Frances Plunkett on Salt Bags

On November 5, 2011, Frances Plunkett,

gave a Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning program here at The Textile Museum in Washington, D. C.

Her formal title was “A Pinch of Salt Bags.”

Frances has a graduate degree in history, with a focus on south Asia; she has lived and worked in India for extensive periods.  She also has a demography degree and spent most of her professional career working as a project officer in the Population, Health and Nutrition section of the World Bank.  She is active in the local rug community and collects small weavings and embroideries, especially Baluch.

Frances began with some introductory remarks about the salt bag format.

In what follows here at the beginning, I am working with her notes, but not always precisely quoting what she said in these introductory remarks.

What are “saltbags?”

They are actual bags of a distinctive shape, with a rectangular pouch area below and a narrower neck open at the top.

Salt bags come in varying proportions: some flatter and squat,

some taller and narrower.

Their distinctive shape (the neck flops down and over to close the top) is intended to preserve the salt (or anything else) being stored, and to prevent the bag contents from being spilled.

“John Wertime wrote in the 1970s that ‘…salt bags had only infrequently made their way into the collections in the West, and were hardly known even to collectors and dealers in Iran and Afghanistan, the countries where they were most commonly made and used.  Whether it was due to a lack of awareness of, or interest in, pieces that tend to be rather small and flatwoven, the absence of demand meant that there was (ed. “then”) a significant quantity of these weavings available to anyone sufficiently motivated to seek them out.  Our constant searching in Iran alerted middlemen in touch with the various weaving areas to a new source of profit, and in time more and more salt bags found their way into the bazaars’.”

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Editorial Aside:  This is actually a fairly frequent phenomenon. 

Marla Mallett has noted that there are a variety of known woven formats that seem not to be actively collected.  She has also detailed the preconditions that seem to need fulfilling before given formats begin to appear in the market. 

I have had personal experience with two such formats. 

I bought in Bergama, in 2007, without know what it was, an apparent “communal napkin” a format what would seem once to have been nearly ubiquitous.  But I carried my complete one all over western and central Turkey without once encountering anything approaching an accurate attribution.  An experienced, respected Istanbul dealer, visiting recently, here in Washington, D.C., confessed that he was not familiar with the “communal napkin” format.

In another instance, pursuing information about a distaff from some Russian villages above the Arctic Circle,  I recently encountered the “rushnik,”

The “rushnik” is a kind of embroidered “towel” format, in Slavic societies, that have, Robert Chenciner of “Kaitag” embroideries fame says, “… like Kaitag embroideries of Daghestan, a central role in many of life’s rituals of passage…”.  I could not find a single “rushnik” on rugrabbit.com in a recent search, but there are some newer ones visible on eBay.  Look around.  The really old ones maybe the next “Kaitag embroidery.”

End of editorial aside.

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And back to Frances’ RTAM. 

She noted, next, that salt bags are one variety among many made by tribal weavers,  some others being: Qoran bag, spoon bag, bag for healing earth, personal bag/chanteh, horse-shoe bag, ration bag, horse nose-bag, money bag. tobacco bag, and we haven’t, to this point, listed cargo-type mafrash bags, chuvals, torbas, grain bags, and/or balishts.

Among the uses she listed for salt bags were: shepherds – salt for sheep and goats; in tent – hang near the cooking space;  used for cooking and making dough.  Also to hold seeds, fruit, nuts, etc.  It was suggested afterwards that shepherds needed to add salt to milk in order to preserve it as cheese.

She said that salt bags were made by most of the weaving tribes of Persia: the Luri, Bakhtiyari, Afshar, Qashqa’i, Khamseh, Kurd, Shahsavan, Baluch, Timuri; also by Baluch and Timuri tribes in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Salt bags seem not to have been made by central Asian and Anatolian tribes, despite the fact that in many cases neighbors of theirs did make and use salt bags.  Since the needs of such groups would seem similar, it appears that they used other containers for salt.

Whether salt bags were made by Caucasian tribes seems to be something of a question.  In their Caucasian Carpets and Covers, Wright and Wertime illustrate salt bags that they identify as Azeri/Karabagh  and ‘Karapapak’ (western Transcaucasia).  They also give a Turkic term for salt bag (duztorbasi) in contrast to the common Farsi term (namakdan).   But these western Caucasian areas are of course close to Shahsavan areas, and the Shahsavan tribes are well known as makers of salt bags

Frances concluded her introductory remarks by indicating that salt bags are made in both flat weave and knotted pile.  Some mixed usage occurs in which strips of pile are woven across the bottom of the bag, presumably for the purpose of making such areas capable of handling heavier wear.  Bakhtiyari salt bags often exhibit this feature.  Some Baluch salt bags have alternating bands of flat weave and pile.

