July 1985

Baluch nomads, Meshed, 1973,
photo by Paul Shaper

Production and Use of Pile Rugs

Pile and pileless rugs are made by female weavers as it is true also for the Turkomans, if a horizontal, collapsible wooden loom is used. Irregular formats do not disclose an unskillful weaver, but her nomadic way of life: A not yet finished piece was rolled around the warp beams of the disassembled frame when the group moved on to another pasture. The frame was then not readjusted accurately at the new location. Sheep’s wool, and more rarely camel wool is used for the pile. This wool looks dull in a new piece and gets its attractive sheen only after longer use. Since in recent time Balouch carpets have been in great demand for export, local dealers thought they could abbreviate this process and had rugs made with synthetic silk, whenever such a material was available. These products were offered in Europe as especially valuable.

[This five-part article originally appeared in print in Volume 5/4 of Oriental Rug Review, July 1985, and is reprinted here with that publication’s kind permission. Translated from German by Lola Froehlich, August, 1981. Reviewed by Dr. Wegner, May, 1985]


The use of silk is indeed very rare. Until recently it was only used to accentuate certain colors, that were not easily obtained in wool with natural dyes, e.g. green and purple. For about 40 years metal threads have been incorporated every now and then.

Table 1

Undyed or brown sheep’s wool, or sheep’s wool mixed with black goat’s hair is much used for warp and weft. The small sides of the rugs have dark web-ends with very delicately woven or embroidered ornaments in white and/or red. Some older pieces have web-ends that are woven in Kilim fashion: Stepped or undulating stripes are formed through color changes, e.g. from medium blue to red to black to medium blue. There are also rugs without web-ends from the second half of the last century. More recent pieces have 3 to 6 cm wide web-ends, which are usually devoid of ornaments.

Balouch in the Afghan province of Herat preserved the tradition of web-end ornaments longer than those in the area of Turbett-i-Heidari. In Herat, pieces with elaborate ornaments in web-ends were still rather recently produced.

The fringes are either twined or braided. Some times there are knots close to the web-ends that may have special colorful weft threads to prevent unraveling of the pile. Very often the fringes of the lower terminating end are more carefully finished than the ones at the beginning upper end.

The finish of the selvage is very characteristic: It is twined two to four times with black goat’s hair and shows sometimes a “herring-bone” pattern. rhe pile is knotted onto the warp threads applying the asymmetrical Persian or Senneh knot. The Tekke and Salor Turkomans use the same knots in their carpets (Azadi 1975:36). This and the fact rhat the Khorassan Balouch used Tekke and Salor tribal devices leads us to assume once again that the Khorassan Balouch learned the skill of knotting rugs particularly from those Turkomans.

(Black 1976:21) and (Eiland 1976:81) examined a great number of Balouch carpets and found out that 10% of the knots were of the symmetrical Ghiordes kind. This might be partly explained by the fact that the authors did not analyze the rugs on-site. Maybe they are not original Balouch products, but were made by Timuri. It is also possible that the rugs are indeed of Balouch provenance, but that the weaver had a different ethnic origin and applied her techniques when she married into a Balouch tribe. Fine pieces have 2500-3000 knots to a square dcm, and each weft thread bears pile. Those products are as valuable as the Tekke and Salor rugs. But due to the different kind of wool they are still softer than comparable Turkoman rugs. The Salar-Khani, the Said Mohammad-Khani, the Ghara’i Beluchi, the `Ali Akbar-Khani in the Iranian region of Turbett-i-Heidari, and the Afghan Dokhtar-e-Ghazi made rugs of this quality. They very rarely reached the bazaars of Meshed and Herat, or even Europe. Products of minor quality were known there, and mistakenly taken as characteristic of Baluch work. Those rugs are loosely knotted with coarse yarn and are very soft or even flabby. They were made e.g. by Baluch groups from central Afghanistan, and by the Baizidi, in the region of Mahwalat, south of Turbett-i-Heidari.

In the last decades these weavers have also used cotton warp threads. This change is due to the opening of, so far, remote areas to modern transportation. Clever dealers have now the possibility of buying raw wool directly, and cheaper, from sheep breeding nomads, who have succumbed very easily to the temptation of “fast money”. The nomads’ economic situation has not improved though. On the contrary, some Balouch clans have given up knotting rugs altogether or have at least started to incorporate the cheap “foreign material” cotton. Since the use of it does not affect the life of the rugs, they have even used it in rugs for their own use.

