Bob Emry on Caucasian Flatweaves

On October 8, 2011, Bob Emry gave a Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning program, here at The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., on “Caucasian Flatweaves.”


Bob is a local collector, who is a curator-emeritus at The Smithsonian Natural History Museum.  He is an expert in particular groups of mammalian fossils and did paleontological field work in the Caucasus, something that fed the aspect of his  rug habit reflected in his program title.

Bob began with a map focused on the part of the Caucasus where the pieces featured in his session were woven.

He also cited and showed copies of four books from which he had drawn material.

They were:

Robert Nooter, “Flatwoven Rugs and Textiles from the Caucasus, 2004


Cathryn Cootner, “The Arthur D. Jenkins Collection, Volume I: Flat-Woven Textiles,” 1981.  (especially, articles by John Wertime)

Richard Wright and John Wertime, “Caucasian Carpets and Covers, ” 1995

Ian Bennett, “Oriental Rugs, Volume 1: Caucasian,” 1981.

Bob also illustrated and described the three major structural variations encountered in Caucasian simple flatweaves.  Simple flatweaves are those that have only primary warps and wefts.  Here is his summary illustrative drawing; in all three, the warps are vertical and the wefts are horizontal.

He organized his presentation of the material he had brought, broadly, in terms of these three differences.  He began with warp-faced pieces.

He said that warped-face plain weave was the most restrictive of these three techniques, since all of the colors of any design had to be provided by specific warps when the weaving was set up.  In simple warp-faced plain weave, the designs can only be vertical stripes.  If a more complex design was needed, then extra warps for each instance of each color had to be added for that section.  Patterned sections were thicker due to the larger number of  warps being employed, and the warps of colors not being used at a given point, floated on the back of the weaving.  The key point is that all color and design are provided by warps, so all have to be introduced as the loom is warped, before any actual weaving begins.

Here is an instance of a textile woven with a warp-faced weave.  It consists of vertical stripes of plain weave (the solid colors) alternating with stripes of complex plain weave (the vertical stripes with more than one color).

Next, was weft-faced plain weave.

Bob’s initial example was this slit tapestry kilim.

All design is created with weft variations.  In slit tapestry, color changes are created by turning back the path of a given weft to weave a new horizontal row above.  Slits are created at each such turn back and  the slits entailed in vertical color changes are kept short (retaining the structural integrity of the fabric) by using stepped designs .

With weft-faced plain weave, the loom can be quickly warped with yarn of any color, because warps won’t be seen in the finished fabric (except at the ends).  Weft-faced plain weave is less restricted because color and design can change during the weaving process. Weft colors can change at any point horizontally or vertically. In simple flatweaves, the design weft is the structural weft as it is in the slit tapestry example above, but it is also possible to create  complex designs by inserting extra, non-structural wefts, and these can be inserted at any point during the weaving process.  A wide array of designs can be fashioned using various weft-faced plain weaves.

The third distinctive structure Bob illustrated was the balanced plain weave.

The illustration above is one to examine.  Notice first that the wefts and warps in it ARE equally balanced and each show themselves in each quarter of the illustration.  But notice also that the four quarters are all different.  The differences result from the fact that the wefts change from blue in the bottom half to red in the top half, and the warps change from red at left to blue at right.  These two variations, and the fact that the plain weave is equally balanced, produce four different shadings of the four quarters of the illustration.  The top left quarter is solid red because the warps and the wefts in it are red.  The bottom right quarter is solid blue because the warps and the wefts in it are blue.  The top right and bottom left quarters may project nearly the same shade that is a mixture of red and blue, but the construction of these two combinations is different, since the top right quarter is the result of blue warps and red wefts and the bottom left quarter is the result of red warps and blue wefts.

One additional fact complicates most balanced plain weaves even further.  It is that most of them are not, in fact equally balanced.  It may be that the diameter of the weft is greater than that of the warp, or that the wefts are pounded down more firmly.  This means that the gradations of actual balance in most balance plain weaves varies greatly and the colors that result do as well.

A great variety of designs (plaids, etc.) can be produced using simple “balanced” plain weave.  Even more complex designs can be achieved by adding extra wefts during the weaving process.

I have reached further down Bob’s array of examples to give you an actual Caucasian textile with a balanced plain weave that varies in ways similar to the illustration above.  It is the complete khorjin set below.

You can see variations in the ground color of this piece in various areas.

