Antique Turkish Oushak rugs have been woven in Western Turkey since the beginning of the Ottoman period. Historians attributed to them many of the great masterpieces of early Turkish carpet weaving from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries. However, less is known about what happened to production there in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Cosmopolitan and sophisticated are two words that aptly describe Oushak rugs. Although the Ghiordes knot and the quirky angular designs have a certain primitive air, the rugs from Turkey are exceptionally unique and attractive. Without compromising to appeal to Western consumers, weavers here managed to create one of the country’s most desirable rug styles. The angular arabesques and ornamental medallions are not dissimilar from Persian motifs but are executed in a more rectilinear manner and woven in a unique palette that includes bold Mediterranean-influenced colors and chic pastels.
The Oushak rugs have become the rugs of choice for many of the top interior decorators in the world today. Just open any copy of architectural digest and you will see these magnificent carpets adorn the floors of many bedrooms, family rooms and living room floors.
For the most part they are not high quality rugs but that is what makes them so special. Since the knot count is considerably lower than the antique rugs made in Persia – antique Turkish rugs were woven with larger scale patterns. These carpets are also extremely desirable because of their colors – which are usually much lighter and “happier” in feel than rugs from other regions. So if you are looking for an antique or vintage rug with a large scale design and soft colors, theses should top your list.
It is generally believed that rug making in Anatolia began with the advent of the Seljuks in the 11th century. By the 15th century, rugs were being produced by factories and independent weavers in the environs of Oushak. The origins of of the rugs from Oushak must therefore be looked for between these two dates. The rugs of the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries were widely acclaimed in Europe where they were appreciated and depicted in the paintings of many artists such as Lorenzo Lotto and Hans Holbein. During the 18th century the production of Oushak rugs had deteriorated and became much more commercial.
Although the Oushak rugs are made using less complicated methods, they are extremely decorative in nature. Their larger scale patterns, along with their soft and decorative coloration, make these rugs extremely sought after by the trend-setters and taste-makers in the interior design trade.
Guide to Antique Turkish Oushak Rugs and Carpets
We are currently nursing a serious obsession with Oushak rugs. Their bold and embellished designs are the definition of antique style. In soft wool and muted palates, they project a soulful grace that balances everything from mid-century modern decor to old fashioned elegance.
Oushak rugs originated in the western Turkish town of Oushak, or Ushak. Through the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries, Turkey was a hub of carpet craftsmanship. But, by the 1900’s, Oushak became the stand-out center with their decorative, room-sized masterpieces.
A knotted pile carpet, Oushaks are famous for their central medallion design and scattered sprays of vine scroll and palmettes. Often crafted in subtle tones of apricot and saffron, these antique carpets are a favorite among designers for their versatility and particularly soft texture.
What we love most about Turkish antique rugs from Oushaks is how they capture primitive design in cosmopolitan style. Persian motifs and angular arabesques project the soulfulness of history, but the overall affect is read as nothing short of sophistication. These are the sort of antique carpets that steal the spotlight in any room, complimenting changing design trends with their timeless style.
After the seventeenth century, however, the development of Oushak rug weaving is less well known. A number of very large palatial scale carpets of eighteenth-century date have been attributed to Oushak, and also to the town of Smyrna further to the West on the coast of Turkey.
These later Oushak or Smyrna carpets tend to have elements derived from the medallion and Star Oushaks, but arranged as allover designs, and in a much coarser or robust weaving technique that corresponded to the large size of the carpets and their designs.
Rugs of this sort continued to be woven into the nineteenth century although in far fewer numbers, so far as we can tell. This eighteenth and earlier nineteenth century development should be seen within the larger setting of Oriental rug production at this time, which was a period of decline, not in quality but in scale because of the falling off of the European market.
European taste had moved away from Oriental rugs in favor of local European productions. Examples of these European weaving companies are Aubusson, Savonnerie and Axminster which produced carpets in a native, classically derived, European style.