Up to the middle of this century pile-weave and flat weave fabrics were mainly made for home use. The demand was never big, but at least continuous. New pile rugs were part of the customary dowry and served to prove the weaving skills of the bride. In addition rugs wore out soon in a Balouch tent, that does not offer as much protection as a Turkoman yurt, and thus they had to be replaced more often. This also explains why older or even semi-antique pieces are rarely found among the Balouch themselves.

Fig. 5. Baluch, Sistan, Turkoman ensi borders as a field pattern, c. 1920.

During good years a Balouch family would weave one or two additional rugs. They were sold in the nearest city bazaars or exchanged for utensils, that they could not make themselves, for tea and sugar, as well as for red calico for dresses, and once in a while for silver coins for jewelery. Many Balouch from central and north Khorassan made those for the Persian New Year, on March 21st according to our calendar. Some of them came from far away to the bazaars of Meshed. Therefore the rugs had to be finished by the middle of March. Corresponding dates were sometimes inscribed into the rugs, e.g. 20. 12. 1319 (see Fig. 13). Also the neighboring Iranian villagers then replaced their worn out Balouch rugs with newer ones. Particularly, richer people in the villages of Djulghe Khaf used to cover the floors of their “mehman-khane”, the room where guests were welcomed, with nomad rugs. A new rug was also needed whenever one was damaged by glowing coals falling from the stove. Such rugs from the “mehman-Khane” then substituted for worn out rugs in the “endetun”, the living and women quarters, which were inaccessible to outsiders, the doctor excepted.

Thus only a very limited number of carpets reached the markets in Iran and Afghanistan that were accessible to European merchants. They were not much sought after in the cities because the urban middle class, that was able to afford rugs, preferred larger sizes. But those could not be woven on Balouch looms. The people in the cities also favored more colorful rugs, and if possible floral designs, “to bring the garden into the house”.

Up until recently there was no big foreign demand for knotted fabrics made by those nomads. Pile, pattern and colors of their rugs did not appeal to the prevailing taste of the first decades of this century. Even the much more attractive Turkoman rugs became popular rather late. This explains why in many older but also in some newer books on rugs, floral museum carpets are described in detail while Baluch rugs are ony mentioned for the sake of completeness.

Popularity for Baluch rugs was lacking for more than a hundred years. this fact contradicts the idea that the reproduction of Turkoman guls and other motifs was caused by foreign demand and respective orders by importers. foreign demand and taste have, however, strongly influenced patterns and color combination of Persian manufactured rugs since the middle of the last century. At the time when Turkoman patterns were knotted in Baluch rugs, such marketing strategies could not possibly be discussed with nomads, who have known how to preserve their independence in every respect until this century.

All this is surely a reason for the fact that the Baluch used natural dyes much longer than many Turkoman weavers. There were still new Baluch rugs without any synthetic dyes until around 1950. At that time chemical wool dyes were already offered in the village bazaars, but the were still more expensive than the home-made natural dyes. In some pile rugs from those years natural and synthetic dyes were simultaneously used. Red shades and brown yellows — to imitate camel’s wool — were soon used on bigger surfaces while yellow and green tints were used only sporadically in some motifs. Some red and almost all green tones of that period were neither fadeless nor waterproof. In the last decade the quality of synthetic dyes, however, has improved and there have been a greater variety of colors, but at the same time the rugs have lost much of their charm. Unusual colors like crimson red, bright orange, malachite green and purple seem to have animated the weavers’ imagination to excessive experiments that were in contrast to tradition. The result was disharmony in the rugs. This shows that so-called progress can lead to the destruction of good nomad traditions.

The more important traditional colors of the field are found — with exceptions — in the following geographical centers:

Dark blue to black blue (made with very concentrated indigo): Areas of Turbett-i-Heidari and Kashmir, Djulghe Khaf and the northern part of the Herat region.

Medium blue (weaker concentration of indigo): North Khorrassan. There are only very few pieces with this color. Most of them were made in the second half of the last century.

Brick red, fire red to dark red (made from madder of different ages): Regions of Nishapur and north of Meshed, Djulghe Turbett-i-Sheikh-i-Djam, Djulghe Bakharz, Mahwalat and Gha’inat.

Aubergine shades (old madder with additional dyes): Sistan and central Afghanistan (southern province of Herat), a small area southeast of Gounabad in prayer rugs without mihrabs.