You can see pure red areas where the warps and wefts are both red and pure blue areas where the warps and wefts are both blue.  But there are also reddish-blue areas where the warps are red but the wefts are blue.  The look is further complicated by the fact that two different blues are used in different parts of this textile.  Smaller design elements are made with extra wefts introduced into the balanced plain weave ground.

So having equipped us to recognize the three broad structural variations to be encountered in Caucasian flat-woven textiles, Bob proceeded to examine the examples he had brought.

The first was the piece below.  This textile was woven by Kurds in north or west Armenia or in Azerbaijan.


Slit tapestry is used to create that rectangular devices with serrated sides, but other weaves (this instance explained below) are used in areas with the smaller scale, dense designs and those that are plain.

Notice that the strategy to keep the slits in the vertical color changes short in this piece is to produce “comb-like” design devices rather than diagonal steps.   All the slit tapestry devices are outlined.

Bob seems to have followed Nooter with regard to the use of some terminology.  The above piece was described as a “chii-palas” or “chii-kilim”.  Nooter says that this is a “palas” (a plain woven striped flatweave) that has “… the addition of extra weft wrapping with the supplemental weft carried on the front of the fabric to the next pattern row usually of cotton, to produce geometric designs…”  You can see what appears to be what Nooter is describing in the area of finer design motifs that are partly worn away. 

(Ed.: Nooter’s definitions and distinctions are often different from those provided by Tanavoli and, especially,  from those recommended by Marla Mallett.)

Bob showed an example in one of the books that was very close to the piece above.

Bob’s next piece a weft-faced plain weave with additional designs in extra wefts, also described as a “chii-palas.”  He said that it was also likely woven by Kurds and noted that it was woven in two panels and then sewn together.

There are loops on one side of this piece, suggesting the orientation in which it would be viewed when in use.

You can see the way in which the two panels are sewn together on the left side of the image below.

Bob said that the orange in this piece is bright and its color varies along the length of its threads, but it does this both sides of the piece; he thinks this is a natural orange and that the variations are due to uneven dyeing, rather than to subsequent fading.

The next piece you have already seen above as Bob’s example of weft-face plain weave.  Here it is uncovered so that you can see most of it.  To repeat, it is in slit tapestry, from the Kazak area (northern edge of Armenia and adjoining southern edge of Georgia).

This is a pretty large textile (it is draped over the top of the board), larger than most pile rug woven in the area of its origin.  The fact that it was woven in one piece raised the question of whether a loom of the size required could have been in a home rather than in a workshop.

Notice that none of the design devices in this piece is outlined.

The end finish is braided distinctively.

The next piece was a smaller, richly colored, piece, featuring extra-weft designs on a solid red, balanced plain weave.

Here is a closer corner.

And of a detail of the field.  The patterning is done with a “zili” weave.  Nooter defines “zili” as “almost any plain-woven textile that has a substantial amount of extra-weft wrapping or weft-float brocading used to create designs covering part of the plain weave ground.”

The warps and  wefts in the plain weave ground of this piece are red.  The blue and yellow design devices are added wefts.    This weaving was attributed to Karabagh, in south Georgia or northern Armenia.

The next piece was another balanced plain weave ground example, woven in two pieces.  The ground color (both warps and wefts) is dark brown to black.  Bob said that black ground pieces such as this are a common theme in Caucasian weavings; such a piece provided a good opportunity for weavers to use up their brown and black wool (which is not suitable for dyeing) for structural warps and wefts, and makes a ground color that contrasts well with the extra weft colors that form designs.  Patterning is weft-float brocade and extra weft wrapping.  Nooter places pieces with similar designs in southern Karabagh.  Wright and Wertime illustrate a pillow cover with a nearly identical field design and attribute it to Azeri Turks in Karabagh.  Nooter says that kilims and zilis woven in two pieces are likely Turkic.

The two halves are not exactly the same length and the diagonals of the field devices have different angles.

Some closer details.


Unusual to have a curvilinear main border on an Caucasian flatweave.  This one is seen on some Caucasian pile rugs.

Here is a look at its back.

Bob’s next piece was another with red balanced plain weave ground, with extra weft wrapping and sumak stitches on its diagonals.

Some closer detail images.

Its field devices contain well-articulated six-point stars.

It projects a “rosy” color and has a light lavender and a bit of green.

Again, the attribution is Karabagh.

The next piece was a Karabagh balanced plain weave with a red ground.

Bob noted that this piece has a less complicated extra weft design and you can see more of the ground level.  It is a coarser weave with loops on the right side.  The white areas are wool.

