Rug addiction: A rehabilitated vice for the up- & downtrodden

Jul 3, 15 • 5enses, FeatureNo Comments

Wheelbarrow-Sign-Man-Image-GraphicsFairy2-EDITBy Jacy Lee

Whenever you enter a crowded room, you never even pay attention to me. You talk to everyone without even saying a word to me. I feel like you just walk all over me sometimes. I’m not some neglected, significant other, totally taken for granted. I’m a rug — also totally taken for granted.

The history of rugs, in the Western world, should be anything but taken for granted. A rug was a prized possession, almost non-existent in Europe until the Middle Ages. Tapestries were common among the elite, but tapestries were made for walls and weren’t durable enough for floors. The capacity to actually weave rugs didn’t hit Europe until the 1500s. But the craze to cover cold stone or rough wood floors really blossomed earlier than that with the Crusades.

The Crusaders returned back to Europe with various items from the Middle East. Rugs — mostly smaller size, or “scatters” — were among these items. The major rug weaving areas of the world were, and still are, the Middle East and Near East. Rugs from these areas are known as Oriental rugs. Only a small amount of Oriental rugs are from the Orient, but rather most are from countries like Iran, Iraq, Turkey, India, Pakistan, and many of the provinces and independent states of the one-time U.S.S.R. The commonly used term “Caucasian rugs” refers to rugs from the Caucasus Mountains of Russia. Trade with these areas was slow during the Crusades time and was not able to keep up with the demand that Western Europe had for these rugs once they got the taste for them. It wasn’t until the early 18th century that trade flourished with the Middle and Near East, and rugs — particularly room size rugs — became prevalent in upper crust Europe.

By then, some weaving was done in Europe, particularly in England and (more famously) Aubussons in France. This was great for Europe, but what about America? Most trade from the Middle East didn’t go straight to the New World, but rather went to European ports first. By the time ships were unloaded and trading was done, there were very few rugs left to be sent to America. We had to do something because life without rugs was unthinkable. So we made our own. Notice, I said “made,” not “wove.”


A U.S.-made hooked rug, circa 1840-1860, now at the Honolulu Museum of Art. Photo by Hiart, Creative Commons 1.0.

Hooked rugs and rag rugs were the answer to early America’s lack of rugs. Rag rugs were made of cloth. Cloth, of almost any kind, was a commodity in the 1700s and early 1800s. Rag rugs were made from scraps of old clothes or later on, among poorer folk, feed sacks. They were multicolored because of their assemblage of materials and most often ovular. They were ovals because they were often started in one spot and knotted together in a continuous curving line. Rag rugs rarely had any design, whereas hooked rugs, which were knitted, were usually rectangular and had floral designs and geometric borders. Early examples of both of these types of American folk art are highly sought after. In the last century, hooked rugs have been produced by machines.

With the maturation of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s, machine-made rugs became affordable and popular. Many re-created Oriental rug designs with some quality ones nearly mimicking the designs and durability of true Orientals. Some of the cheaper machine-made rugs were blurred in their designs and had single-color backing. The good Orientals and machine-made rugs look almost as good upside down as they do right side up.

Interestingly, on a worldwide basis, most tribal rugs exhibit similar patterns and colors. Caucasian rugs, Kilims, South American, and Native American rugs share similar geometric designs. It appears to be a universal design impulse. Maybe that’s why people, the world over, have been continually hooked on rugs.


Longtime Prescott resident Jacy Lee has been in the auction business for 37 years and is directly responsible for a fraction of a million pounds of minimally processed recycling each year.

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