Volume IX  Number 5
September 1991

The following material constitutes a digression into European Russian carpet-making. The source, S. A. Davydova, was a veteran kustar' industry textile expert. Although her report (1) was published in 1913, its findings embody research and field work completed in 1891. Thus the situation and products described are for that time.

Davydova undertook a certain amount of documentary research going back to 1860 (pp. 287--290), and established the history of Tiumen (in Tobolsk province) weaving over the three decades prior to her own study. Some key points are: 1) weaving in all likelihood was introduced by settlers from Bukhara; 2) initially the Nizhnii Novgorod, Irbit, and Tiumen fairs were the principal markets, with buyers from Moscow and Warsaw harness shops as major purchasers; 3) in 1864 the annual production was 20,000 carpets, largely of poor quality, for use primarily as horse cloths or saddle cloths; 4) in 1871 and in 1884, the annual production was 30,000 and 50,000 carpets, respectively. Davydova's own estimate, by projection, for production in 1891 is 78,000 carpets. An estimate from a different source (2) places the annual production of Tiumen carpets c. 1910 at 80,000.

Davydova quotes an 1875 description of the state of carpet-making which serves as a good short description of the type and its production circumstance: "For all their coarseness and tasteless patterns, Tiumen carpets are distinguished by their extraordinary durability, their neat execution, and the fastness of the dyes (also produced locally). They supply a huge market, not only in the towns and villages of Western and Eastern Siberia, but also in the Inner provinces of Russia and even in the Polish Empire, where they are bought as carriage blankets and horse-blankets. Many important Moscow merchant firms buy up sizeable consignments of these carpets at the Irbit fair. The biggest of these carpets are usually no larger than 5-6 arshins [1 arshin = 28 inches] long and 3-4 arshins wide, and are sold locally for from 1 ruble 50 kopecks to 6-7 r. depending on the size. These prices are fantastically low and apparently don't even cover the cost of materials and labor. Still, every peasant family, however poor, has its own 'factory', and speaks with pride of its craft, even though that factory frequently consists of just one home-made loom. Both women and men are employed in weaving. Even children are taught to weave from a very early age, and as a result the craft, passed primarily from one generation to the next, improves in execution and durability, while remaining artlessly simple in its selection of patterns and combination of colors."

While Davydova's report contains many statistics and observations on particular villages and districts in and around Tiumen, of prime interest is her general description of the nature of the weaving and the nature of the rugs. Key passages in this regard appear on pp. 293--296 and are:

"The peasant huts in the villages of Tiumen region are for the most part large and well-lit, allowing the weavers to carry on their work without bothering other members of the family. Moreover, the carpets are woven on the looms that are commonplace in peasant life. Only large carpets require a large loom, but such carpets are made only to order, and then the loom is set up in a hut with room to hold it, or in the garden or yard. If in the latter, the weaving is done in spring and early summer, before field work begins. The reeds [the loom mechanism for warp spacing] are made of wood, and the local craftsman don't stint on the dimensions. As need dictates, the reeds can be 2, 3, and even 5 arshins long. Generally, all the equipment is made in the villages by local peasant craftsmen.

"Tiumen carpets are of two kinds -- smooth 'palases' and pile carpets called 'morkhovye' . Similar materials are used for both, i.e.: the hair of dry and sour cows, the wool of Kirgizian [Kazak] 'steppe' sheep and Russian sheep, and 'snasti', a thick linen two- and three-ply thread. Some of these materials are produced locally, others imported. Their prices vary depending on availability, demand, and factors such as the hemp harvest. Regarding wool prices, which have been as high as 6 to 7 rubles a pound, I was told that previously wool had been much cheaper, but that several years ago an agent called Chukhmal'din started buying up all the wool to send to the other side of the Urals and that since then it had been unavailable. This has forced the weavers to use almost exclusively cow and dry-cow hair bought from tanneries, or obtained from traders in exchange for finished goods. Sour cow hair costs about 2 rubles a pound, while the best long dry-cow hair costs up to 4 rubles.

"The warp thread is prepared by the weavers from their own linen, when the crop is good, or from linen bought in Tiumen, where it is brought in from the Nizhnii Novgorod fair. Two-ply warp thread costs 50 kopecks a pound, and three-ply 80 kopecks a pound. The weavers place no value on their own yarn, and so it was impossible to find out its cost. All the wool used in carpet weaving is sorted and spun by the old and young members of the family.

