When is a rug a carpet, and when is a carpet a rug? The difference, such as it is, between a rug and a carpet is, in general, that a rug tends to be smaller and is not fixed to the floor, while a carpet is usually bigger and may even cover the whole room, and may be attached to the floor. However, when talking of floor coverings, the words are to some extent interchangeable.
A rug is, in essence, a piece of some reasonably soft material to keep the feet or other parts of the anatomy from the chill of contact with the floor, or to stop draughts from creeping through the walls. The decoration and sophistication of the rug as we now know it simply means that it is a normal human desire to make possessions as attractive as possible.
Pictures of the imagined life of cavemen always show them wearing furry skins and using others for sitting on the earliest shaggy rug, in fact. It is easy to imagine some of those cave men and women not just dumping the skins around the place, but shaking them out each morning before arranging them artistically in patterns on the floor, to be admired and envied by the neighbours.
Leaving behind Mr and Mrs Ugga in their cave, a great leap takes us to the Early Neolithic period, starting around 7,000 B.C., where archeologists explain to us that communities which herded animals used their wool to make rugs, and so began the rug industry that we still know today. No matter that the early fabrics were looser and coarser than we now accept. This is when it all started, and soon after began the great divide which still continues today, between the continuing production at home of rugs to keep the place warm, and the wonderful developments sponsored by kings and princes which eventually became the Chinese, Persian and Turkish rugs still prized today.
Domestic production was always dependent on the materials available and the imagination of the people making them, usually the women. The earliest form we know of in warmer countries is the reed mat, where reeds were tied together firmly to make a more manageable floor covering than Mrs Ugga's skins, or than the loose reeds spread across the floor ( though the latter were still being used in English houses, with aromatic herds replacing the reeds, until Tudor times). The earliest reed mat to be found was in Jarmo in Iraq, and dated at 5,000b.c. Another, about 3 by 6 metres in area, is mentioned on a tablet from the Sumerian city of Ur from around 2100, which means it must have been an important object at the time. In the case of wool rugs, the 2,500 year old Pazynyck rug from Eastern Siberia shows that essentially the same methods of rug production that we know today were being used, together with wonderfully lively pictures of horses and geometric patterns.
The technique of reed mats developed all over the Middle East and as far as India, and lasted for a long time. There were famous mats of the 10th century A.D. in Palestine, and beautiful reed mats are still being produced in the south of India. The reed mats were tied together, but weaving started very early too. Neolithic villagers were able to weave the wool from their animals, and were probably as ingenious as ourselves in finding other fibres, such as cotton and linen to turn to their use to keep their dwellings warm and comfortable. Most surely, the average family only had time to worry about the warmth, but, from the Russian Steppes right across to the American Plains, there were individuals who put their hearts into the job, combining colours in a pleasing way, and developing patterns which became associated with particular tribes. Right down to today many of the old tribal patterns are made, and they are appreciated by people of very different cultures.
Peasant cultures have in common that the people have to keep as warm and comfortable as possible, and that there is no room for waste, so the variety of methods developed to use up scraps of fibre and fabric is enormous. In the Levant, up until the recent advent of plastic woven mats, rags were woven using cotton warp, and turned into rugs for the floors of the poor and the kitchens of the rich, and in a society where sitting on the floor is still very common they were much more comfortable than their plastic replacement. Another form of rug still to be found on some farms is sheep's wool washed and pressed together to form a thick felt, and this is then painted with designs that usually copy true carpet designs again, it uses all grades of wool, leaving nothing to be thrown away.
In Britain, rag rugs developed as a way for poorer people to keep warm at home. Most older people can remember a granny or old auntie who collected and sorted any worn-out fabric articles in the house clothing or soft furnishings (old coats for tops!). These were cut into strips and poked through a sacking base with either a large darning needle (my own Nana's method) or a special hook. They made cosy rugs in front of the fire, and the strips were more or less artistically arranged according to the talents of the maker. The US, being a culturally diverse collection of immigrants from its beginning, not surprisingly has a great variety of types of domestic rug production, including rag rugs and penny rugs, both of which are now regarded as art forms.
Meanwhile, fine rug and carpet making had been growing ever more luxurious and international for almost as long a time. Those luxury carpets, definitely not designed for domestic use, include one of thick wool and gold thread which was buried with King Cyrus the Great when he died in 529 B.C.. Then Persia, in Sassanian times (220A.D. to 640 A.D.) gave carpets of silk, gold and siver threads, decorated with jewels. The most famous was the Spring Carpet of Khosrau, fabulously expensive to astound foreign ambassadors and impress on them the wealth and power if the Sassanids.
Beautiful and expensive Persian rugs and Chinese rugs were brought back to Europe by Marco Polo in the eleventh century. They became signs of visible wealth, and portraits painted from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century often included Persian rugs a shorthand for mega rich!
In the sixteenth century, carpet production was organised at Aubusson in France, and soon after appeared at Wilton in England, later to be followed in 1750 at Axminster. Then the Industrial revolution brought mechanisation, leading eventually to Broadloom, and in the twentieth century to tufted carpets in a sense this brought rug production full circle, returning to a way that not very rich people have something soft to keep their feet from the chill of the floor.
Transportation and communication have always been important in rug and carpet development. Marco Polo took the finest Chinese and Persian rugs back with him to Europe, so they became well-known. The rug produced domestically was not usually valued enough to be expensively transported, so each area retained its individual patterns. Then the industrial Revolution brought cheaper production and transport, so ideas and patterns were copied more easily. By the 1980s anyone in Britain could access Persian rugs, Indian rugs or many exotic forms such as the Tatamimats from Japan. At the same time, designers were able to persuade people throughout the developed world to try out entirely new ideas such as shaggy rugs.
Our Internet world is a further step in this process, and has brought even more new opportunities for rug producers and buyers. It is now easy to learn many of the old techniques, such as Penny Rugs and Rag Rugs which would otherwise have been almost lost. At the same time new developments are beginning which are entirely the result of the Inrternet. One of the latest, and certainly an exciting one, is interactive designing, whereyou or any customer can design your own rug using an interactive site called rugdesigner.co.uk, and this will be carried out by expert carpet makers to a very high standard using professional quality materials. In this way the creativity of the house-owner is at last combined with the speed and quality of industry at a reasonable price. Surely something that the generations of early rugmakers would be jealous of!