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to the rug weaving East did not stint the mention of felt. A major observer
of Persia of the 1670's, Chardin, set forth the household furnishings
one short passage Chardin reveals the richness of decor and the variety
of fabric involved in outfitting a room. He commented elsewhere that
Persians also made very fine and very light felts which were used above
the rug, in order to make things softer and to control humidity, (2)
and noted, as well, the presence of felt prayer rugs.
Felt in Use
Travellers in Persia saw felts in many places. Fraser in the 1820's visited the most powerful minister in Meshed, who sat "...upon a thick numud, that stretched all along the top [upper end] of the room..." (6) and similarly encountered felts ("beautiful numuds and rich carpets") at Sari in Ghilian province (7); Keppel, around 1810, noted them at Hamadan ("fitted up with nummuds and carpets") (8) and also met with them while at audience with the Kajar Shah ("seated on his heels on some doubled nummuds" ) (9); Ousley at this time also saw and illustrated felt floor covering in the Shah's audience chamber (10); Marsh, in 1850 near Urumiah, commented on them ("around the carpet at the end and sides of the room, some three feet wide") (11); Morier, c. 1810, observed, "The Musnud in Persia is a thick felt carpet, placed across the room, at the farthest extremity from the door..." (12); and, a Persia veteran of the 1890's, Sykes, commented that the typical floor covering of Kerman was a huge felt, covered with a blue and white drugget (coarse material) in summer and a carpet in winter. (13)
In brief, felt, usually referred to by Europeans as "numud", served both as a basic floor covering and as a seating material, sometimes for places of distinction. This use was widespread throughout the geographic reaches and the socio-economic levels of Persia. And felts were described:
Oliver St. John bought one outside of Kerman, with an "intricate" pattern in blue, red, and green; (14)
Felt in Commerce
These widely used objects naturally had a commercial dimension. Various locales with significant felt manufacture mentioned by 19th century travellers are: Hamadan; Kerman; Taft; Yezd; Cain, Nichapour, and Boudjnourd (Khorassan); Ispahan; Casvin; and Azarbaijan. Placements of felt in bazaars, i.e. actively in trade, are few, but do exist -- Teheran bazaar in 1875 (20), Tabriz bazaar in 1875. (21) Felt's presence in the Tiflis bazaar in 1824 involved manufacture as well as sale, and felt also appeared on the city's export and import products list. (22) It is not odd that the ballad of Kurroglou, the bandit-minstrel of Northern Persia, would contain the line, "Let the felt-carpet be of the manufacture of Jam..." (in Northeast Persia). (23)
Just as felts were used and produced extensively in Persia and were articles of commerce, it is also the case that felts were a key element in the humbler circumstances of nomad encampment, both within and without Persia. There were, for example, Turkmen felts, articles traded by the Western Turkmen near the Caspian, in both Asterabad (24) and in Teheran (25). Some Yomud products are described as "variegated with red and green arabesques". (26) There were Kalmuk felts near Astrachan, "two kinds...grey and white". (27) In nomad tents not far from Casvin there were "rugs...in thicker felt". (28) Early in the 19th century the Eastern Turkmen furnished Bukhara "felts in goat hair, to serve as capes". (29) Noteworthy is the respected product of the Kirghiz, as seen in the Bukhara carpet bazaar in the late 19th century: "...and splendid red, blue, black, or white felt carpets (kigis), sometimes with patterns in geometrical designs, all the latter made by the Kirghiz tribes." (30) A visitor with the paleocaucasian Ingoush in the Daghestan Mountains at the turn of the century noted "twice as many felt rugs of different colors, folded". (31) What these latter looked like can readily be determined by a glance at Daghestan Decorative Art. (32)
Among nomadic peoples felt had steady usage as a door curtain. One very early notice is that of William of Ruberick in 1253, among the Turkic tribes on the plains north of the Caucasus: "Before the door they hang a felt curiously [finely] painted over, for they spend all their coloured felt in painting vines, trees, birds, and beasts thereupon." (33) Many period photographs and some travellers' comments attest the wide presence of the door flap, as with Brocherel on the Kazak yurt -- "The entrance is closed by a blind made of felt, which is raised and lowered at will." (34) Or with Morier near the Araxes river of the nomads there -- "A curtain, curiously [finely] worked by the women with coarse needle-work of various colours, was suspended over the door." (35) And with Curtis on the Turkmen dwelling -- "A curtain of felt, made in their own tents, serves for a door." (36)
The Lessons of Felt
So felt was ubiquitous -- covering, cushion, door. Chardin gave the details of their milieu, as did others, such as Keppel, moving through Naketchevan early in the 19th century -- "...when we rode by their houses about sunrise, and saw them reclining on curses or wooden frames covered with carpets of felt nammeds, or lying under lehafs or quilts on the flat roof..." (37), and Yeghiazarof describing Russian Kurds at the end of the century -- "Along one side of the room is built a platform of mud or stone, on which are piled large saddlebags, carpets, felt rugs, and cushions, covered with fine woolen rugs of elegant patterns...At night preparations for sleeping are made by laying felt mats on the floor, on which are placed cushions, stuffed with wool, and woolen rugs (palassy) to serve as blankets. (38)
Since felt is also unavailable, why attempt to grasp its presence and use? Broadly speaking, because rugs when in the West are out of their true environment, and a part of that environment consisted of felts. While in general it seems better to be informed, this matter of context may hold some practical advantage as well. For example, the speculation that heavy thick rugs were for warmth and hence came from upland settings is not so plausible given an understanding of the use of felt. Or, take the matter of the felt door curtains used throughout Central Asia. The term, engsi, today means a door rug not decorated with a gul design. But to know the traveller reports on "musnuds", the place or seat of honor which was sometimes of felt, is to wonder whether the same situation might not have existed with respect to door flaps, that is, that construction and materials varied. Indeed, the truth about dwelling curtains perhaps is not a monism, but rather something more complex and more interesting.
Moreover, there may be some future understanding to be gained as well; since felts and rugs were used together and were both decorated, there may possibly have been some common design elements. The photographic record of the past thus becomes additionally interesting. The main point, however, is that an understanding of what interiors were like, including the role of felt, makes it possible to move from an appreciation of a rug as an isolated decorative art object to a satisfying appreciation of that art object as cultural artifact as well.
And, a taste for felt can lead to other things, such as knowing its symbolic use -- high and low, sacred and secular. These insights are easily to be gotten from a slim charmer, The Myth of Felt, by Leonard Olschke. (39) Felt's role in Mongol funerals and coronations, its function in the mourning of the death of Oljaitu in Tabriz in 1316 -- these things and more are to be found in a fine book making good use of the humble cloth as a net thrown wide to capture the places and people of a time past. Another keeper for the rug collector's library.