “unique” bag of some sort. Wendel had had some experience with such pieces and saw that it was, in fact, one of the front chest tabs of a horse cover.

That’s what this piece is, too. Subsequent questions about it have centered on where it was most likely woven.

Suggestions began with Heriz (because of the “S” border), but have proceeded to Kurdish and perhaps Bijar, some pointing out that Heriz pieces seldom have either botehs or animals.

Regardless, it is a nice, tightly woven fragment for someone who cannot afford a complete horse cover of this sort.

Another piece on the front board was the small bag with colorful animals below.

In his “Sumak” volume, John Wertime treats a very similar and complete small khorjin bag set. Wertme attributes his example to the Shahsavan of the Moghan-Savalan region. He notes that its dark brown ground is warp-faced.

The lack of bands between rows of animals gives this version a more spacious appearance.

The last piece on the front board was the one below.

This is part of an embroidered Turkman head dress for a camel or horse. It would have been held on the head with an arrangement of straps. Despite the fact that it is only part of such a head dress, it projects a holistic appearance.

We probably do not know enough about such textiles to make good tribal attributions, but one experienced person has suggested that the use of green suggests Tekke or Ersari (the latter now M. A. D.)

The next piece was long and delicate.

One of the expert commentators examined it and said that it was a machine-made furnishing fabric, likely made in either the late 19th century or early in the 20th. Here is a closer look at a detail of it.

This fabric has a metallic gold ground.

The next piece was a cushion cover from southern Sweden.

Such pieces are termed “rolakans,” and are made with varieties of interlocking tapestry. They are infrequent, but among those known are a surprising number estimated to the 18th century.

They can be rather strictly geometric, but some also have clear representing designs, as with the reindeer and bird forms on this one. This piece is estimated to 1800.

The long textile below is Indonesian.

It was described as “Sumba;” it’s main borders are ikat.

Said to be typical of eastern Indonesia.

A seemingly similar piece may also have been from Indonesia.

It was described as “Bidang,” a woman’s skirt, and estimated to be 75 years old.

Since publication, an experienced person has written me to say that the piece below is Indonesian as well.

It was hard to photograph because it is translucent against the bright sun at the back of the tent. There are puppet figures in its designs. My notes contain the phrase “Teganan” cloth, but the spelling is uncertain.

Note: Since the above paragraph has been published Patricia Jansma, a student of textiles in The Netherlands has written me about it, saying: “The correct spelling of the Indonesian cloth is ‘Tenganan.’  It comes from the isle of Bali.  It is a so-called ‘double-ikat’ (the yarns have been dyed both length- and width-wise).”  My thanks to Ms. Jansma for this further indication. 

The next piece moved by fast and I have managed only to take one end of it.

It was attributed to Sumatra.

The next few pieces were from Africa. I will give my note indications but you need to be wary of spelling and the like.

The first is this colorful cotton textile below.

My notes suggest “Keta cloth from the Ewe tribe.”

Similarly, my notes on the piece below say “Yoruba” and “Nigeria” in its description of this cloth.

A third African textile is described as an item of “mud cloth.” I think it was attributed to Mali. You are seeing about two-thirds of it.

The African textile below was also described as a “mud cloth,” but one made by men. Its large, bold design was said to signal something made for the tourist market.

The textile below is a split-ply camel girth from India.

Girths of this sort were used to hold saddles on riding camels. The structure is a kind of plait rather than a weaving. It is done with a needle, but without a loom. The needle is thrust between plies usually of light and dark colors so that the design that appears on one side is exactly like that on the other excepting that its color usages are reversed.

Here is a closer look at this structure.

Despite the crude appearance of such girths and their structure, Peter Collingwood the late English weaver, (he died early in October, 2008) once spent ten years writing a book on them

and reported that working with this split-ply structure requires more skill and sophistication than the appearance of it would suggest. Collingwood said that a “one-position” error would undermine, not just the design of a piece, but its very structure.

Someone had brought a short black velvet jacket that had heavy metallic embroidery. Here, below, is its back.

The experts agreed that it was Anatolian.

The owner of the piece below introduced it by saying that she had bought it from an Uzbek student in Moscow for $250.