"The weavers dye the wool themselves. They use almost exclusively aniline dyes, which are known by the single generic term 'buksin'. The dark and chestnut breeds of wool are dyed, while the best white dry wool is left its natural color. In the past a more limited variety of dyes was used, mostly vegetable dyes such as indigo, sandalwood, serpii [?], and others. Now the weavers use aniline dyes of 'buksiny', which they buy in Tiumen or at village markets from itinerant traders.

"The weavers have little to say on the subject of patterns. Mostly they use patterns that they have come across by chance, or made up themselves. The printed patterns they use are of the most mediocre kind, printed in Berlin or Leipzig for canvas embroidery. The weavers are given these patterns by customers ordering carpets. Sometimes they are inspired by designs they've seen on the labels of alcohol bottles manufactured by a local factory owner. The most popular designs among the weavers and their customers are drawings of flowers, animals and even human figures. Their main concern and the thing that pleases them most is that the carpets should be as colorful as possible, that 'the colors shine in the light'. The patterns used in weaving 'morkhovye' carpets are especially diverse, and the weavers say of them, 'We can weave everything: cats and dogs, a deer or a hunter, bouquets or garlands. Whatever pattern you send we'll make you a carpet from it and dye the wool.'

"The smooth 'palas' carpets are much less varied in their patterns and colors. The patterns are either laid out 'in a chain' or 'a scatter', always very sparsely, on a plain ground that is mostly of black or some dark color. As the weavers explained, this difference between the 'morkhovye' and 'palas' carpets in the application of patterns depends on the working methods peculiar to each type. In 'morkhovye' carpets, whose technique consists of 'planting' small knots of wool that make up the 'pile', there is no difficulty using the most varied patterns that are often repeated or require a variety of shades. In 'palases', by contrast, frequent changes in the color of the thread dictated by the pattern make work extremely difficult, since the pattern is produced with the help of shuttles. Consequently, the more shuttles needed in weaving a 'palas' the slower the work will proceed.

"The Tiumen weavers possess considerable skill, and are able to produce carpets of any dimensions. During my visit to the village of Kamenka they were carrying out an order for a 'morkhovyi' carpet 9 arshins long and 5 arshins wide. The pattern consisted of a huge bouquet that took up the center of the carpet and a wide border also made up of flowers arranged as a bouquet. The ground was woven of the finest white dry-cow hair. I was told that there had been orders for even larger carpets of the smooth 'palas' variety, i.e. 12 arshins long and 5 arshins wide. I also watched the manufacture of an order for plain [without design] carpets: one a 'runner' of normal width but 80 arshins long, the other two 'palas' carpets 20 arshins long and 3 arshins wide. All three carpets were destined for Kiakhta. Ordinary carpets made for sale at fairs are of the following dimensions: 'morkhovye' carpets 3 arshins long and 2 arshins wide, which are called 'table' or 'one and a half' carpets, and 'trunk' carpets 2 arshins long and 1 1/4 arshins wide. These 'trunk' carpets are the cheapest and simplest. 'Palases' are woven as narrow 'paths', 3 arshins wide and 7 1/2 arshins long. They are always woven in pairs and sold as such. A peculiarity of these carpets is that the selvedge is worked on three sides only with a view to sewing two carpets together to make a single carpet. 'Paths' are made with and without selvedges. When they start work on a carpet the weavers' first concern is to prepare and dye the wool to match the chosen pattern. Then they make a warp from linen thread, matching the designed height and width of the piece. The warp is rigged up to the wall of the hut in the most primitive fashion, well known to every peasant woman....

"In 'morkhovye' carpets the technique consists of 'planting' (knotting) small knots of wool between two threads of the warp and then firmly pulling them up. When the wool is knotted in a single row across the whole width of the carpet, a thick weft thread woven from cow hair is passed through the warp and then tamped down with a baton. In good carpets two weft threads are woven between every row of knots, in cheaper ones up to five threads are used. The purpose is to speed up the work but the resulting carpets are thin and unattractive. Palases are woven using shuttles which pass through the weft to create the pattern. The number of shuttles corresponds to the number of tones or colors that make up the pattern. Several weavers may work together at the same loom simultaneously, and so in families where there are only one or two weavers the mistress of the house will invite other weavers to help her, paying them a specific weekly wage that has been previously agreed on. Incidentally, orders for large carpets are comparatively rare. The weavers mostly make carpets for sale at the markets or in Tiumen, and so the majority of them are 'one and a half' or 'trunk' carpets, woven by each family of weavers without the use of hired help.