There was discussion in the room, and after, about: 1) how the salt is actually dispensed from salt bags, and 2) what causes the wear patterns seen on salt bags.  Frances cited Tanavoli (see below) as indicating that  ‘…The shepherd carries on his back the salt container [namakdan] full of salt, and occasionally pour a handful on a rock so that his flock, in need of salt, can fulfill its need by licking the salt off the rock.’

A member of the audience suggested that the hard rock salt was broken up by pounding on the bag from the outside, which is why some bags show a lot of wear.  Also, that in addition to making salt available to animals, shepherds needed salt to add to milk in order to preserve it as cheese, something Frances said is plausible but that it would be useful to have some specifics.

Frances had two books with her that were among those she had drawn for her preparations.  The first, Textiles of Baluchistan, by M. G. Konieczny,  has unusually good ethnographic information on the Baluch of Baluchistan (Pakistan).

A second book was Parviz Tanavoli’s “Bread and Salt,” a discussion of the tribal sofreh and salt bags of Iran.

Now she turned to the pieces in the room.

The salt bags on her first layer on the board were all woven by Baluch weavers and were all knotted pile.

Here is a closer look at this first piece, which is double-faced, that is, the back is also knotted pile with a design that is almost identical to the front.  

Here are some detail images of aspects of it. 

Frances called attention to the overcasting of the selvedges with goat hair to stand wear.



Frances said that this piece was perhaps woven in the Sistan area of south-eastern Iran.

Below is a second Baluch piece, which is also a double-faced bag.

Here it is opened up (color differences are from different lighting and different cameras).

And here are some detail images of it.

Frances said that this piece was likely woven in Khorasan.

The next piece was the one below, also a double-faced bag, but in this case the design on the second side is somewhat different.    Which side was intended to be the front and which the back is not clear.  A bag like this, finely woven with excellent wool and colors, was likely a dowry weaving.


Frances called attention to the condition of the corners of this piece, indicating that these areas absorb hard wear.

Here are some detail images of this bag.

One would expect that the top opening of a salt bag would get a lot of wear and this one seemingly has.

Here are two images of the pile back of this bag, which, as indicated above, has a different design than that on its front.

Still working with the Baluch level of the board, the next piece was the one below.

A striking piece, I thought.  Good use of differences in scale and of white.  Although from a distance this bag may appear to be flat weave, actually it is knotted pile, with the pile trimmed quite close to show off the designs.  It is very finely woven.

Here are some closer details of it.

Again, the lower corners and the fold-over points on the neck are worn from use.

The next bag is shown here opened up.

Frances pointed out that the chalky white is cotton.  Which Baluch area this bag came from is not clear.

Some additional detail images.

The next Baluch piece had a pile face and a flat-woven back.

Some closer detail views.

The next piece on the Baluch level of the board was another double-faced, but opened up, salt bag.

Some detail images.

The next piece was the one below.

The center “gul-device” in the field has clear Turkmen influence.

Here is a closer lower corner.

 Its flat-weave back, below, is decorated with weave-float motifs that are characteristic of Baluch flat weaving.

The next two pieces are quite similar and are both nicely designed and colorful.   They are likely from the south-eastern Sistan region of Iran.

Mostly smaller design devices are contrasted in scale by a relatively large eight-pointed star outlined in white.

Here are some closer details of this first piece.

There is quite a bit of a good green.

The second of these Sistan pieces with the central star-design was the one below.

It’s a little harder to see the details of its designs but here are some closer images of some.

The last piece of the Baluch knotted pile pieces on the front board was the complete, but opened up, one below.

The composition of the front face is skillful.  White is used to good graphic effect, as is variation in the scale and character of the design devices employed.

The back is red plain weave.

Here are a couple of closer details of it.

We now moved to the second level of the pieces on the front board.  All of these pieces are flat weaves.   Frances included some small bags without the classic salt bag shape.  And it is true that nomadic people are enormously practical.  If they needed a small bag for carrying some salt, it seems unlikely that they would be put off because a small, available, bag that would work, lacked the shape that what we call “salt bags” have.

Frances began with the lovely old thing below.

This bag is finely woven, and some of its designs are not common.

Here are some closer details of aspects of it.

The next piece was doubled-faced and was complete with a longer neck and tassels.  It may well be from Pakistani Baluchistan. 

Some front details.

