What is Kilim?

Kilim rug is a flat-woven rug, or rug without a knotted pile. There are many variations used in different languages: gelim in Iran, kelim in Afghanistan, kylym in the Ukraine, palas in the Caucasus, bsath in Syria and Lebanon, chilim in Rumania and kilim again, in Turkey, Poland, Hungary and Serbia. Moreover, flat-weaving is found in some form all over the world, from the Great Plains of North America to Scandinavia and Indonesia.

Kilim weaving with a very long history of antiquity is one of the most ancient products of Iran nomads. Unlike the carpet that can be used only from one side, Kilim rug can be used from both sides.

Kilim designs are made by passing colored wefts around the wrap that itself remains hidden. Most of the designs are geometrical and rooted from nature and the weaver’s surroundings. The secret of Kilim color scheme has a direct connection with color miracle of the nature.

The difference between a kilim rug and a regular carpet or pile rug is that whereas the design visible on the kilim rug rugis made by interweaving the variously colored wefts and warps, thus creating what is known as a flat weave, in a pile rug individual short strands of different color, usually of wool, are knotted onto the warps and held together by pressing the wefts tightly against each other.

Until recently the kilim rug in general has been considered the poor relation of the Oriental knotted carpet by collectors and traders alike. For generations this view has prevailed, and the majority of books on rugs dismiss the kilim in a few sentences as an inferior and simple tribal product. In the last two decades, however, there has been an explosion of interest in the decorative, utilitarian and collectible qualities of these remarkable objects. Today, kilims captivate an ever-widening audience throughout the Western world.

Structure and Color of Kilims

The color scheme and the woven designs of the Iranian floor coverings are another miracle of talent, taste and abilities of the urban, rural and tribal women carpet weavers. Most of the designs and motifs are taken from the surrounding environments of the weavers, giving life to their images, hopes and dreams.

Material Used in Kilims

Until the twentieth century many tribes were utterly self-sufficient in their weaving, a situation unknown in Europe since the middle Ages. The source of the wool or animal hair, the streams to soak the fleeces, the plants and compounds for dyeing and the timber to make the frame for the loom were all found within their tribal boundaries, whether they were nomadic or semi-nomadic. Throughout Central Asia the dominant source of yarn has always been the domesticated sheep, of which there are three types, fat-tailed, long-tailed and fat-rumped.


Camels, goats and horses also provide a source for yarn. Goat hair is trimmed next to the skin, from beneath the unkempt fleece, and is used for its strength and its attractive, high sheen.

A better insulator than sheep’s wool, camel hair is shorn from the neck, throat and chin, and plucked from the coat during the spring moult. Camel hair is used for both the weft and warp in kilim rugs, to rich and subtle effect, especially when it is left undyed.

Horse hair from the mane and tail is often tied in tassels on bags and, like goat hair; it gives added strength in binding and finishing a kilim. White cotton has always been used by certain tribes, and is becoming increasingly popular as away of highlighting designs and patterns. Unlike white wool, cotton does not turn cream or ivory in color with age. Its structural qualities are also much valued.

Cotton and wool mixtures are found in nineteenth-century kilims, and the spinning of the materials together results in a fine, strong yet supple yarn.

Cleaned wool and cotton is carded by drawing the fibers over and through pins set into a block of wood, or with the fingers alone.

Shearing of the wool takes place once a year in spring or early summer. The fleece is shorn from the sheep with hand scissors or clippers, then washed, dried and washed again in a repeated process until the wool is clean. Soft water is ideal for cleansing the wool, and good streams and pools are jealously guarded by families over generations, their rights of use being an important part of the dowry exchange. The Qashqai of southern Persia scour their wool in a boiling solution of bicarbonate of soda or potash to remove excess natural fats and lanolin and in the Caucasus the fleece is pounded lightly with a thin board on stones to loosen the dirt. The cleaning and preparation of the fleece for spinning is complete after drying in the sun for a short time.

The deft touch that rhythmically twirls the spindle twists the wool fibers together to create the yarn. The very simplest spinning tools are used for spinning, from a stone weight, or a flat stick rotated horizontally, to various types of spindle. The drop spindle is a vertical wooden or metal shaft driven through a weight, known as a whorl.

Whatever the structure of the yarn, it is the process of hand spinning that gives so much character to the finished kilim rug. Hand-spun wool has a fairly loose twist with the fibers arranged nearly parallel to its length, and will give the surface of the kilim rug a smooth finish that soon acquires a supple sheen and lustre that enhance the colors used. Modern machine-spun wool, by contrast, is composed of fine, often frizzy and broken wool with inter-meshed fibers that reflect the light less well.

“The purest and most thoughtful minds are those that love color the most.” John Ruskin could almost have been describing the weavers of the gloriously colorful kilims of nineteenth-century Anatolia and the Caucasus. It is color and the way that color is shaped by pattern that give kilim rugs their abstract beauty. Throughout all pre-industrial cultures the art of dyeing yarn was an elevated and often highly secretive profession. Different regions and peoples became famous throughout the known world for their ingredients and dyes -the Phoenicians for their purple, the Indus valley for its reds and blues. Although we know exactly the ingredients used, the processes of manufacture are a mystery. Family and individual secrets were carried to the grave.

All natural dyes except indigo and some lichen and bark dyes, and all chemical dyes need a mordant to penetrate the yarn and fix the color. A term derived from the Latin mordere (to bite), the mordant attacks or bites the yarn so that the dye can take, and in so doing weakens the fibers to various degrees, depending on the type of mordant used. Yarn May be mordanted before, during or after the dyeing process, although the best results are achieved if it is mordant before dyeing, and different mordants produce different colors from the same dyes. Mordants used in ancient times include compounds or solutions of wood ash, roots, urine, leaves and fruits. Today substances such as acetic acid, caustic soda, slaked lime, salt and the metallic salts of alum, chrome, iron and tin are used.