Camel brown (undyed camel wool): Gha’inat, Bidjestan, Mahwalat, Djulghe Khaf and eastern Kjulghe Turbett-i-Sheik-i-Djam. Very often in prayer rugs, always in the “akhundi” type.

White to cream-colored (undyed, sometimes bleached sheep’s wool): Area around Turbett-i-Heidari, but only in the last decades as substitute for camel wool, which has become rare. Camel wool has always been used mainly for men’s clothes.

Black brown (natural wool with additional dyes, e.g. walnut shells): Southern Afghanistan, e.g. province of Farah.

In many Balouch rugs the ground color in the (main) border(s) is the same as the one in the field. If the center field is, however, camel brown, red tints are usually used in the borders. Red borders can also enframe a dark blue field. A reverse color combination was not seen in older rugs.

Different shades of ground colors are frequently used for field motifs. When red tints are used the design is still discernable. But this is not the case when dark blue is used on dark brown, like in many very finely knotted saddle bags made by south Afghan Balouch. Details in motifs, like small petals, as well as outlining strips are very often white and/or yellow or yellow orange. Green was used in older carpets only sparingly. Darker tints are seen in older rugs from Sistan and Afghanistan. Up until the beginning of this century lighter blue colors were often found in rugs from central and north Khorassan. Very often motifs were set off with black bordering lines. If Ihere was not enough black brown sheep’s wool available, brown wool was dyed several times by boiling it together with steel filings. This was done over and over again, according to an exactly scheduled process of eight days. Such a treatment damages the wool. It becomes brittle and mouldy, but this fact is not considered to lessen the value of the rug. Those rugs have a relief effect (corrosion), that makes them very often especially appealing.

Recipes for the production of plant and stone dyes have repeatedly been published. But they are only valid for those interviewed: In the geographical area of my field studies recipes were jealously kept secret among the families and not revealed even within the clan.

Rug Sizes and Their Meaning

Fig. 6, Balouch, Sistan, Turkoman alternating latchhook pattern as pseudo guls in the field, c. 1900.

Kind and size of pile- and flat-woven rugs (Table 1) are determined by the nomadic way of life and dimensions of the Balouch tent. Its floor is not covered with pile rugs during the day. Likewise the Turkomans do not use pile rugs in their Yurts. The Balouch cover the floors of their tents with dark, coarse, and mostly unadorned felt mats, or “tent squares”, which can no longer be used for the roof. They are made of dark goat’s hair. When there were visitors rugs were spread on top of the mats. Some Balouch in the Khaf area used their rugs regularly to sleep on. When they travelled to market, to the doctor etc,. they took them along as “sleeping rugs”. The sizes, that were needed for those purposes, were woven most often. Due to their different functions those rugs cannot be compared to the Turkoman “odjaq bashi”, the hearth rug. Among the Tekke Turkomans almost square shaped hearth rugs are customary. The Balouch also made a smaller size rug, which is similar to the “germetsh” or “dahanghi,” the Turkoman “threshold rug” at the entrance to the tent. The Balouch use this rug for various purposes.

Larger pile rugs are rare and known only from Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are found around Herat, but mainly in the south, near the Afghan Pakistani border. In Iranian Sistan only flatweave rugs of that size are known. With the exception of these large formats the Iranian and Afghan Balouch use about the same size rugs for the same purposes. This is also true for the prayer rugs, that due to their different size constitute a category of their own. Some Balouch and other above mentioned nomads, that have become sedentary, also weave runners, “daliz”. (Head) pillows, “balisht”, with pile-woven fronts are a specific Balouch product. They are unkown among Turkomans. Their format is similar to small Turkoman tent bags, “torba”. But they are open at one small side only. Both small sides can have carefully ornamented web-ends. They are stuffed with raw cotton and then sewn up.

If the flat-woven back part is lost the original use of these pillows can no longer be identified. Consequently this very common format has often been incorrectly classified. Square back pillows, “poshti”, with pile-woven fronts are also of the Balouch. Their formats are similar to the big saddle bags. They are, however, more finely knotted and do not have a clasping ledge (closure system). They are stuffed and then sewn up.

