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Nest: Handmade Rugs With Historic Souls

Pulsing color palettes, geometric patterns and mythological symbols entrance the eyes of kilim collectors. They choose the rugs for their luxurious individuality, cradling them home to mount on accent walls, center on den floors and drape over loveseats. But for some oglers, a kilim’s historic and spiritual richness is the real clincher, says Eileen Bedoukian-Hampshire, owner of Art To Walk On, who has dealt in the antique kilim market for 35 years. “It takes a huge amount of talent to make these masterpieces,” she says. “They’re much more than just decorative rugs.”

Nomads and villagers in Turkey, North Africa, the Balkans, Iran, Afghanistan, the Caucusus, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Bulgaria, Romania and Pakistan all handcraft and export these area rugs, some of which date back to 7000 B.C., she says. The term “kilim” was first used in Turkey at the beginning of the 14th century, and the earliest ones were done in a simple tapestry technique: with two threads, a warp from handspun wool or cotton and a weft made of vegetable-dyed wool. A young girl might weave a kilim as part of her dowry, at a time when families sought women with rug-making skills as brides for their sons. Wives would create kilims for their husbands and children and cultivate a flair for spinning finer wool and dying brighter hues. “Women took pride in their home, small as it was, and making a kilim was kind of their outlet. These women were quite oppressed,” Bedoukian-Hampshire says. “It was really a way that they could express their artistry, and they could show off their skills. They got a lot of pats on the back for what they did.”

A woman’s kilim acted as shelter during a rainstorm and as a blanket in the cold. It became a table at mealtime and a bed at night. Babies were conceived and born on top of it, and when relatives died, they were wrapped in it. “Some kilims were done with gold and silver threads, and makers had to be absolutely fabulous weavers to spin the thread thin enough to weave,” Bedoukian-Hampshire says. A tapestry-weave kilim was woven into bags for carrying mud bricks when building a house. Salt bags and spoon bags were usually more elaborate and were imbued with natural dye sources such as indigo, saffron, St. John’s wort, chamomile, rhubarb, turmeric, sage, poppy, almond, walnut, chestnut and henna.

Robert Mosby, a local kilim connoisseur, could go on about these rugs for decades—that’s how long he’s been peddling them. The owner of Antique Oriental Rugs, an online business he runs out of Sarasota, Mosby has dealt in one-of-a-kind antique kilims since 1969. His come in varieties such as slit-weft, in which color covers every thread; slip-weft, in which colors are fashioned in a straight, sharp line; and floating weft, which has the appearance of a heavy blanket-like surface. These three types are fairly standard at retailers, he says.

And they can be as expensive as the budget permits. A four-foot-by-seven-foot kilim might rack up a price tag as low as $15 or as lofty as $20,000, Mosby says. Homeowners with a set-in-stone color scheme don’t have to alter the décor to accommodate one either. 

“The colors in kilims are pretty basic—primary, which is easier to work with, and they have bold designs, so they can make a big statement for a lot less money,” Mosby says. “They give you more of a tribal instead of a sophisticated, regal look.”

It’s the tribal flair and exoticism, in part, that draws John Murse, owner of Rugs as Art Inc. in Sarasota, to the kilim trade. For 32 years, he has displayed them, among his other products from more than 90 vendors in 40 rug-producing countries. His newer kilims are well within most consumers’ price limitations, dipping as low as $99 for some four-foot-by-six-foot sheets.

The manufacturing process is one of intrigue as well. A loom, a beating comb, a shuttle, a knife and a pair of scissors are used to manipulate the wool, cotton, silk, animal hair (goat, camel or horse), gold or silver threads, beads and baubles. Each material produces a unique vibe. Fine goat hair mixed with wool gives off a silken sheen. Camel hair adds fortitude to a woolen kilim. A horse’s mane is interspersed into fringes and tassels. Silk is saved for luxurious flatweaves.

Religious motifs are then mixed into the strands, along with rhinestones or found objects that reflect a particular culture. “One of my favorite kilims in my collection is a saddle bag with a picture of two men dancing with handkerchiefs in their hands, very happy and probably made for a wedding,” Bedoukian-Hampshire says. “I have another that is inscribed in Armenian, and it gives me chills to think that the person who wove the kilim took the chance of inscribing it with Armenian letters. They could have been killed if it had been discovered.”

A slew of kilims, all with ethnic monikers, exists, from the rakht-e-khãb pich, a bed-packing kilim favored by migrating tribes, to the sajãdeh, which boasts altar designs and is used in prayer. The jol is embroidered and doubles as a horse saddle, while the khorjin and juwals carry goods en route. “I think what people like about kilims is the combinations of colors, the softness of the colors and the way the materials work together to create something entirely different,” Murse says. “It’s rare that someone will have the same kilim you have.” But it’s the longevity of kilims, not just their versatility, that generates the most buzz in the design arena. Once brought into the home, kilims become not just conversation-starters and room anchors but heirlooms. “The most beautiful kilims from the most talented rug-makers have been passed down from one generation to another,” Bedoukian-Hampshire says. “And those are the true prizes collectors look for. They like to own something someone else put their whole heart into.”

—By Abby Weingarten

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