Against this background it would seem that, the larger eighteenth, and early nineteenth century Oushak or Smyrna carpets, were made for affluent local Turkish consumption.
From a relatively early time, during the Ottoman period, the town of Oushak, in western Turkey, has been a major center of rug production. Many of the great masterpieces of early Turkish rug weaving from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries have been attributed to this center.
The great star and medallion antique Oushak carpets of the late fifteenth to seventeenth century were made there, and it is even possible that the various carpets of the so-called “Holbein” type of family were products of Oushak as well. To say the very least, Oushak has a major claim to a long and distinguished tradition of rug weaving which has continued right up into modern times.
All this changed after the middle of the nineteenth century when Ushak, now Oushak, re-emerged as a major center of production in keeping with the larger revival of oriental rug production in Turkey and Persia at this time.
A large and expanding middle class in the Europe and the United States created a sudden new demand for antique Oriental rugs, and like the many other rug producing centers with a long history behind them at this time, Oushak quickly rose to meet it.
We might expect the weavers of the Oushak region at this time to have embarked on a major revival of their greatest hits from their heyday in the Ottoman period, with copies or adaptations of Star and Medallion Oushak types and the like, but this is exactly what did not happen. Times had definitely changed, and Persia had initially taken the lead in the new production of rugs for the western market.
Consequently, it was the floral designs of Persian type, both in medallion and allover formats, that now commanded the market, and it was designs of this type that the Oushak weavers began to develop. And they adapted to this new demand for room size decorative carpets very quickly and in the most remarkable ways.
This antique Oushak rug, from the Nazmiyal Collection, is perhaps one of the most meticulously drawn of this late nineteenth century generation of Oushaks. The piece displays an allover repeat design of classical Persian palmettes arranged in rows and linked by delicate vines, with similar elements adapted to the linear format of the border.
Oushaks like this were competing with the Ziegler Mahal or Sultanabad production in contemporary Persia. But their color sensibility is softer and more delicate in keeping with the lustrous silky wool that is the hallmark of the best Oushak carpets.
Another example of this type is Nazmiyal 42078 whose palette also bears the imprint of Sultanabad Persian designs. Nazmiyal 47466 has a Persianate design, but in the classically soft Oushak coloration, and the proportions are larger and more monumental, in keeping with the grand scale design and size of the Oushak and Smyrna carpets of the eighteenth and earlier nineteenth centuries discussed above.
The origin of this more animated and rugged drawing is not immediately clear, but one can hazard a guess. During the century and a half or so after 1700, when the European appetite for Oriental rugs had fallen off, the volume of workshop weaving in Oushak must have diminished considerably.
When the Western appetite for Oriental carpets suddenly increased in the later nineteenth century, the number of weavers still active in Oushak itself could not have met this demand, so the town manufacturies had to turn to the village weavers of the surrounding areas who had maintained a continuous weaving tradition for centuries.
Such village weavers had tended to produce smaller rugs with a strong tribal sensibility. They made rugs with bold geometric designs and rugged kinetic drawing, using large knots and all-wool foundations.
Clearly when these weavers became incorporated into the town Oushak industry, they carried over all of their tribal traditions and sensibilities into the new production of Persianizing large-scale decorative carpets.
It will not have been too difficult to fuse such tribal village traditions with the existing town Oushak industry that had continued from the somewhat earlier Ushak and Smyrna large-scale rug production. In this way the style and technique of the Oushaks of the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries was born. Nazmiyal 40781 too plays off classical Persian designs, in this case the palmettes, dragons, and leaping animals of classical Persian hunting scene carpets.
Again we see the distinctive Oushak coloration and the bold large-scale treatment of the design elements. But this example also exemplifies the more rugged style of drawing that becomes another hallmark of such decorative antique Oushak carpets.
We can really sense this tribal background in several other Oushaks from the Nazmiyal Collection. Number 47426 again display a vine and palmette design of Persian derivation, but combined with oblong cartouches also of classical Persian origin.