Small and big saddle bags, “khordjin,” with pilewoven fronts are very common. Afghan weavers prefer bigger sizes. The southern Balouch decorate their bags with colorful tassels and shells. They find these shells in the deserts of south Afghanistan as relics of a former sea. Most “poshti” and “khordjin” are made in pairs with a single warp thread. The work is started at the upper end of the knotted front side of the first bag. The clasping ledge is added later with loops made of black goat’s hair. Then follows a flat-woven part, consisting of the back part of the first bag, the 30-40 cm wide bridge, and the back part of the second bag. The work is then continued with another pile-woven part for the front of the second bag. The weaving is finished at the upper end of the second bag. The knotted front sides are then turned over towards the bridge on to their flat-woven back sides and selvaged together. This kind of weaving technique causes the pile of the two bags to be oriented in opposite directions. In some bags from Afghanistan both front pieces are connected over the bridge at their long sides with small knotted strips, which continue the pattern of the borders. Thus the center part of the bridge looks like a window in a pile-woven frame. There are also pairs of bags whose back parts are flat-woven with stripe patterns and colorful zig-zag designs. Their bridges are, however, pile-woven.

The Balouch do not have any big oblong shaped tent bags as are common among Turkomans, who call them “djowall”(juval) or “doshak”. They neither have knotted spoon, comb, or mirror cases, nor the Turkomans “ok bashi”, a protective cap that is pulled over the ends of the bundled up tent poles. They make hardly any salt containers, which are more frequent among the Tshahar (Chahar) Aimaq. They do make, however, small pile-woven bags (chanteh) for multiple use. The bags have loops on the back side to pull a belt or a shoulder strap through. Islamic wandering monks in central and north Khorassan used them as purses. Finally, there are the pilewoven gun cases, that the Balouch made until the beginning of this century. They protect the barrel and lock against sandstorms. They were sewn together from two equally long strips.

Pile rug fabrics as decoration for use on riding animals are almost limited to saddle blankets. Festive head-gears were rarely made. Non-nomad Balouch used, however, coarsely knotted strips as harness for donkeys. Caparisons, as seem among Yomud Turkomans, have not been found. Likewise, there are no decorative trappings for wedding camels, like “djollar”, “asmalyk”, and “diah disluk”: The Balouch bride usually rides a horse. Only the south Afghan Beluchi have a headdress for camels. It is made of pile-woven strips and upright tassles.

Since a Balouch tent does not need tent bands (“tang”, “nawar”, “yolami”), nor frames for the entrance (“kapunuk”), nor entrance rugs (“ensi,”khatshlu”, “tshahar fazl”) the Balouch do not make any of these products. Only the Firuzkuhi who live in Yurt like tents make flat-woven tent bands.

Traditions of Rug Patterns

Fig. 7. Balucj, Gha’inat, “peacock motif”

As pointed out already several observations lead us to assume that the Turkomans forced their pileweaving techniques and their patterns on the Khorassan Balouch. Further observations in this respect show interesting differences between the Turkomans’ and the Balouchs’ attitude towards the designs in their pile rugs: No doubt the Turkoman main rug, “odjaq bash”, i.e. the “hearth rug”, still reflects many aspects of religious tradition. There are very early animistic shamanistic symbols and later Islamic influences. The guls sublime the tribal history and represent the transcendental, as well as the real world of the Turkomans. This explains why some Turkoman tribes forced the people they had subjugated to give up their own tribal devices in favor of the conqueror’s, that means his gul3. Many tent-living Turkomans have held their hearth rug very much in respect until today, and it is only used for special occasions. The original meaning of these rugs can probably be compared with that of the totems of the North American Indians, in some respect also to Chinese ancestral shrines and to heraldlc emblems in the early history of the Occident.

With the gradual breaking of tribal ties a lot of the original meaning has been lost and the symbols have degenerated to mere ornaments. We find the following characteristics of such a degeneration in Turkoman rugs:

1. Main devices move out of the tribal region, so that the reproducer of a gul is no longer identical with its “original owner”. This is also true of tribe specific borders. Moshkova (1970) shows this development for Russian Turkestan since 1920.

2. Main designs lose their sharpness, important details are omitted, e.g. the four “flying eagles” in the center field of the Tekke gul.

3. Traditional names for the main devices are replaced by “work names” i.e. names of objects which resemble the forms that the weavers have to incorporate in their rugs, because “it must be done that”. E.g. the name “ongurghe gul” means “Spine gul” for the main device of the Ersari Dali , in which a close relation to the old Ersari “timirdjin-gul” is still evident.