A closer detail image.

Bob noted that the red warps are grouped and braided at the ends.

Now Bob moved to treat some bag formats, beginning with some mafrash cargo bags.

Dealers, most readers will know, often take mafrash cargo bags apart and sell the panels separately.  Bob wanted to let his audience see what a complete mafrash cargo bag was like and he and Wendel Swan held one up, with the opening on the upper side.

Then they turned it to let folks see what its striped bottom panel looked like.

Bob said that this mafrash came from the Kazakh area and was woven using the slit tapestry species of weft-faced plain weave.  The red-white stripe at the top was twining, while the narrow white ground bands with small blue and brown design elements were sumak.

Having done his duty with regard to showing a complete mafrash cargo bag, Bob moved to treat the pieces on the board which were mostly panels.

The first of these was a side panel of a small mafrash cargo bag with borders on all of its sides.

This piece was attributed to the Shahsavan and some weavings with that designation  were likely woven  in southern areas of the Caucasus.  But the consensus in the room was that this piece was more likely Persian and woven in the Khamseh area.   It is close to a saddle bag included by Wertime as Plate 12 in his “Sumak” volume.

Some collectors especially value mafrash side panels with borders all round, in part, because they find that usage aesthetically attractive, but also, perhaps, because they are not frequent.  This piece has two sets of such borders. 

This piece also has a feature, not treated in Bob’s session, that attracted my attention.

Notice that the main border is what is informally called a “bird-on-a-pole” design.  This design is used rather widely, not just by the Shahsavan, but also by some south Persian weavers, and it appears in some Yomut Turkmen pieces as well.  The internal instrumentation in the “core” of the “birds” is almost always what seems a kind of “Greek cross.”

Here is another mafrash with this same border and the “Greek cross” usage.

And just to demonstrate some of its ubiquity, here is the same usage on a small bag that is likely Lori.

Now, I’m not sure it has any significance, but given the pervasiveness of the “Greek cross” instrumentation in nearly all forms of the “bird-on-a-pole” usage, it attracted my attention that this bag’s “bird-on-a-pole” border design has a different internal instrumentation.

This internal instrumentation is more like a kind of four-element “star” device with the points turned inward.  As I say, I’m not sure it means anything, but it is unusual and different.

The next piece was this mafrash end panel, a weft-faced example, much of it in slit tapestry.

Bob  said that it is from the Kazakh area, (southern area of Georgia or the northern part of Armenia)  He said, as we prepared this virtual version of his session, that the white in this piece is cotton, and the chalky white-ness it exhibits in hand, does not come through in this photo.  It is much whiter than white wool. 

The next two pieces were red ground balanced plain weave examples, one, a side panel, the other, an end panel of the same mafrash cargo bag.  Probably Karabagh.

Bob said that he thought the sweetest reds are found in Caucasian pieces.

The next piece was this salt bag.  Likely Karabagh.  Wertime includes two similar examples in his Sumak Bags volume.

The designs of its front are done mostly in sumak with small bands of weft-faced tapestry.

The next piece  was described as a pillow cover, and is another with dark brown to black ground, and with essentially the same design as the two-part cover seen earlier.

The following piece also has black balanced plain weave ground with designs in extra weft techniques.  It is most likely the end panel of a mafrash, or the face of a khorjin.

We saw, with a two-piece textile above, that Wertime and Nooter attribute pieces like these to Karabagh.

The next piece is another item of sumak.

The main border was described as “Karabagh.”  It is most likely Shahsavan, from Karabagh region.  Wertime offers a saddlebag half, Plate 63 in his “Sumak” volume, with a similar field, but different borders, that he attributes to “Moghan-Savalan.”

Another mafrash side panel followed also in sumak.

This was followed by another.

Bob said he thought that both of these pieces are Shahsavan.  They may have been woven in the northern part of Iran (west of the Caspian Sea), but that it was also possible that they were woven across the Iran-Azerbaijan border in the southern Caucasus.

The next piece was a complete khorgin set.

Its ground is another balanced plain weave in dark brown.  Decoration is of extra weft varieties.

Closure system is Persian with loops mounted on the back panel coming through slits on the front panels.

Next to the piece above was another complete khojin set.  Very colorful.  Slit tapestry and other weft-faced front panel designs.

Striped, weft faced plain weave back.  Again, closure system is “loop and slit” Persian style.

