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The History of Hand-Tufting: From Pazyryk to Pinterest

Persian Rugs: Knots of Identity

Hand-tufting has an extensive global history. Although believed to originate in nomadic tribes in what is known today as Iran, hand-tufted rugs exist in many unexpected corners of the globe. The world’s oldest existing carpet is dubbed the “Pazyryk Carpet”. It is classified as a Persian rug dating to 5 BCE. Within the compactly knotted rug, a hunting scene depicts images of deer and men riding horses.

One of the first hand tufted rugs made in Persia.

(Pazyryk Carpet)

Throughout Persia, the practice of hand-tufting existed in nomadic tribes, village workshops, and royal manufacturers alike. Each region had its own distinctive patterns, wool quality, colors, and even knots used to secure wool to the knitted cotton cloth. During the Safavid dynasty in the late 15th century, a more defined partnership emerged between artists and weavers as they created the most detailed Persian rugs to date, introducing the arabesque style to textiles. Previously, these designs were only seen in tiles and book covers.

Another example of a hand tufted rug

(Detail of a Persian Animal Carpet, Safavid Period, Persia, 16th Century)

Centuries later in 1925, the Pahlavi Dynasty originating with Reza Shah once again changed the course of rug making in Iran. The Pahlavi Dynasty encouraged and marketed rug makers in effort to legitimize their regime and establish a strong national identity. However, over the next twenty years a series of monarchs following Reza Shah outlawed nomadism and enforced rigid land programs that decimated the communities in which traditional rug-making flourished. Today, hand-tufted rugs have a small but dedicated client base in Iran. Traditions such as natural dye are continued, as materials like madder root, onion, chamomile, oak, and indigo are used to dye wool vibrant colors.

An artisan working on a hand knotted rug

(Bakhtiari Girl Hand-Tufting a Traditional Persian Rug)

Detail image of hand knotting on a rug

Detail of a hand knotted rug

(Front and Back of Hand-Tufted Rug in Mahan, Iran)

Knotting New Traditions

Persian rugs were and still are immensely influential in rug making traditions all over the world. During the crusades in the Middle Ages, hand-tufted rugs were introduced to Europe and Asia. Persian rugs were popular items of trade and have been discovered in Renaissance paintings, Tibetan monasteries, and burial sites along the Silk Road.

A massive hand tufted rug

(Domenico Ghirlandaio, “Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints”, Florence, 1483.)

The Scandinavian tradition of Rya rug making composed of thousands of knots originated from Vikings trading with Ottoman Empire textiles. In the 1800’s and 1900’s, future brides would hand knot Rya rugs to stand on during the wedding ceremony. These rugs would then be repurposed as insulating duvet covers on the couple’s marriage bed.

Hand knotted and tufted rug

Across the pond, the first mechanized tufting machine was developed in Dalton, Georgia in the 1930’s. Thanks (or not thanks!) to the original tufting machine, chenille rugs and wall-to-wall carpeting became hugely popular in the United States. However, the recreational practice of hand-tufting did not rise to prominence until the 1950’s. When latch-hooking became oh-so-popular in the 70s, hand-tufting lost some of its appeal because its materials were more expensive.

High shag rug image

Which brings us to today! Through social media, artists, rug traders, collectors, and fiber fanatics can swap hand and machine-tufted inspiration. It’s safe to say that the rich history of tufting is still in the making.