The feeling of these designs is so strongly geometrical that many observers may not even recognize the floral quality of the designs. This geometry comes out especially in the angularity of the vinescrolls, some of which even become zig-zags.
Nazmiyal 47445 has a medallion and corner-piece format in the field with a grand palmette vinescroll border, all features of classical Persian derivation. But here above all we can sense the crisp, rugged geometry that transforms the medallion into a diamond and the corner pieces into stepped triangles, not to mention the angularity that is present in the minor detail as well.
To appreciate this geometric transformation fully, we have only to compare 47445 to another medallion Oushak, Nazmiyal 2952, one of the more unusual examples of this kind that managed to adhere strictly to the more fluid, sinuous drawing of classical Persian and Ottoman forerunners.
But despite the bold geometry and tribal sensibility that is so basic to room-size Oushaks from the decades around 1900, they nevertheless remain one of the most elegant types of room-size antique decorative rug or vintage rugs available in the current market.
This is undoubtedly due to two factors – their coloration and their wool. The sweetness and warmth of the Oushak palette, relying as it does on soft terracotta’s, cinnamons, and golds, as well as delicate blues, grays, greens, saffron, and ivory, goes a long way to mollifying and balancing the honest strength of their designs. Similarly, the soft lustrous silken quality of the wool, especially in the so-called “Angora Oushaks,” endows these carpets with an incomparably tactile softness and gentility.
Ultimately, the appeal of antique Oushak carpets is the result of a marvelous balance of opposites – the contrast between monumental and delicacy, between boldness and subtlety, and between classical urban and village tribal design or taste.
Few antique carpets or vintage rug genres can pull off such a tour-de force. But the credit for this achievement goes not only to the Oushak weavers and designers themselves, but also to the complex circumstances behind the development of these carpets.
Characteristics of Oushak Carpets from Turkey
Although fragments of Turkish Rugs from the ninth century CE have been found in Istanbul, they are rare and not well-preserved.
It is not until the thirteenth century that substantial pieces of pile carpets have survived. One such group, termed the Konya Rugs, was discovered in layers of antique carpets from within a mosque in central Anatolia.
They date to the time of the Seljuks (11th to 14th centuries) and illustrate the fine coloration, weaving and pattern designs for which the Seljuks are so well known. Motifs are stylized renderings of flowers, tendrils and leaves as well as geometric patterns.
Kufic designs — stylized Arabic script — are seen on borders of carpets from not only this period, but throughout the continuum of carpet production after the advent of Islam.
Oushak Carpets and rugs are identified by their distinctive designs, typically either a central medallion or the “Star Ushak.” In the former, a large, bold medallion constitutes the dominant motif, often with proportionally large, intricately woven decorative spandrels.
The fields contain finely-woven geometric floral motifs. Borders tend to be wide with cloud bands, palmettesand guls.
Antique Oushak Carpets are often very large, sized for architecture in the Middle East during this time. The medallions resemble designs used on Ottoman manuscript covers.
Scholars attribute the Persian rendering of some of these forms to Tabriz artisans who were taken to Istanbul in the 1470’s. Prayer rugs were also important Oushak rug weavings. Several fine examples illustrate the characteristic ornamentation and color common to Ottoman-period Oushak carpets.
Oushak Carpets Evolution and Cultural Significance
The art of fine rug weaving has been an integral part of the culture and history of the Anatolian peninsula for millennia. Throughout the lands that comprise the present-day nation state of Turkey, rugs have been woven by master weavers over the course of the centuries. As one ruling dynasty gave way to the next, the rug weaving tradition continued uninterrupted.
Over the long centuries that the Turkish people have been practicing this craft, Turkish weavers have been responsible for developing multiple styles and techniques of weaving rugs. They also developed a large array of traditional patterns that are found in antique rugs from all across the Oriental world, even to this day.
Perhaps one of the most famous – and certainly one of the most significant – style of Turkish rugs is that which was developed in the western Turkish town of Oushak. Beginning in the early years of Ottoman rule, around the turn of the thirteenth century, the town of Oushak became an important center of Turkish rug production.