One more complete khorjin set is one we saw at the beginning as our example of some of the possible variations in balanced plain weave.

Closure system is Caucasian with “cord through loops” style.  No slits.  The estimate was that it was likely woven in Karabagh…or, perhaps, a little further east.

Bob turned the piece to show its back.

There are two shades of blue on the back.  The lighter blue is cotton with some of the blue worn away (like the knees of blue jeans), and with the wefts pounded down so firmly that it is essentially weft-faced, with no red warps showing.   The yellow band shows almost perfectly balanced plain weave between the yellow and red strands. It is easily seen how the sections with blue and red warps form different shades as they interact with the different weft colors.

Next Bob moved to three horse covers.

This was the first one.  Bob said he bought this piece from a picker/dealer who found it in a home in Northern Armenia in the 1990s.  It was divided in three parts with the two “chest tabs” used as covers on small tables and the larger, “under the saddle” piece used as a wall hanging.

It is woven on a black balanced plain weave ground with lots of colorful decoration.  Bob said that many horse covers are woven without regard for how the design will appear when it is one the horse, but that the drawing of the camels on this cover shows that the weaver wanted the camels on both sides to be right side up when the cover was in place.

Here is the front tab that will go around the horse’s chest on the right.  It is in the position it will have when the cover is on the horse.  The camels on it are right side up.

Notice, also, that each camel device has its own saddle cover.

Care has also been taken with regard to the positioning of the smaller animals in bands that move across the horse.  Animals face a center line of the piece.

There are some with branching antlers, and thus undoubtedly represent one of the species of deer that inhabit the Caucasus.

There are other, assorted quadrapeds, with different shaped feet.  The color palette is wide and the drawing is very good.

Bob said that he found his second Caucasian horse cover on eBay.  It has a black balanced plain weave ground with decoration in extra weft techniques.  He believes that the black color of this one was achieved by dyeing, because there are areas where the black ground is missing–probably due to the well-known corrosive effect of the dye.   He estimates that it was also woven in the Karabagh area.

Here, again, are some closer detail images.

The forward part of the cover has “diamond” lattices each filled with “S” or “Z” devices oriented so that they are vertical when the cover is on the horse. 

And again, animals mostly face each other on a central axis dividing the lower part of the cover vertically in half.  This division point is on the right part of the detail image below.

Some of the “animals” are of the fantastic sort.

Bob’s third horse cover had an unusual blue ground.

This piece was published in the ICOC X catalog, “A World of Carpets and Textiles,” and I have scanned it, from that volume, to give you a complete image of it.

Bob said that he bought it in Tbilisi.

Although this might be seen as a piece in general superior to the previous two, notice that there is no attempt in it to orient the directional design in anticipation of its placement on a horse.  Most of the animal figures face left.  There is no honoring of a central vertical axis in this facing.

Here are some closer detail images of it.

There are quadrapeds with humans standing on the backs.  Nearly all of the quadrapeds have striped bodies or legs.

One larger set of quadrapeds approaches the fantastic, exhibiting (as Central Asian “tauk naska” devices do also) the suggestion of two heads.

This piece also has a rectangular section, connected only at its base, that moves forward between the two arms that would come around the horse’s chest when the horse cover was in use.

It was conjectured whether this rectangular piece might have been folded back and under the area of the saddle to provide additional padding, or whether it lay forward over the horse’s neck (no tying cord remnants, to hold it in place in the forward position, were visible).

Bob also noted that the main borders used on all three of these horse covers have essentially the same design.  I have arrayed them side-by-side, below, the first on the left.





This was the end of Bob’s presentation, proper, but members of the audience had brought material, and we turned to it next.

The first of these was simple, but graphic.

Up-close you can see that it is of simple weft-faced, plain weave, and slit tapestry.

Comment in the room said that the main border would be different in the Caucasus.


It owner said that it came from Georgia.

The next piece was a  horse cover.  This one is composed of  strips of warp-faced plain weave with designs in extra wefts. To repeat Bob’s early indication,  the ground color in this piece is from warp threads.

This piece was woven in six narrow strips and then sewn together.

Bob noted that warp-faced weaving does not require the high, constant tension of some other weaves.

Some thought it had Shahsavan motifs.

The next piece was said to be Georgian.

It was followed by a piece with a compartmented design, also not old, but with some interesting features.

It had human and animal figures in its designs as well as some dates, and the colors of its warps and wefts varied at intervals between a red and a pale green.  This piece was woven in a balanced plain weave with extra weft decorations, but the variations in warps and wefts produced unusual ground color shades.

