Up close of a Turkish rug with floral patterns in teal, orange, pink,and yellow on a black background.

Turkish Rug Making: A Dying Art and Livelihood for Turkish Women

Turkey is known world-wide for its beautifully crafted rugs. Rug making in Turkey is an ancient art form that stretches all the way back to the 12th and 13th centuries. Women have led the rug-making industry, and for many in rural areas, it is their primary source of income. The 2020 pandemic quickened the already-occurring decline of interest in Turkish rugs. The result: loss of both financial stability and an important part of Turkish culture. Whether you are traveling to Turkey anytime soon or not, it is helpful to know the history, significance, and process behind Turkey’s classic rugs. And who knows…maybe you’ll come home with one (or two)!

Woman seated at a carpet loom weaving a design. Red, green, navy blue, and yellow silk yarns hang above her head.
A Turkish woman at the loom weaving a new carpet. Credit: Abby Dorland

The History of Turkish Rug Making

The Seljuks are considered the first group to introduce carpet weaving to Anatolia and beyond. Their reign over central Asia lasted from the 11th-14th centuries CE. In his travel diary, Marco Polo mentions Konya as the center for rug production. Konya, located in central Turkey, was the capital of the Seljuk Empire during the 13th century CE. It makes sense that the capital of a powerful empire would be the birthplace of the next big textile trade: rug making.

Nomadic tribes made rugs for many centuries prior to the Seljuks. The carpets served both useful and decorative purposes as a covering for the floor of their tents. The women of the tribe became skilled at this task, and they started a generational tradition by training their daughters to make rugs as well. In this way, rug making became a part of the marriage process. If the daughter was a skilled weaver, she had a better chance of marrying because she could offer a well-made rug as part of her dowry.

By the 19th century, Turkish rugs were in high demand. Elites from Europe and America wanted Oriental rugs to decorate their stately homes, and Anatolian women had to keep up. As a result, carpet firms sprang up in cities throughout the region, and the industry flourished. Ever since then, about 95% of women in the rug-making industry have been employed by a carpet firm in some capacity. Some choose to work in the comfort of their home, while others weave in a workshop and give demonstrations to tourists.

Hands knotting the orange yarn on a rug loom
The pile weave: this rug is made by piling yarn knots on top of each other. Credit: Abby Dorland

The Process of Making a Rug

Turkish carpets come in a large variety of types, styles, colors, designs, and weaving techniques. The largest distinction is in the weaving technique. Rugs come in two options: either pile or flatweave. To discern the difference between the two, one needs to have a basic understanding of how a loom works. Warp (vertical) threads stretch tightly across a loom. Weft (horizontal) threads make up the surface of the rug. To make a pile rug, a carpet weaver knots individual strands of yarn, packs down the knots using a kirkit, and cuts the thread. She moves horizontally across the loom, and a pattern slowly emerges. By comparison, the carpet maker achieves a flatweave design by directly interlocking the vertical and horizontal threads. Flatweave rugs are thinner and less durable than their pile counterparts, but also less expensive. The Kilim rug, of Turkish origin, is a flatweave.

white cocoons in a basket with pink and orange dyed yarn. Cocoons sit floating in a washtub in the background.
Silkworm cocoons and the silk yarn they produce, dyed with natural colors. Credit: Abby Dorland

Material and dyes

But prior to weaving, the carpet maker must first choose the type of material for the threads. Wool, cotton, and silk are the most common, with animal hair from goats, horses, and camels more of a specialty. Workers comb out the cotton and wool; silk requires spinning from a silkworm’s cocoon onto a wheel. Fun fact: a single cocoon can produce up to a mile of thread! After the spinning is complete, a dye is selected. Two types of dye are used in weaving: vegetable and chemical. Natural dyes are preferable for their longevity and rich colors. Carpetencyclopedia.com describes the sources of natural color dyes below:

  • BLUE from indigo, a plant of the pea family
  • RED from the root of the madder, kermes (chermes) and cochineal (dried lice).
  • YELLOW from saffron, reseda, vine leaf or pomegranate.
  • GREEN from indigo + vine leaf, pomegranateskins or by mixing blue and yellow.
  • BROWN from walnut shell, oak bark.
  • ORANGE from henna + root of the madder.
  • BEIGE from walnut shell, pomegranate skin.
  • BLACK from indigo + henna.

Additionally, dyes can be extracted from minerals. Ochre, manganese, azurite, lead, and lapis lazuli are just some of the minerals carpet weavers use to dye their yarns. After the dye is extracted and a tub with the color is filled, the yarns are dipped repeatedly into the tubs until the desired color is reached. Then, the worker lays out the yarns to dry, which can take up to 72 hours depending on the humidity and region. Following these steps, the yarn is ready to be used for weaving!

Intricate swirl and block designs on four overlapping rugs. Primary colors are blue, creme, yellow, and orange.
Rug design depends on the region it was made in. Credit: Abby Dorland

Symbolism in design

The type and design of a rug depend upon which region of Turkey produced it. Konya, Hereke, Bergama, Milas, Canakkale, Usak, and Fethiye are just a few of the regions/cities that actively make rugs today. Each region has a specific style and choice of motifs that the carpet weavers incorporate into their rugs. While one motif can have multiple meanings, the most common include: “Tree of Life” for long life and rebirth, “Animal Horns” for power, “Hands on Hips” for female fertility, and “Hanging Candle” for holy/eternal light. Similarly, more general themes among Turkish carpets are birth, life, death, and immortality. Each handmade carpet is a reflection of the weaver herself, the carpet firm she works for, the general region the carpet firm is located in, and Turkey/Anatolia as a whole. The symbols on Turkish rugs are therefore both unique and universal.