"Peasant families representative of [the nature of] individual labor are those whose members are actively involved in weaving carpets. Depending on the area, even very young girls are involved. In the villages of Kamenskaia volost', for example, little girls from the age of seven on are by degrees taught to knot the wool, but typically at this age they are set to sorting and spinning the wool. In the villages of Troitskaia volost' this task is carried out by girls from age eight on, and in Uspenskaia and Lipvchinskaia volosts from age ten. In Tugulymskaia and Ust'nitsynskaia volosts by the age of 14 or 15 they have already been taught all aspects of carpet weaving."

The Davydova report also contains a diagnosis of the Tiumen product: "Generally speaking, production techniques have even declined slightly for two reasons: the substitution of cow hair for wool and coarse wool, and the replacement of color-fast vegetable dyes that previously were used by aniline dyes. The weavers themselves are well aware of this, and understand that all the bright colors they are so fond of will have faded in 3-4 months and so lowered the value of their work. Nevertheless, they don't want to go back to vegetable dyes, and in part they cannot. They don't wish to because vegetable dyes are more trouble, and they are unable to because their customers now demand more variety and more subtle shading on the flowers they weave, something which is easy to achieve with aniline dyes. Such varied effects cannot be achieved using vegetable dyes. Moreover, the greatest shortcoming of the Tiumen weavers is the lack of good patterns. As early as 1864 investigators pointed out several of the deficiencies noted above and stressed the need for a drawing school in Tiumen for improving carpet production.

"During my stay in the villages of Tiumen region I often heard the weavers complaining that it was impossible to get hold of good patterns. It should be mentioned here that this ailment from which carpet production in Western Siberia suffers is endemic in almost all centers of the carpet industry in Russia. (Except for the Caucasus and Central Asia, where carpet weaving is conducted under very different conditions.) In the villages, the hamlets, and the convents where carpet weaving is often an important supplement in the lives of the nuns, there is a clear lack of good and diverse designs. In short, everywhere carpets are made you hear complaints about the impossibility of finding much-needed designs. Working methods too often leave much to be desired, but it is incomparably easier and quicker to teach the weavers to use improved equipment than to teach them to draw and to develop in them a taste that would guide them in their choice and use of patterns. Moreover, working technique often depends on the use of different materials. There is no doubt that the majority of Tiumen weavers could weave fine quality carpets if they could obtain wool at reasonable prices, but they can't, and in any case the demand is for cheap carpets. It is clear, therefore, that given the present circumstances the Tiumen weavers are in no position to improve their carpets and at the same time increase their modest income..." (p. 299)

While Davydova's article is one of the things which the rug literature needs -- a first-hand report -- its principal relevance today isn't its help in identifying Tiumen carpets. Most of these are likely to have been used up in Eastern Europe, not making their way overseas. Some few, however, may well have. For example, the household inventory of the Russian governor in Alaska, c. 1830, showed a Tiumen carpet, likely picked up during overland transit to the Far East. But not many collectors and dealers are apt to run into a Tiumen carpet, nor would they likely be pleased with the encounter. The one intriguing possibility, of course, is the 'palas', which just might pop up here and there, and is sure to be misattributed.

The report's merit is that it shows both peasant weaving and the kustar' bureaucracy in typical form. These conditions are very likely to be true for Russian weaving, and to some extent reflect the situation in parts of the Caucasus. That is, the factors of work at home, an agricultural setting, work for extra income, price and availability of materials, taste in colors -- all characterize kustar' weaving. The report does very well in portraying the peasant weaver's world. Similarly, subject matter, words, and tone convey that the bureaucrats cared about the well-being of the peasants (quite contrary to communist propaganda and doctrine of past decades) and sought to improve the product as much for economic as for aesthetic reasons. And, problems of design were widespread. Even though Davydova properly excludes the Caucasus and Central Asia from her characterization, these areas were not immune. While the evidence is only anecdotal, there were some instances, at least, of kustary in the Caucasus behaving exactly as the Tiumen kustary: copying anything, particularly European prints. Design problems were substantial enough so that they were part of the impetus for the centralized design and distribution of weaving patterns in the Caucasus.

While the Davydova report describes weaving that is quite remote from rug collectors, the setting and its dynamics are closer to home than many suspect.

  1. Davydova, S. A., "Zhenskie Promysly", Kustarnaya Promyshlennost' Rossii, St. Petersburg, 1913, pp. 285-800. Research Report translation.
  2. The Russian Year-book, 1911, p. 268.
Return to top