A History of Carpets, and the Carpet Industry

Steve Newman Writer
Jun 14, 2018 · 11 min read
The Ardebil Carpet. Victoria & Albert Museum London

There was a time when the carpet industry, and the history of carpets, was taken seriously, and was well documented, with those involved writing books and learned articles on the subject, most notably C.E.C. Tattersall’s and S. Reed’s huge, The History of British Carpets, which first came out in 1934, with an updated edition re-issued in 1966 by F. Lewis & Co.

Many years ago I was a carpet buyer for a couple of department store groups, and in the 1980s I also came across Afghan rugs that depicted the Russian occupation of that country. I bought hundreds of the things and created quite a stir when I got the press and TV involved. I also managed to get the wonderful Afghan writer, Amina Shah, sister of the novelist, Idries Shah, involved in helping to publicize the rugs, which were eventually sold at auction to raise money for Afghan refugees.

Most of Britain’s and the US’s long established industries — especially those reliant on heavy plant, and relatively large work forces — have gone through periods of huge growth, development and optimism, followed by even longer periods of downturn, stagnation, and demise. The carpet industry is no exception to this pattern but has managed, by mergers and takeovers, to keep on going, just.

But perhaps one of the biggest changes the carpet industry has suffered over the years — especially in the UK — is the decimation of its once proud geographic base. Go to Kidderminster today (once the very heart of Britain’s carpet industry) and you’ll soon discover that most of the carpet factories are now long gone, with most of the sites turned into the ubiquitous shopping centre, multi-storey car parks, or housing estate. It’s also rather ironic to observe that one of the many new roads built in Kidderminster’s town centre is called ‘Carpet Trades Way’, which you might consider to be something of a tribute until you discover it’s a dead end.

Travel a hundred miles or so north to Halifax in Yorkshire and you will discover that even the awesome Dean Clough Mills — once the blackened, and bustling 24 hour home of John Crossley & Sons, and a place of carpet manufacture since the 1820s — has become a sandblasted smoke free heritage centre.

But all is not gloom, with some of the old established Kidderminster companies, such as Brinton Carpets — who, since 1783, have manufactured carpets for virtually every member of the Royal Family are still very much in business, as are Tomkinsons, who, in the 1870s, were the first in Britain to use — on licence from its American inventor, Halcyon Skinner — the steam powered Jacquard Gripper Axminster loom.

But the British and US carpet industry didn’t start in Kidderminster, but in Asia Minor (the ancient name for Anatolia), around 1000 years BC, and was thereafter unknowingly championed by the creator of the Mongolian Empire, Genghis Khan.

The oldest carpet known to man is the so called Pazyryk carpet, which is approximately two metres square, with a design we would now consider to be Persian in origin, but constructed with a Turkish (Ghiordes) knot — suggesting its origins are indeed Anatolian. It was discovered by the Russian archaeologist Sergei Rudenko in 1949, during his excavations of an extensive burial site in the Pazyryk valley of Southern Siberia, very close to the border with Outer Mongolia. The carpet was one of many splendid artefacts found in the deep frozen tomb of a Scythian chieftain, who had been buried along with his favourite horse, and an elaborately carved wooden chariot. Now on show at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, the Pazyryk carpet depicts, close to its outer edges, Scythian warriors on horseback (who appear very Mongolian in looks and dress), with what (surrounding the inner field of the carpet) appears to be grazing antelope. The inner field itself shows a very stylized depiction of a formal garden. Scientist have estimated the date of the Pazyryk carpet to be around 500 BC, with it’s artistry suggesting a carpet weaving tradition going back at least another 500 years before that. It is thought the Scythians died out around 400 BC, but it is possible they may have simply dispersed, later metamorphosing into the infant Mongolian clans who made their home in virtually the same corner of the world in the early centuries of the first millennium.

The Pazyryk Carpet

The Mongolians do seem to have inherited many Scythian traits — most notably fine horsemanship, and a fierce fighting ability, plus a love of well-crafted artefacts. And the idea of placing valuable objects, including carpets, in the tombs of revered leaders is a tradition the Mongolians themselves have followed over the centuries.