The experts said that this was an item of new production from Tashkent. Here is a closer look at a detail of this piece.

The experts also allowed as how $250 was a pretty good retail price for this piece.

Next were a series of Central Asian ikats. The first below had “peacock feather” and “plant” forms.

A little closer look.

Some of these ikats were robes.

A second robe.

The next ikat piece was a panel.

I have turned this panel 90 degrees so that you an better appreciate this design.

One more ikat had a blue ground.

There was also a Central Asian robe embroidered in cross-stitch.

A close look at this cross-stitich embroidery.

We now moved to a series of “Kashmir-type” shawls. The first of these was long enough to be worn as a sash.

This piece is very fine. Here is a closer look at one end of it.

The shawl below was described as of the “moon” variety.

One feature of this shawl, visible in the image above, is that its warps change colors periodically. Below is a closer detail of its field.

The shawl below was also described as of the “moon” variety

but is also a composite, made up of pieces from different shawls. You can see the piecing clearly in the image below. But these are old pieces, estimated to the 1820s.

Here is a closer detail of one area of field, border, corner piece.

A still closer look at a detail of the field design.

The shawl below was described as a “new embroidered copy” of a museum piece.

A closer look at part of one end.

Just one of the botehs turned 90 degrees and closer still with edging borders.

The last shawl was another of the “moon” variety.

It was estimated to have been woven in the 19th century. Here is a closer look at the field designs.

The next piece, shown a little out of sequence, was a very long Moroccan pile carpet.

Russell Pickering provided comment from the audience.

Russ said this rug was a “Rabat” type and likely woven about 1900.

Here is a closer look at a detail of the field and another of one corner.

Russell said that the designs in this rug show Anatolian influences.

The next rug WAS Anatolian, from the Mudjur area and had an exceptionally thick handle. The mihrab is of a style commonly found on Ladik rugs.

The next piece was an Anatolian flatwoven cover.

It is woven in a “zili” technique, the distinctive “corduroy” appearance of which you can see in this closer detail.

The next piece was an interesting Persian pictorial rug.

Pictorial rugs of this sort were treated by Parviz Tanavoli in his “Kings, Heroes and Lovers” volume. The images in these pictorial rugs usually depict particular instances in Persian folk literature. Pat Weiler in Seattle has called them “soap opera” rugs and they are often that. If you ask a Persian about such a rug, he/she will often be able to tell you the “episode” being depicted and may be able to identify many of the figures by name.

This rug has three horizontally arranged sets of figures. At the top are two horseman in battle. One is in the act of killing the other by striking him on top of his head with a sword and is cutting him, vertically, in half. The middle row features a seated figure apparently holding some flowers, a center figure smoking a pipe and a right hand figure standing. The bottom row has a center figure seated and two standing figures at the sides.

The owner thought it might be a “Hushang Shah” Hammadan, and the seated figures are characteristic of that type. But some of us in the audience either own or were familiar with pictorial pieces with similar blocky figures that Tanavoli attributes to weavers in the Firdowz area of Khurasan.

I have, subsequently, looked again at Tanavoli.

The owner may have a point since, in two of the panels the figure seated is on what could be a throne, a central feature of the Hushang Shah series. Also, the figures in the Hushang Shah series seem all to be male and that may be true for this piece as well. A little more tenuous seeming difference is that the drawing of the faces of some of the figures has a distinctly “Chinese” appearance (the drawing in the Firdowz pieces follows the usages on Russian icons).

An additional feature on side of the owner’s opinion is that the pictorial rugs from Firdowz, mostly, have a distinctive white ground border different from that on this piece (the latter shown below).

(I looked quickly at the back of this piece but cannot recall now whether it was single-wefted, something that would be more conclusive).

On the side of those of us who saw this piece as likely from Firdowz is that fact that none of the “Hushang Shah” rugs that Tanavoli presents have a horse, and a horse figures importantly in the Firdowz rugs that usually depict some episode in the romance of Khuraw and Shirin.

The next piece was a Shahsavan mafrash side panel.

This panel’s design presents animal and plant forms in a spacious and graphically attractive way. Here is a closer look at a detail of this piece.

The next piece was a large (5′ x 10′) Shahsavan pile rug with narrow-white color borders and outsized “egg palmettes” in its field.

