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Although there are many different types of traditional rugs, the rugs most commonly referred to as traditional are the Oriental rugs of Persia and India that have been crafted for at least 2,500 years. The term Oriental refers to a vast geographical area encompassing central Asia, India, and Turkey. The traditional rugs from this region feature vastly different techniques, motifs, and materials, but have in common the fact that they were most likely the earliest rugs and precursors to nearly every other type of traditional rug. Oriental rugs influenced the rug making trade in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Europe, especially France, Spain, and Greece, as well as the Americas. Traditional rugs of any region are typically hand knotted of natural materials like wool, cotton, or silk and are hand-dyed from natural dyes.
Much of what we know about traditional rugs comes from paintings and references in literature, because rugs are perishable and unlikely to survive more than a couple hundred years. Yet the oldest surviving rug is the Pazyryk rug, which was found frozen in an ice-covered Scythian burial mound and dates to the 5th century BCE. Most rug experts believe that the earliest rug artisans were the Persians or nomadic Mongolian tribes, who probably were the first to knot rugs featuring geometric designs and stylized animal and plant motifs. These hand-knotted rugs were unique and featured interesting irregularities from when artisans had to interrupt their work to move to new locations. It is likely that traditional rugs created by nomadic tribes found their way to distant parts of Asia due to the migratory habits of the tribes who created them.
Traditional Indian rugs became popular when a 16th-century Mughal emperor brought Persian artisans to India to weave for him. Some elements of their Persian style mixed with Indian motifs and influenced a new, hybrid style of traditional rug. Typically, geometric patterns or floral or animal motifs in blues and greens were woven onto a red base. Although the nomadic tribes originally created rugs for both practical and decorative reasons, these newer rugs featured increasingly intricate patterns and finer weavings and served a mainly decorative function.
The popularity of rugs from China, India, and Turkey exploded in the 17th century when the Silk Road, a trade route that linked Asia with the Roman Empire, gave the Western world access to these beautiful works of art. Traditional rug making became popular in Europe as other countries found their own traditional styles. The popularity of Oriental and Persian traditional rugs waned briefly and then resurged in the mid-1800s and remains popular worldwide.
North America has its own wide range of traditional rug-making artisans. Native American Indians wove unique rugs on an upright loom using a continuous warp thread. These rugs featured geometric designs heavy with spiritual meaning. In the Colonial era, women made utilitarian hooked rugs from scraps of rags to protect feet from chilly dirt or wood floors.
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