Beige silkworm threads being collected on a wheel.
Silkworm threads being collected. Credit: Abby Dorland

Rug Making Today

The techniques of handmade Turkish carpet weaving have remained much the same over the 1000-year-old tradition. What has changed, however, is the invention of machines that can mass produce carpets. Machine-type woven rugs use loops instead of knots to create the surface of a rug. The U or V-shaped loops of yarn replace the painstakingly slow work of making individual knots. Since there is no person beating down each row of knots, machines use filler yarns such as jute (fiber), linen, and cotton to make sure the rug keeps its structure.

Exports during the pandemic

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the contrast between handmade and machine-produced rugs became even clearer. Carpets are one of Turkey’s top exports, and the industry saw a sharp decrease when the pandemic began. In May 2020, exports fell 50% from what they were in 2019. Handmade carpet exports took the largest drop at 89.8% in losses. With so many people laid off from their jobs, expensive handmade carpets were not a must-have item to spend money on during the pandemic. The United States remained a top export during this time, but sales of machine-made rugs increased, while handmade ones decreased. Because machine-made rugs frequently use chrome dyes and are faster and cheaper to produce, the share of the market looking for Turkish rugs found this option more appealing.

Women in the industry

Women were the first carpet weavers, and that tradition has continued in Turkey up into the present day. For handmade carpets, the weavers are almost entirely women. Conversely, men find employment in the industry at machine-produced rug firms and carpet repair shops. Women work about 12 hours per day during the summer months and 8-10 hours during the fall and winter. Depending on the type and size of rug, it can take a skilled carpet weaver anywhere between 3-36 months to complete a rug! For a handmade rug, only one weaver can work on it through to completion. The reason behind this rule lies in the method of each weaver. Each person uses a different pressure when beating down the rows of knots. If multiple women were to work on the same rug, it would come out uneven.

As for pay, the carpet weaver does not earn an hourly wage. Instead, she receives compensation when she has completed a rug. According to the Turkish Cultural Foundation, “there are many criteria used to determine the amount she will receive, such as the intricacy of the design, quality of the materials used, and if it is a carpet, the number of knots per square centimeter.” Generally, these women don’t weave their name into a rug unless encouraged to do so. But, depending on the carpet company, they can have a say in what design they are weaving.

Three men holding up three different types of Turkish rugs in a sales pitch, with another man explaining. Carpets cover the floor and walls of the room.
Three different rugs on display during a sales pitch at Turkmen Art & Rug. Credit: Abby Dorland

How to Buy a Turkish Rug

So by this point, you’re probably asking “how much does one of these rugs cost?” Well, it depends. Buying a Turkish rug can be a tricky business if you don’t have a few tips under your belt.

  1. First, do your research. If you are planning on buying in person, don’t settle for the first price the carpet seller offers you. It is a standard procedure to bargain, but the unaware tourist might settle for the original price.
  2. Make sure it is an authentic rug. One way to tell is by looking at the back of the carpet: if you can see the pattern on the opposite side, it is handmade. Another telltale sign is by looking for a flaw. Carpet weavers do not aim for perfection when they weave, and somewhere along the rug making process, a flaw usually occurs. Depending on the type of flaw, this can even make the rug more valuable.
  3. Ask the seller questions. Don’t be afraid to ask your carpet seller questions about the region the rug came from, the story behind the symbolism and motifs, how long it took to weave, and the age of the rug. A legitimate carpet seller should know the answers to these questions. Another aspect of rug quality to be aware of: the density of knots per square inch. A higher density count translates to a more tightly woven rug, thus holding up better over time. Generally, 120 knots per square inch or higher is a good benchmark of quality.
  4. Bargain, bargain, bargain! Never tell the carpet seller what your budget is; they will raise you a much higher price than the actual value of the rug. Return the initial offer at 40% less, and work closer to a middle price that you will both agree on.

Final Tips

If you travel to Turkey on a cruise or part of a tour group, ask the advice of local tour guides before buying a carpet. They can give you guidance and knowledge of shady sellers you should avoid. Also, ask the seller if they cover shipping. Legitimate sellers should cover the cost of overseas shipping, customs, and duty fees. And finally, be warned: Turkish carpet sellers drive a hard bargain. The majority sell rugs on commission, so the incentive to push a customer to buy rugs is very high. Prices vary, but the general ballpark of authentic Turkish rugs is anywhere from $350 to upwards of $4000. If you are willing to do the work of educating yourself on Turkish rugs and carpet sellers, the result is a hard-won rug that will decorate your home for many years to come!

A hand points to a motif on a knotted Turkish carpet. Prominent colors are gray, blue, red, orange, tan, and white.
Pointing out the importance of design. Credit: Abby Dorland

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

Whether or not you ever end up buying a Turkish carpet, I hope you have gained a newfound appreciation for the effort that goes into making one. Their significance in Turkish and Anatolian culture goes back centuries. Rug making is a traditional cultural practice, one that has been passed down from generation to generation, from mothers to daughters. All over Turkey, from rural villages, to workshops in the city, rug making has continued to persevere. Even with the invention of machines that mass produce rugs, their handmade counterparts still find buyers.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has put many carpet firms on the edge of bankruptcy. With the tourist industry virtually shut down for a year, shop owners lost their main source of income. And with carpet sellers along the coast shut down, the demand for new handmade rugs has decreased. The rug industry is slowly recovering through an increase in exports, but it’s the practice of weaving handmade rugs for sale that might be in danger. Rug making is woven into the cultural fabric of Turkey, and the practice should always be preserved.

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