It is obvious that forms and colors have lost some of their richness, and it becomes more and more difficult to attribute single motifs to a specific Turkoman tribe. It has also been forgotten that many motifs originally served as “demon charming symbols”. But in spite of all that, today’s designs and patterns are still part of a centuries-old tradition.

The Balouch’s ethnic origin and their pre-Islamic religious background is not connected in any way with the “cradle of the Turkic people”, the Altai mountains. As a consequence they might have been forced to reproduce Turkoman devices in their rugs, but that does not necessarily mean that they also understood the symbolic meaning of those motifs. Therefore we find many Turkoman designs modified according to Balouch specific taste, one that had grown out of a different ethnic background. The colors also changed: The Balouch preferred darker colors, so that the Europeans called the Balouch rugs “blue Turkomans.” Finally, Turkoman field motifs were used in the borders of Balouch rugs and vice versa. For example the Turkoman “Double-T” border motif became a field design in Balouch rugs made in Bidjestan (Fig. 5). Or the “Turkoman border”, the famous alternating latch-hook pattern, became a “pseudo gul” in the field of Balouch rugs from north Sistan (Fig. 6). Such inversions of motifs were possible because the Turkoman designs were only of decorative meaning to the Balouch. Only the Turkoman guls themselves were more or less preserved. Since the beginning of this century (20th) they have, however appeared less. The next generations have felt no need to still incorporate them in their rugs. If old guls are used they are amazingly exact. Does that mean that the Balouch still respect those Turkomans who until the end of the 19th century undertook “alamans”, fast violent raids starting from the area of Serakhs going deep in the south of Khorassan?

Fig. 8. Baluch, region of Turbett-i-Heidari, “botteh”, all-over, c. 1900.

On their first contacts with the Turkomans the Balouch surely became aware of the fact that the Turkomans applied their weaving technique to represent patterns with deep symbolic meaning. This may have motivated the Balouch to use the new technique from their own heritage. Thus for generations they have reproduced naturalistic profiles of birds, like cock and peacock (Fig. 7), horned quadrupeds (capricorn?), trees of life, and two designs that are called in Persian “botteh” and “do-guli”. These motifs are not found on Turkoman hearth rugs, on other pile rug fabrics only among the Yomut and Beshir, and then only in recent times. Both motifs are, however, common among all Iranian peoples, on rugs, embroideries, potteries and metal crafts. Some of these peoples still believe in fertility symbols, like “taus” and “khorus”, peacock and cock, and a pear-shaped motif, which- strangely enough has been interpreted as “palm tree top”, “ball of the thumb-print of Turkish conquerors” or “meanders of a holy Indian river” (Fig. 8). In new Persian “botteh” means “bush”, which does not seem to be very meaningful in this context. Pile rug weavers in east Khorassan call this symbol also “badam” which equals almond. Since almond trees are very productive this interpretation points again towards fertility, even though this name seems to be only a “work name”.



3. The word for “gul” for the Turkoman tribal device is still very often confounded with the Persian word “gul”, which means flower. Those words, however, do not have anything in common

More meaningful seems the relation to “gol”, modern Turkish “lake”, old Turkish “kol” (kol, kul, kyl). This word appears in connection with many lakes and rivers between the south Altai and west Turkestan. Turks in that area held these waters holy. According to Anochin (Schmidt 1949:185) each Altaic clan worshipped one of the lakes or rivers as their patron. Radloff describes the original meaning (Schmidt 1949:87). To the southern Altaic Turks Talaikan (also Yayuk, Yaik) was the master of the fourth world and the patron of the dead, but mainly the Lord of the seas and all other waters, and thus also the master of the “sut-ad-kol”, mythic “Milk White Sea.” This sea was the source of all life forces. The Yayutsi drew from it the soul for each individual beginning of life and accompanied the individual through his whole life as his tutelary powers (Schmidt 1949:148). Harva (1938:171) reports about the “syt-kul-amine,” the “Milk Sea Goddess,” a goddess of Buryat. later (op cit. 547) he mentions the two mythologic birds “oksoko-kyl” and kai-kyl” as companions of the Shamanist soul on its way to the transcendent world. According to this Turkoman guls represented symbols reminding of the original life force of the respective paternal tribal soul. They had a protective meaning to all descendants. The abstract designs of totem birds and sacrificial animals make that interpretation very probable. The lacking identity of Persian “gul” with Turkoman “gul” is finally proven by the Ersari guli-gol”.

Part I | Part III | Part IV | Part V