When the 21 year old Mongolian, Temujin, was re-named Genghis Khan by the tribal elders on the high plains of Karakorum in 1183, one of the greatest empires the world has ever known was born. At Genghis Khan’s death, in 1227 — after a fall from his horse — the Mongol Empire he’d created stretched from the Eastern shores of China to the forests of Hungary. Although the Khan of Khans (King of Kings) was a ruthless military leader, he was also a brilliant administrator, and patron of the arts, filling his tents — or yurts — with silver and gold statues, paintings, fabrics, and the finest carpets. Wherever the Mongol army went artisans went too, and it was in this way that carpet weavers, originally from Persia and Babylon, were seconded to the Mongol army. Their skills soon became part of the mercantile infrastructure of every country the Khan conquered. With the coming of the Yuan Dynasty in China in 1279 — founded by Genghis’ grandson, Kublai Khan — the art of carpet weaving soon spread throughout the Great Khan’s vast Chinese empire, which, along with book printing, sculpture, painting, and the manufacture of fine ceramics undoubtedly helped lay the foundations for the upsurge of artistic endeavours that flourished during the Ming dynasty that followed.

Genghis Khan. Illustration: Fancy Frindle

In 1525 the legendary Babur (the Moghul ruler of Afghanistan, and himself a distant relative of Genghis Khan) invaded India and, like his famous forebear, took carpet weavers along too.

By the time the East India Company arrived in India in the 17th century carpet weaving had spread across most of the Indian sub-continent, with, by the 18th century a lucrative trade established with Britain. Literally thousands of carpets were sent back to Britain every year to be sold in the new furnishing and haberdashery stores opening in London, Bath, Bristol, and Edinburgh. The second half of the 19th century saw the British Empire consolidate its hold on India, thereby creating more and more opportunities for hundreds of British businessmen. By the late 19th century, and well into the last third of the 20th century, most of India’s vast hand-knotted carpet production was controlled by English companies, most notably the Oriental Carpet Manufacturing Company (OCM) of London, who built several large factories in India, all controlled from their headquarters in the Grays Inn Road. A company, now sadly long gone.

Illustration: Levantine Heritage Foundation

What is probably still considered to be a typically Indian carpet, namely one consisting of a dense white pile woven from coarse wool, invariably with a pastel shaded central medallion, with matching quarter medallions in each corner, is in fact a British design concept of the 1880s (based on the French ‘Aubusson’ design) which OCM considered ideal for the British market. They were right too, with millions of pieces sold over the years. Just before the Second World War a typical 12' x 9' Indian carpet would have cost you in the region of £12/18/6. You’ll be hard pressed to find one on sale anywhere today.

It must be mentioned that due to the Armenian massacres during the period of the First World War, and later, many Armenian carpet and rug dealers created businesses in London. One was Oundjian’s of London, a wonderful family firm I dealt with for many years.

The lasting legacy of those early carpet weavers from ancient Persia and Babylon, who followed in the wake of Ghengis Khan’s great armies, is the Persian (or Senneh) knot they used, which to this day is how most, if not all, hand woven carpets from China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Persia are produced. When using the Persian knot — or more accurately a loop — each end of the knot protrudes between adjacent vertical warp threads. This method enables the weaver to create a very tight and very smooth finish, which helps delineate the design. It would be this method of hand weaving that inspired most of the 19th century British carpet manufacturers — most notably Wilton Royal, and A.F. Stoddard — to produce densely woven machine made Wilton carpets that invariably, and logically, used Persian designs, or by contrast a very smooth plain velvet finish. But it would take a famous church man, and politician, to inspire another style of British carpet.

Cardinal Wolsley

Cardinal Wolsey imported the first 60 pieces of ‘Turkey Work’ carpets into Britain in 1520, all destined for his quarters at Hampton Court, where they were greatly admired by Henry VIII. As a result they were considered by the aristocracy to be highly prized items of home furnishings. Over the next 150 years tens of thousands of the distinctive red and blue Turkish carpets were imported into Britain, and can often be seen in paintings from the time, usually covering large tables. As with the Pazyryk carpet Wolsey’s Turkish carpets were woven with the Ghiordes (Turkish) knot, which differs from the Senneh knot in that both ends of the knot — or loop — protrude through the centre of each pair of vertical warp threads creating, when compared with fine Persian carpets, a much more open, and deeper pile texture, with designs that, as a consequence, are much less clear, in fact almost impressionistic. These carpets were to be the inspiration for the famous hand-woven Axminster carpets, and later their machine woven successors that came to prominence in the second half of the 19th century, both here and in America.

