From music to woodworking, traditional arts and crafts in Afghanistan are currently enjoying a much-needed revival. During Afghanistan’s conflict years, many of these traditions were discouraged or actively suppressed, and some came close to being lost altogether. Fortunately, increased local and international interest in traditional art forms, along with the support of organizations such as Turquoise Mountain, have led to a recent resurgence of these arts and crafts and a renewed respect for their practitioners.
While many of these traditional art forms hold an almost legendary status in Afghan culture and history, few are more fabled than carpet weaving. Beautiful rugs have been handmade in Afghanistan using the same patterns and techniques for thousands of years. With such a history, it’s little wonder that Afghan carpets are viewed as the heart and soul of Afghan art and craftsmanship. Read on to learn more fascinating facts about the amazing art of Afghan carpet weaving.
1. There are two main categories of Afghan carpets.
Stunning in their diversity, Afghan carpets come in a huge range of patterns, designs, and colors. However, most Afghan carpets fall into one of two broad categories: the Turkoman (or Turkmen) carpet and the Beloutch (or Baluchi) carpet. Turkoman carpets are woven in Northern Afghanistan using wool that is renowned for its luster and hard-wearing qualities. Beloutch carpets come from Western Afghanistan and feature a variety of weaves, designs, and types of wool.
2. Afghan carpets were originally made by nomadic tribes.
Afghan carpets are so diverse because they were originally made by Afghanistan’s many nomadic tribes. Each tribe had patterns and designs that were unique to their group and had been passed down from generation to generation. Up until around the 19th century, it was possible to tell where a carpet originated simply by looking at its design and how it was produced.
3. Afghan tribal rugs are not woven for sale.
Another intriguing fact about the carpets made by Afghanistan’s nomadic tribes is that, historically, they were never produced specifically to be sold. Rather, they were made for use within the community—as coverings for the floors and walls of tents to provide warmth and decoration, as prayer rugs, as seating for mealtimes, and as wedding gifts for a bride’s dowry. Carpets were only taken to market when an older rug fulfilling one of these functions was replaced with a newer rug; the older one would then be sold or traded.
4. Making an Afghan carpet takes time.
Traditional Afghan carpets are made by hand, with weavers meticulously knotting wool threads on horizontal looms. As you can imagine, such a detail-oriented process takes time—a single weaver can usually produce about 1 square meter (roughly 10 square feet) of carpet every month. At this rate, many Afghan carpets can take anywhere from six to nine months to complete, even longer for larger or more specialized pieces.
5. Traditional Afghan carpets are made of all-natural materials.
Wool is the primary material used to make Afghan carpets. Traditionally, nomadic tribes would use the wool of their own sheep, with activities such as shearing the sheep and brushing and spinning the wool considered part of the process of making the carpets.
Silk and cotton may sometimes be used, but most carpet connoisseurs hold that true Afghan carpets are made entirely of wool. Also, in traditional Afghan carpet-making, the dyes used to color the wool come from natural sources such as flowers, fruits, vegetables, and minerals. Many say that the colors provided by these natural pigments only get better with time.
6. Afghan carpet weavers work from memory.
Incredibly, traditional Afghan carpet weavers don’t use diagrams or drawings to create their pieces. Instead, they work from memory, replicating centuries-old patterns that they have learned from previous generations of artisans.
7. Afghanistan’s conflict years inspired artisans to create “war rugs.”
Beginning in the 1980s, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a new type of Afghan carpet began to appear. These rugs were woven in the traditional Afghan style, but instead of geometric designs and patterns, they featured images of war such as weapons, maps, and soldiers. Today, these fascinating carpets are considered important art objects that offer a glimpse of a profound time in history through the eyes of the artisans who lived it.
8. The carpet-weaving industry in Afghanistan is changing.
In this age of globalization, it’s difficult for traditional forms of arts and crafts to compete with their mass-produced counterparts. Today, many Afghan carpets are produced not by weavers in their traditional villages but at factories where weavers may simply knot carpets without playing any role in the design. However, some organizations are working to find a balance between traditional craftsmanship and contemporary demands. Turquoise Mountain, for example, not only helps operate several weaving centers that offer stable employment and good working conditions to carpet artisans, but it also works to find international partners and buyers for the finished carpets.