The next piece was a complete, double chanteh.

It is very finely woven in a weft-faced technique.  The pink areas would seem likely to have been done in silk, but in this case, I think, have not been.

The strip where the bag would have been folded is very narrow.

The next piece had a spare, spacious design.  One of the Baluch groups.   Note that it has handles.  The back of this piece is patterned with weft-faced designs and is quite worn (no image).

Here are two corner details of the front of this piece.

The next piece, a small chanteh,  has quite different designs on the two sides.

Here is its other side, also very attractive.  Which side the weaver might have preferred is, of course, unknown.

Notice that the field design devices on this side closely resemble those on the two preceding bags.  They are probably floral.

Frances said that her next piece might be off topic because it is not clear from its shape what its use was.  It was made by folding a woven piece in half along a vertical axis.

A folded over piece like this draws attention as a possibly “constructed” or “repurposed” piece, but there are some bags made originally by folding over a single woven rectangle.  Some south Persian bags are made in this way.  The fold can be vertical, as it is here, or it can be horizontal.  It seems likely that some Baluch weaver has seen and adopted this usage.  Maybe a spindle bag.

Here is a closer detail of this piece.

The piece below, which is not necessarily Baluch, has intricate weft-float designs on both sides.

Notice that this piece is similar in size and shape to the  vertically folded bag above, although it was overcast on both sides rather than folded.   It is quite sturdy.

The next piece is actually pile on its front face.

The quite different flat-woven back that suggests that it is Bakhtiari.

Two clearer looks at this back, the last taken with the piece in my lap.

Frances now moved to a third level of the pieces on the front board, which she described as her “Persian” level.

Her first piece here was the colorful, spectacular Shahsavan one below.

Here are some details of this piece.

The joined tassels on pieces such as this one were used to hang it.


Here is a corner of its striped back.

The next piece was petite, colorful, and well-composed, although admittedly not particularly old

Here are some closer details of it.  You can see that its back is striped in red and brown.

Frances said that the next piece was the largest salt bag she would be showing.

It has a narrow strip of striped pile at it bottom.  This, and the character of its brocaded design, suggested Bakhtiari.  

Here is one more detail of  it.

Another well-made salt bag with intricate patterning followed.

Here are some details.

It has a plain flat-weave brown back, a little surprising in view of the highly decorative front. 

Frances noted in her introduction that there seem not to be any  salt bags from Central Asia, but the Uzbeks (called Uzbek Tatars) who live in northern Afghanistan did weave them.  

These two bags are the smallest bags that were shown, and they may have used to store items such as seeds or nuts rather than salt.  Here is a closer, half-image of the second one above.

The next piece had a colorful kilim design.

I am preparing a program on re-purposed textiles, and have heard that salt bags are a format often made by cutting down or otherwise adopting something originally of another sort.  And this piece interested me as possibly made from a larger kilim (notice that there are no borders and the half-diamond device on the left side of the neck). 

Frances and I examined it closely, before her program began, and agreed that it is not re-purposed. 

The warps are continuous from the front to the back, but the kilim design does not continue.  The weaver switched to a weft-faced plain weave and the back is done in stripes.

Here are some details of its nice colors.

Here is the back of the piece above.

The last piece Frances used in her presentation was the one below.

A nicely composed, drawn, and woven Shahsavan piece with good colors.  The border is not common on such pieces.

Here is a closer, vertical-half, detail.

Frances now moved to examine the material members of the audience had brought in.

The first piece below raised questions.

The literature suggested to Frances that salt bags seem not be woven in Anatolia, but the owners of this piece, themselves long-time collectors and world travelers, with a huge experience in Turkey, had been told, as they acquired this piece, that it was “Yurok, from western Anatolia.”

Here are some detail images of this interesting piece.

And here is a glance at its back.

I sent these images to Marla Mallett and Wendel Swan, neither of whom had been in this session.  Marla said:  “NOTHING about this piece says Turkey to me.  Especially western Turkey.  No.  In 30 years of digging through Anatolian stuff, I can’t recall ever seeing a salt bag.  Brocaded bags of NW Persia MIGHT be mis-attributed to Turkey. ”  Wendel agreed with Marla, saying that it is “…NW Persian, or possibly very southern Caucasus.  It could arguably be Shahsavan, but not Anatolian.”

 Here from the audience was another Uzbek Tatar bag.

Again, some detail images.

The next piece was a large salt bag, estimated to be fairly recent and likely woven by Baluch.

