Handmade Kilims: Forms, Patterns and Types

Symbolic language of handmade kilims includes motifs and signs implemented in their design.

The range of colors and compositions found in kilims is enormous. That ranges from intricate designs in natural, undyed wool to simple, vividly colored geometric patterns.

Kilim owners are often able to trace the origins of their rugs back to a particular tribe, area or town, and many styles can be clearly and easily identified once you know what to look for. The great charm of kilims is that you do not need to be a learned rug expert or academic to be able to spot certain characteristics and pinpoint their origins.

The motifs and designs on handmade kilims often hold the key to their age and origins. They can be developed out of many different influences and disciplines. For instance, the different weaving techniques often determine the style of the motifs used.

Slit-weave produces abstract, stepped or crenelated motif patterns, usually diamond-shaped or triangular. Jajim and Zilou have brocaded “medallions” in the field of the rug. Weft-faced patterning gives a narrow band of geometric and floral patterns across the width of the rug. Soumak is able to produce flowing patterns, representing recognizable images with some accuracy.

Kilim weavers have, over the generations, developed ways of combining weaving techniques to achieve more complicated and elaborate designs.

Kilim Language: Symbols and Motifs

There are three factors that influence the symbols that a weaver will choose for her kilim. The first one is religion, second one is the discipline of the weaving techniques, which produce mostly abstract patterns. The third one is the natural environment in which the weaver lives.
That’s where she will adapt a symbolic language to represent lakes, rivers, flowers, petals, trees,leaves, and animals. She will incorporate images from her own household, such as a kettle, teapot, ewer, comb, beater or lamp. And more recently, She will pick objects of Western influence, including cars, bikes, etc.

Knotted carpets and kilims share many symbols and design elements, despite the complete dissimilarity in their weaving techniques.

The Anatolian motif “Eliblinde” (meaning “hand on hip”) is seen frequently on both flat weave and pile rugs, as are the “gul” (lake) and “gul” (flower). It is difficult to decide whether these motifs first appeared on kilims and were then transferred to knotted carpets, or vice-versa, although quite probably their first origins were in flat weaves.
Some motifs, however, certainly originated on knotted carpets and were later used by kilim weavers, such as the flower and leaf patterns that are common to north Persian handmade kilims and knotted rugs alike.

The motif used on many Central Asian and Turkmen kilims, the “tree”, is a convenient geometric pattern. The tree complies with all the requisites of slit weave. It has short slits and a stepped, crenelated design.
This symbol is not a representation of a tree, but it does resemble one, vaguely, and so it is convenient to give it a name by which it can be easily identified and described. More complex, and intriguing, examples of this are the so-called “lover’s quarrel” and “pair of birds” motifs, or the double-hooked “ram’s horns” and “camel’s neck” symbols.

A pattern or design can have different names and interpretations in different regions. The “ladder” symbol is a narrow guard strip. It is frequently used on many kilims to separate the field from its major borders. The same feature, when seen on Turkmen carpets from Central Asia is known as “camel’s teeth“.
The boteh is a very common design element frequently referred to as a hook, curl, peacock or bird’s head. “Hand motif” sometimes identified as the signature of a particular weaver. It is often said to be a representation of the five pillars of Islam, or the prophet Mohammed and his four Caliphs, or the hand of Fatima.

Perhaps the most familiar motif used on kilims and knotted rugs is the “Tree of Life“. Closer to the true nature of symbolism, this Tree of Life has multiple interpretations and meanings, such as the presence of water in desert lands, or the family tree, with the father trunk and the child branches.

Another genuinely symbolic motif is the talismanic evil eye, or “nazarlik“, used to deflect evil and to balance the adverse effects of other motifs on the kilim, such as the spider or scorpion. 

On many modern kilims, made in the last thirty years or so, ancient motifs have been misrepresented, or given a new twist, because the weaver has not been aware of the origins of the design she is using. Modern weavers often work from “cartoons” or pictures of old rugs, recreating them for an enthusiastic Western market. Original motifs will be modified in this process to suit a pre-ordained shape or weaving technique, and so the evolution of the ancient design continues under modern conditions.

Motifs in Unusual Forms of Kilims

Prayer kilims

The devout Muslim must wash his hands, face and feet, find a pure surface and prostrate himself in prayer five times a day. The prayer kilim, with its distinctive Mehrab or “prayer niche” composition, is ideal as a small, transportable and clean surface that may be laid on the ground, with the top of the Mehrab pointing to Mecca.
It must be said that any clean floor mat, kilim or carpet can be used for prayer, but the Mehrab design provides a specific focus and a link with Islamic spiritual traditions.

But even the Mehrab symbol can be variously interpreted. Its origins can be traced to the arch that is found at the center of the wall that faces Mecca in all mosques, and prayer kilims are therefore sometimes used as mosque door hangings and decorations.
Prayer kilims are found throughout Anatolia, Kurdistan, Khorasan and west Afghanistan. They form an important part of the weaver’s dowry and are often woven for the head of a family or as a gift to the local mosque. Single-arch prayer kilims are of a common size, about 5 feet by 3 feet, but the shapes of the Mehrab vary enormously. There are, at one extreme, elaborate architectural forms supported by columns, often with ornate lamp and tree decorations, such as can be seen in central Anatolian examples.
These contrast with the simplified and almost unnoticeable Mehrabs of the west Afghanistan prayer kilims. Kilims featuring multiple arches, known as “saf”, are rare and exclusive to Anatolia. Their large size, about twelve or fourteen feet long with up to seven niches in horizontal or vertical rows, implies a family use or a decorative function.

Sofreh and Rukorsi

Khorasan Sofrekord
Khorasan Sofrekord

These are distinctively shaped kilims, largely woven by Kurdish and Baluch tribes.
Sofreh, in Persian, means “small rug”. They take the form of small runners, above five feet in length and about one-and-a-half feet wide. Both types are easily identifiable by their zigzag motifs, penetrating two sides of a plain, madder red or camel-hair field. The borders are frequently of soumak or knotted work, and these delicate techniques perfectly complement the plain ground.
Sofreh runners are woven by the Baluch as “fill-in” rugs, to lie around the edges of a large room-sized carpet. Rukorsi kilims, about four feet square, are used as covers for charcoal braziers or bread ovens. In the depths of winter, layers of felt topped by a Rukorsi kilim make a warm family blanket.


Namakdan or  Namak donneh
Namakdan or Namak donneh

Tapestry-woven bags are made alongside kilims for practical everyday, but very different uses. Nomadic people have little use for furniture, except for low chairs and wooden chests. Hence, flat woven bags are used for storage and transport.

Double bags, (called “Khoorjeen” in Persian, and Heybe in Turkish) are used as a small pannier for vegetables and foodstuffs. Larger bags, up to three feet square, are set across the backs of camels and donkeys as saddle packs.

Bedding and clothing bags include the cradle-like Maffrash of Anatolia and the Caucasus, and the pairs of Juvals from Khorasan and Afghan.

Similar to, but smaller than juvals, the Turkmen jaloor bags have long tassels and, like the juvals, are hung on the frame of the yurt for storage. Salt bags, “Namak donneh“, are most distinctive in shape, with a long narrow neck that may be folded over to seal the bag and preserve the valuable contents from moisture.

Kilim symbols, their various names and surmised meanings presented here are only the bare building-blocks of kilim language.


Reference: Persian Kilims by Alistair Hull, Nicholas Bernard

Read More:

The origin of Persian Kilim

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