Thomas Whitty, a cloth weaver of Axminster in Devon, heard about the Turkish carpets in the early 1750s, and thought that if he could produce similar pieces locally, and more cheaply, he could make a good deal of money. But where was he to see a good specimen of a Turkey carpet? On a visit to London in 1754 he called upon an ironmonger friend, and supplier, who had just taken delivery of a Turkey carpet measuring an amazing 36 feet x 21 feet. Whitty decided there and then to try and replicate the carpet. After several failed attempts he managed to build a loom wide enough and strong enough for such an endeavour. After producing samples on a smaller loom, and procuring orders from both individuals and shop owners, he set about re-training himself, and his cloth weavers as master carpet weavers. He then employed a dozen local children aged between 8 and 13 who, under the guidance of himself, and the master weavers, produce the finished product. The use of children made sense — and we mustn’t allow 21st century sensibilities to interfere too much here — in that they were able to tie the Turkish Knot much more easily, and more quickly, than Whitty, or his men could ever have done. And of course the children themselves became master weavers, who eventually would oversee what quickly became a growing, and lucrative business, alongside the beautiful river Ax.

Thomas Whitty. Illustraton: Midweek Herald

When the Prince Regent contracted Whitty to weave the carpets for the State Rooms of his Pavilion at Brighton — and they were the first to be completely ‘fitted’ to the shape of the rooms — the future of Whitty’s ‘Axminster’ carpet manufacturing concern was assured. Look today at an Axminster carpet produced by the Axminster Carpet Company — still situated alongside the river Ax — and you will recognise the style, and the heritage immediately.

Whitty’s Factory in the 1910s. Photo;Midweek Herald

With the coming of the Industrial Revolution — and the invention of the department store in the middle of the 19th century, which began to shape the purchasing desires of the burgeoning middle-classes — things began to move quickly within the carpet industry, with innovation following innovation, most notably the Gripper Axminster loom that increased the speed of production hugely, which inevitably reduced prices and increased volume sales that were already becoming linked to a housing boom that, by the 1880s, was increasing two-fold every year.

Hand woven Chenille Axminster Loom 1890s. Photo: Bill Draper
The new automatic Gripper Axminster Looms in action in Kidderminster 1890s

In the 1940s a group of American textile technicians took part of the Gripper Axminster method of weaving, and part of the Wilton method of weaving, and created a wholly non-woven method of creating a carpet called ‘tufting’. All tufting means is that the same creels with the same bobbins feed the face of a tufting machine instead of a loom, with each individual thread loaded into a line of large fixed needles placed at the face of a pre-woven fabric that is destined to become the backing of the carpet. Each needle then passes through and back out of the pre-woven backing at speed as it moves forward, creating — as with the Wilton — a loop which is then cut by a blade at the end of the needle. At full throttle a tufting machine can produce upward of ten kilometres a day. This invention, coupled with that of Nylon and Acrilic yarns, changed the carpet industry for ever.

Illustration: Graces Guide

In Britain a market trader called Cyril Lord was the first to bring tufted carpets into Britain, selling directly, via the press and commercial radio, from old warehouses around the country. And at 19/11 a square yard a Cyril Lord carpet was soon in virtually every home in Britain.

Cyril Lord: Photo: MySpace

The old established manufacturers tried to fight back but without completely re-tooling it was impossible. Many of them became complacent. How could Axminsters and Wiltons costing, in the late 1950s, over £4 a square yard, compete? As mentioned at the start of this feature, The Carpet Manufacturing Company tried, with the creation of Kosset Carpets Ltd, to fight back — and did for a while -but the harm had been done, and long established businesses began to suffer, and then go out of business, as did Cyril Lord of course, but that was probably due to ‘bad’ accounting more than anything else. New brash retailers, such as Allied Carpets — with their vast stores — came along and pushed the department stores almost out of the picture with ever decreasing prices, free underlay, and free fitting offers. Suddenly the British and US carpet industry was no longer about quality and craftsmanship.

Today carpet retailers and manufacturers are struggling, although one tufted manufacturer, Cormar Carpets, is happily still going strong, as are a handful of Axminster and Wilton manufacturers, one being the aforementioned Whitty’s Axminster Carpets, who still rely on excellent quality and good service, which is where the carpet industry started.

Steve Newman Writer

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I'm a playwright, editor, director, poet and writer, lyricist and historian living and working in Shakespeare’s Stratford…