It has a feature that might suggest unfamiliarity with the traditional character of the salt bag format.  It has a Persian “slit and loop” closure system in the very narrow width at the top of the bag’s neck opening.  This would seem to indicate a weaver, either very intent on having certain closure, or someone who does not know that traditionally a salt bag is closed by folding the neck over and down.  Seems like a commercial affectation.

I don’t think I’ve seen that before.

The next brought in piece was an amazingly larger Baluch weft-float flat weave.

Here is a vertical-half detail.

The next piece was a small salt bag.

Nicely composed and well woven, its colors were bright  and it had alternating stripes of pile and flat weave.

Here are some closer details of it.

And a look at its back.

The piece below is characteristic of the type of flat weave woven by the Baluch of Pakistani Baluchistan.

Good colors and good weaving.

It was widely separated in my camera images, but I think the piece below is the back to the one above,

The next piece brought in was also Baluch weft float. 

It was described as nicely finished, and with tassels.

Here are some closer details.

And a look at its back.

The next bag was more colorful than many.

Here is a closer vertical half,

The next brought in piece was knotted pile.

Again, a vertical half lets you see it  bit closer.

A following piece was the one below.  It is very similar to one above.

The next piece was a sumak weave, probably Shah Savan.

A little of its back.

The next piece was the unusual pile salt bag, below   It was symmetrically knotted, prompting folks to suggest that it might be Kurdish.

Here are some closer details of this piece

including its entire back.

Its owner said that this piece shows its colors better if reversed vertically, so we did that.

What do you think?

The next piece was tall and narrow, woven by Pakistani Baluch and loaded with tassels.

Here is a vertcial half detail.

The next very colorful piece is similar to two pieces in Tanavoli’s Bread and Salt, which he identifies as the work of Bakhtiyari Lors.

It seems worthy of a few detail images.

Here is the back of this piece.


One thing more:  someone in the audience had not taken in Frances’ description of how a salt bag is closed at the top and so this one was folded over and down to demonstrate.

The next piece was also colorful and made a strong graphical impact.   

Here are some detail images on this interesting piece with its tessellated field design.  I think the white is mostly from cotton.

Its back is like its front.

It was attributed to the Shasavan.

The next piece was a larger salt bag attributed to the Bakhtiari.

Here are some detail images of the front of this piece.

The white areas are in cotton,

If you look at the middle of the piece, in the image below, you will see that it has a narrow band of pile that would be at the bottom of the bag once it was closed and its sides sewn up.

The back of this piece is decorated using a species of brocade that results in slightly raised lattice designs.

It looks like there are errors in the drawing of the lattices in some parts of the back, but, mostly, the  weaver has, just, for some reason, changed colors.  Odd.

The next piece was identified as Luri/Bakhtiari

In his “Tribal Rugs” volume, Jim Opie presents a number of similar pieces, some of them salt bags, and invariably attributes them to Luri/Bakhtiari weavers.

Here are some detailed images of this piece.

Note:  The description of the next piece has been modified since publication.  I  thought it had features that suggested that it could be “constructed” but I was entirely wrong.  I had it in hand again today and have modified the description below based on that examination.

The  owners of the next piece said they had bought it in Germany, where it was described as Afshar.

It is mostly in slit tapestry.  The neck has a line at its based that looked like it could be a separate piece, but the line is a row of twining using dark goat hair and probably intended to reinforce the area where repeated bending over and down of the neck would occur when the bag was, repeatedly, opened and closed.  So the neck is definitely NOT a separate piece.  This is even more evident on the striped back where there is no row of goat hair twining.

Here are some details of this bag.

The warps in this piece are white cotton and have unraveled and been knotted closed again on the shoulders in a way that makes them prominent.  The seemingly brownish warps at the neck opening below are, in fact, when examined closely also of white cotton.

The back of this piece is striped (you can see a bit of it at the folded right edge in the image above) a frequent usage with salt bags.

Anyway, a closer examination today demonstrated that this is not a constructed piece.

The last piece of the morning was the knotted pile one below.

Its lovely colors and strong graphics were attributed to the Kurds.

I was only able to manage a glancing shot at its back, but can see that it has nice animals.

Frances answered questions and adjourned her session.

Salt bags are something you can get your hands on, and the audience surged forward to do that,

I want to thank Frances for permitting this fashioning and publishing of a virtual version of her program.  Also for her subsequent work, as we prepared this post.

My thanks also to a Ms. Brown, whose first name I cannot retrieve as I write, for a fulsome, legible set of notes.

I hope you have enjoyed this interlude on salt bags as much as I have enjoyed working on it.

Regards,

R. John Howe

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