The owner believes this to be at least one of the oldest Shahsavan pile rugs known.

It colors and monumental drawing project great beauty and graphic punch. The skills the weaver(s) of this piece employed extend to details in the small human figures, some of which are anatomically correct.

The rug below is from Karabagh and features two foxes.

Here is a closer look at one of the foxes.

And its distinctive, colorful flower-form border.

The rug below is from the eastern Caucasus. It has a kufic main border and an unusual field.

Here is a closer corner.

The next rug was also from the eastern Caucausus, this time with a striped field.

Attributed to Shirvan.

Despite their definite nomadic ways, Shahsavan bands are not frequent. But we had one.

Here is a closer looker look at a detail of this piece.

Colorful and spacious, with crisp drawing.

There were some South Persian pieces.

First, this complete, flat-woven khorjin set.

This piece was attributed to the Kashguli, a designation associated with high quality Qashqa’i weavings. Here is a closer look at part of it.

The next South Persian piece was also a khorjin set, this time in pile.

Here is a closer look at most of one face.

The subsequent piece was a border fragment of a large Kamseh rug.

A rug of this size was clearly made for a customer of means. Here is a closer look at part of it.

The next piece was a Khamseh khorjin set.

My photos do not do this piece justice. Here is a detail of the field of one face, that includes its colorful bridge and intensely decorated closure system area.

The slit tapestry back of this khorjin set is also spectacularly colorful.

The next rug was a square-ish Kamseh.

The rug below was also Kamseh with a “pole” medallion.

A closer look at part of its field.

Another large Khamseh for which I have not managed to take an “all-edges” image.

A detail of the field of this piece.

And of one corner.

The next South Persian piece was the pole design below, this time attributed to the Luri.

A little closer detail.

Another large south Persian rug followed, an Afshar.

The experts said that the borders on this piece appear only on relatively large Afshars and that it must have been woven for an important person. Also, unlike many of the later Afshars, the handle of this fine rug is very supple.

The next piece below was another Afshar with a classic “tulip” design. but of finer weave than one normally encounters.

Here is a better image of this published rug than I could manage as it went by.  This rug has long been locally owned, but was once part of Ralph Yohe’s collection.  It was published by Walker in his “Oriental Rugs of the Hajji Babas” catalog in 1982 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the NYC Hajji club.  Yohe, although, a mid-westerner, was associated with the NYC rug community, perhaps even a Hajji member, and so the showing of this piece at an event related to this club’s celebration of its 75th anniversary is particularly appropriate.

And here is a closer detail of the major field devices. 


The last south Persian piece was the entertaining “cat” rug below.

Harold Keshishian pointed out from the audience that the cat has a “Kaiser Wilhelm” mustache, something very fashionable, during the turn of the 20th century era, when this rug was woven. He said the collar indicates that this cat was owned and the fact that its feet have been dipped in henna, says that it was much loved.

The next four pieces were from Tibet. The first of these was the “tiger striped” mat below.

This piece is nicely composed with mild, but pleasant colors.

Here is the second Tibetan piece. This one is more colorful.

A third Tibetan mat had a “dragon” design.

The border on this piece seems to me to be drawn so as to suggest a “depth” perspective, as if one is looking into a box. This possibility is violated by the drawing of the devices at the center of the top, bottom and side borders.

The last Tibetan piece is a rare-ish format.

The owners of this piece have subsequently provided me with better images of it than I could manage as it passed by.

Here is the front.

And here is a view of the back.

The Tibetans wove a variety of, what is described in the literature as, animal “jewelry.” Sometimes items seem to have had both functional and decorative purposes like those of their saddle rugs, but some may also have had other functions, like warding off bad luck or evil influences.

This piece is larger than the pile pieces that were placed on the foreheads of Tibetan horses. It has a different shape than do the “strap-like” horse “necklaces.” It may have been part of a larger assemblage.

The owners of this piece, who spent some time in Tibet, believe that it is an item of “horse tack.”

I have looked through my Tibetan rug books and find only one piece that may be similar. The piece below has a somewhat similar size and shape. It is Plate 57 on page 87 in Diana Myers’ “Temple, Household, Horseback: Rugs of the Tibetan Plateau” volume.