Many of the surviving fifteenth century carpets, that are still intact, can be attributed to Oushak weavers. The birthplace of many widely celebrated patterns, Oushak gave rise to the star and medallion style, which was widely sought after during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Many depictions of antique Eastern rugs in old Western paintings seem to be of the styles designed and woven in Oushak. This small kernel of information is actually rather consequential since the European attitudes toward Oriental rugs would actually play an important factor in the history of the craft. In the late middle ages, for instance, it is notable that Oriental carpets – and, the historical record indicates, Oushak carpets in particular – were rather in vogue. European lords were keen to own these exotic treasures, which were perceived as status symbols and a sign of wealth and discerning taste.
With great demand coming from Europe as well as within Turkey, the production of Oushak rugs became an important commercial enterprise. However, by the seventeenth century, European tastes had changed. Rather than preferring the exotic appearing carpets of the Orient, wealthy Europeans began to purchase rugs that were designed and woven in Europe. Especially central to this development was the introduction of the Aubusson rugs and Savonnerie carpets from France.
The French rugs featured richly decorated and ornate patterns that were more in line with traditional European aesthetic preferences. This development is quite notable as it indicates that the production of Oushak carpets at this time (the late eighteenth through the middle of the nineteenth centuries) was largely centered on orders that were coming predominantly from within the Ottoman Empire itself.
Naturally, this had an influence on the style of rugs that were being produced in Oushak. The Turkish customers generally preferred more traditional and less ostentatious carpets than those favored by their European neighbors. This remained the status quo for more or less a hundred years, until the middle years of the nineteenth century when everything began to change yet again.
During this time period, Europe and the United States had begun the first stages of industrialization. With this new world social order, a middle class began to emerge for the first time. Also, tastes began to shift and suddenly a renewed interest in exotic furnishings from the orient began to take hold.
By the late 19th century, the demand for Oriental carpets was higher than it has ever been. Workshops across Persia and Turkey began producing carpets on a much grander scale than they had before. They were weaving exciting pieces featuring new designs aimed at appealing to the sensibilities of the huge volume of these new Western consumers. In the town of Oushak, in particular, the weavers begun to take note of the designs that were being produced by their Persian counterparts. The antique Persian rugs mostly featured floral motifs that were hugely successful with Western audiences.
This market savvy approach, combined with an ancient weaving tradition, made Oushak an especially important center for rug production during this time. This legacy of rug production in Oushak is quite apparent in the exemplary carpets from this period that grace many homes across the world.
Perhaps the single most intriguing development of this boom in demand is the way it influenced the designs of the Oushak carpets. In addition to adopting the more floral motifs of Persian rugs, that were so popular with Western consumers, the Turkish weavers of Oushak altered their style in a less direct way. They began to bring village weavers into the urban manufactories.
Because the demand for Oushak carpets had grown so immensely and so quickly, there simply weren’t enough classically trained Turkish weavers to satisfy it. As such, those who wove in traditional ways with traditional methods were brought on to relieve some of the burden on the master weavers. Naturally, because of their background in traditional village weaving, these village rug weavers produced Oushak carpets that were less refined and more tribal and nomadic than those that had come before.
Bold geometric large scale designs were woven into these rugs and the knotting was larger than in other pieces. Whether a happy accident, or the as a result of an ingenious master plan, the end result of this process was a new and immediately recognizable style of rugs. Floral and tribal, understated and visceral, these carpets represented a unique coming together of a variety of tastes, and a variety of large-scale historical and cultural developments. The history of Oushak carpets is unique and it is riddled with the kind of fascinating historical developments and apparent coincidences of destiny that make up the most fascinating stories.
A millennia old craft that held a special status to the Turkish people, the weaving of Oushak rugs became important worldwide. This is due to the fact that the demand was so high and sought after. Oushak carpets have most certainly left their mark on the interior design and decorating trends all over the world.