Until the mid-nineteenth century only colored dyes from animal, vegetable and mineral sources were known and there were thriving industries associated with the cropping and mining of the raw materials throughout Asia. In towns and villages yarn would be taken to professional dyers, and naturally dyed yarn could be bought in the markets.
All kilim rugs made before the 1850s were, therefore, naturally dyed, a process that has continued until very recently. Nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples, making kilim rugs for their own use, sometimes had access to natural dyestuff -substances that grew wild amongst their grazing animals – and so the women would collect herbs, flowers and roots for their own special color recipes. The migratory life only allowed for the carriage of small quantities of dyed wool, made up a batch at a time, and this is one explanation for the natural variations in color found in the older kilims. People in desert areas, like the Baluch were often unable to obtain dyestuff from their barren environment and could afford the pigments from traders and tinkers. Instead, they displayed an acute feeling for natural wool and hair colors.

Kurd woman
Kurd woman

The Baluch are still the masters of this art, using camel hair that ranges from white and light yellow to dark brown, with sheep’s wool in ivory and brown. Black and grey goat hair completes this subtle palette.

One of the oldest known dyes is a deep blue from the leaves of the delicate indigo recorded in use as early as the third millennium B.C.

Indigo is a native plant of southern Asia and was traded throughout Asia in great quantities in powdered form. The crushed leaves are soaked overnight or the powder dissolved in water to release a colorless agent. The yarn is dipped into this dye bath to soak, and as it is withdrawn from the vat, the color develops on contact with the air. Each dipping, or a lengthy soak, will produce a darker color and in this way every shade from sky-blue, through mid-blue, to almost black may be obtained. Indigo blue is pure and fast, resistant to sun, washing, acids and alkaline; but it is susceptible to friction as the less exposed or oxidized central fibers are revealed.

Madder root is the most common natural source of red dyes, and is known to have been v use in the Indus valley over 4500 years ago. Madder is a wild perennial, found from minor to China, With a deeply penetrating root structure; these roots are peeled before being ground into a powder ready for the dye bath. The intensity of the madder red varies with the age of the plant, from a terracotta red from three-year-old roots, to a deep purple at seven years. The mordants used must include a metallic salt and an alkali before we dye will bite and the final color will also depend on the mix of mordants.

Alum yields a red to orange shade, whereas iron gives a range of colors from violet to lemon yellow. Madder root dyes are light-fast and resistant to friction and alkalis but not to acids. A whole spectrum of natural colors can be obtained from the flowers, fruit, vegetables and insects – even the earth – in the kilim-producing areas.

The following list gives a good idea of the sheer range of materials used, and of the ingenuity of the dyers and weavers:

  • Reds Madder root, poppy, cherry and pomegranate skins, the bark of rhamnus and jujuba trees, roots of roses, rhubarb and apricots, petals from tulips and various insects such as cochineal.
  • Blues Indigo and egg-plant (aubergine) skin.
  • Yellows Safflower petals and buds, lemon and pomegranate rinds, onion skin, saffron, turmeric and the flowers of yellow larkspur and sophora, fresh stems of artemisia, leaves of apricot, apple, willow and wild pistachio trees.
  • Orange Grass roots, bark of plum trees or madder-dyed yarn dipped into a boiled solution of pomegranate husks, or of poplar leaves, or willow leaves.
  • Greens Walnut and olive tree leaves, sweet violet, double dyeing of a yellow with indigo.
  • Browns and blacks Tea, tobacco, mud and volcanic mud, iron oxide, and leaves of wild pistachio trees or walnut bark in combination with ferrous sulphate.

All of these natural dyes (with the exception of yellow) retain their colors extraordinarily well, but they do begin to fade naturally after about fifty years and will run if not well fixed. The positive aspect of this is that a kilim rug will mellow beautifully over the years if traditionally made with natural dyes.

Chemical dyes were first developed in England, in the 1850s, by W. H. Perkin, a chemist who synthesized a mauve aniline dye from a coal tar solution. He began a color revolution – the laborious and relatively expensive task of producing colors by natural means was superseded.

The immediate results of the use of these new dyes in kilims and carpets were a reduction in the cost of dyes for the weavers, and a certain amount of disapproval among kilim rug connoisseurs in the West. For the first time, the weavers had a complete and relatively easy choice of colors, free from the limitations, and the natural aesthetic integrity, of the natural sources available to them in their homelands. Vivid oranges and yellows that had been so difficult to fix in the past were now readily available and easier to use. The use of chemical dyes spread rapidly, spawning village industries and reaching even the least accessible and most self-sufficient weavers of all, the nomadic tribes’ women.

Kilims produced in the first flush of this new craze display a rather startling use of many different, not always harmonious colors, and until recently some chemical dyes, such as aniline and acid-based dyes, corroded the wool, faded quickly and would not withstand washing with detergents. But chemical dyes do not always result in clashing color effects, or poor durability. In the last thirty years chrome-mordant colors have been developed that are indistinguishable, when used well, from natural dyes. Ironically, it is in these same thirty years that the natural dye lobby among consumers and collectors in the West has met with some success. Classes of instruction in the art of natural dyeing and a price premium for kilims with vegetable dyes have ensured a contemporary revival in traditional techniques among the kilim producers of Anatolia.

Reference: Persian Kilims, by Alistair Hall and Nicholas Barnard

Read More:

The Origin of Persian Handmade Kilim


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