Myers, seems not entirely certain of the function of her piece either. She says, “…This scalloped accessory has been explained as an ornament for a crupper, the leather strap that loops around a horse’s tail. A piece of woolen fabric sewn to the plain end suggests that it could also have been secured behind the saddle…” 

There is nothing sewn onto the end of the “show and tell” piece, but its owners agree that the Myers example seems the closest they know to their own.

In any event, it is a very interesting textile.

We now moved to Central Asian pieces. The first of this is a familiar “trapping” published momumentally in a two-page layout in the Thompson-Mackie catalog Turkmen for the TM’s 1980 exhibition.

There was some good-natured joshing as this piece was described as one that Jon Thompson had included in his controversial “Imreli” attribution in that catalog, and Thompson got to say publicly again that his intent was to fashion a “provocation.” (I think the “Dr. Cabistan” column in the now-defunct ORR, with its letter from a puzzled Imreli collector and the good “doctor’s” response, is one of the funniest things I have ever read about this controversy.)

Here is a closer look at a detail of this wonderful piece.

Someone from the audience (not Thompson) indicated that most experienced Turkmen analysts would now place this piece in “eagle group III.”

A second Turkmen piece is the fragmented Yomut chuval below.

It has good color, spacious drawing, and an older feel about it.

The next piece, a Yomut main carpet, was also older and attracted Jon Thompson’s attention despite its poor condition.

The larger, articulated kepche guls, indicate, Thompson said, an early date. Here is a closer look at a detail of this piece.

The main border is a variety of what Thompson calls a “serrated gul” type, a usage that he says, in the 1980 catalog, ended by about 1850.

The next piece also featured kepche guls.

Thompson also saw this rug as older and commented on its “boat” border.

The next piece was a classic Tekke six-gul torba.

The internal instrumentation of both the major and minor guls on such pieces have been analyzed closely.

So, what do you think? Unusual or not?

The next Turkmen piece was a flatweave, a brocade.

Thompson said that the size suggested that it could have been a “wedding” rug.

A closer detail of this weave.

The next Turkmen rug was a large fragment of a Tekke main carpet.

Thompson, again, cited the size of the ornaments and the four-star cartouche as indicators of age.

The next Turkman piece was an unusual format.

I thought I heard Thompson suggest that this piece, which is a little over two feet by four feet, might have been a kind of engsi, or door rug. One that hung inside, rather than outside, the tent door.  But I have $6,000 worth of hearing aids, and still hear only at about 60% of normal.  More, I can find no one else who attended who heard Thompson say this, so my indication needs to be taken with great caution.

I have turned this piece 90 degrees so that you can see its design devices more closely.

It has quite a bit of what seems likely to be cochineal-dyed silk.

The next Turkmen piece was a chuval fragment with a “mina khani” design.

This piece contains an opulent use of silk pile decoration.

This piece was followed by a similar complete chuval.

The saturation of the red ground in this piece is exceptional. Until recently, both of these pieces would have be described as “Beshiri.” Nowadays, a “Middle Amu Dyra” designation has been seen as more appropriate.

The last Turkman piece, and also the final one in this Symposium show and tell, was the Salor main carpet below.

Again, Thompson commented admiringly on the character of the drawing and about the age of this complete carpet. He called the ground color a “classic madder red.” He estimated it to either the early 19th century or late 18th century.

Dan Walker rose, saying that

no matter how enjoyable a symposium and its show and tell, there is a time when the “tent has to come down.”

People took a last “hands-on” look at the pieces shown, those who had brought things began to carry them out, folks said “goodby,” adding “see you at ACOR in St. Louis,” and ran for their transportation.

My thanks to The Textile Museum, to those material owners who have permitted me to share their pieces with you, and to Bonnie Ware, who, in response to my impromptu request, produced, in circumstances in which it was very difficult to hear, an excellent set of notes on about 120 pieces.  Thanks also to Richard Isaacson, Jeff Krauss and, especially, to Wendel Swan, for valuable editorial assistance.  Remaining errors are mine along.

I hope you have enjoyed this virtual version of this Symposium show and tell program.


R. John Howe

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