Here is the date up close.

Estimates in the room were that the modern equivalent of this Islamic date is about 1914 or 1915.

There was another instance of calligraphy.

Warps were braided at both ends.

The next piece was also of a younger variety.  The corner treatment, spilling, what still seems part of the field, into border areas, was unusual.

There was conjecture that it might have been woven in Karabagh.

There is a brief item of calligraphy that was thought, perhaps, to be the name of its weaver.

There is also a date, written sideways that, when righted, turns out to be “1961” with an additional character after the ending “1.”

The next piece was the one below.

The is an attractive, mafrash panel done in weft-faced plain weave slit tapestry.

A couple of closer detail images.  Notice that there is no “decay” in the drawing of the field devices as they approach at the edges.  But an outside “border” area of complimentary diagonals, provides a stronger edge for the fabric.  At the bottom, this strength is provided by the use of weft-faced plain weave.

The treatment of the top seems less preoccupied with fabric strength and the slit tapestry appears to “roll over” the top edge.

The next piece was a Shirvan mafrash end panel.  Indicated as from the Shemkha area.

Notice that the weaver was not fearful of partial field ornaments at the top and bottom, but avoided them at the sides, likely because vertical color changes would have produced long slits that would weaken the basic fabric of something that needed to function as a component of a cargo bag.

This panel is done in a quite fine, weft-faced, slit tapestry.  At 27 inches by 27 inches it seems too big to be a mafrash end panel, but was found with the other end and one side panel.

It has, mostly, the brown-white warps said to be an indicator of Shirvan weaving and exhibits a green. 

Bob indicated that Nooter claims that at least some Shirvan greens were not the result of dying with blue and then yellow, but were produced directly using some “grasses.” 

Wendel Swan and I did some looking around, recently, about the bases on which green is said to be made,and while it is true that some natural plants do produce green directly, the resulting dyes seem invariably either not to be fast or to fade rapidly.  We also noted that Bohmer in his book on natural dyes seems to make this same finding.  Even modern reactive dyes seem to mix blue and yellow to produce green.

It would be interesting to know the basis of Nooter’s indication and since he is local here in DC, one day we’ll likely have a chance to ask him.

The next piece was a wrapping cloth.

Simple, geometric devices are embroidered in silk on silk.

It was attributed to the southern Caucasus.

The next piece was a small, badly fragmented, but still lovely, “complete” bag.

The striped back is done in weft-faced plain weave.

The front is done in sumak that completely obscures the ground fabric.

The next piece could be either a mafrash panel or part of a khorjin.

It is sumak; it has ivory warps, but the ground fabric of the sumak is almost completely covered..

The next piece was an unusual format, in addition to being beautiful.

It is published.  It is described in Tanavoli’s book on sumak as a “rump cover.”  It apparently decorates a part of a leather harness that prevents a cart from running into the horse that is pulling it.  It is sumak, on a plain weave cotton ground.

Here are some detail images of parts of it that are a little larger and closer.


The next piece was a fragment of sumak.  Pretty surely Shahsavan, but hard to tell whether Persian or Caucasian.

Its field gul forms are abstracted small pattern Holbein derivatives.

Warps are ivory.  Good graphic impact, aided in part by the chalky white use of cotton in some areas.


The next piece was a mafrash side panel, thought to be Shahsavan, probably, on the Russian side.

Mostly in sumak, but you can see weft-faced plain weave at its top and balanced plain weave at the bottom.

The white is cotton.

Next was another mafrash side panel.

Weft-faced plain weave, mostly slit tapestry, but with narrow stripes of sumak.


Its owner in the audience said that the main border design is associated with the Karabagh region. 

This piece was collected by a German photographer in the late 19th century.

Bob pointed to the last piece of the day.

Here it is, again, unobstructed.  The precise format was uncertain, perhaps a khorjin face.

It is sumac with lots of dark ground on ivory and light brown warps.

It has a wide color palette, including a purple and a blue-green.

Bob answered questions and brought his session to a close.

My thanks to Bob for permitting me to fashion a virtual version of his interesting, well-conceptualized RTAM.   Also for his quick, valuable editing of it.

Thanks also to Margaret Brown, one of the “rug morning” regulars, who provided me with a good set of notes.

I had not realized that Bob had this much Caucasian flat-woven material, and hope that you have enjoyed his session as much as I have.

Regards,

R. John Howe

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