Only a portion of the lengthy history of rugs and carpets is known. Because the oldest carpets were composed of organic fibers, ancient rugs are extremely uncommon. Because organic fibers break down quickly, it is quite uncommon for them to be preserved for thousands of years. We do know, however, that weaving is an extremely ancient craft that has existed for thousands of years.
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Using grasses, reeds, leaves, and other natural materials, weavers first created crude, uncomplicated mats and baskets. The earliest real “rugs” were presumably rough-cured skins that early hunters used to cover their floors. These rugs helped to insulate and keep the house warmer thanks to their resilient, flexible backing and typically soft substance (referred to as “pile”).
Evidence of rug-making and weaving dates back to ancient Mesopotamia and Turkey, between 7000 and 8000 BCE, and as far back as the third millennium BCE in Egypt (with wool and cotton). The first people to design and weave wool rugs were Chinese weavers and nomadic herders, who were also major actors in the textile business in China and Mongolia.
In addition to Europe, weaving spread over most of the world, dating back as early as 5500 B.C.E. Weavers initially used natural colors before progressively switching to materials made of vegetables, flowers, and insects.
Rug-making was elevated from a need to an art form by the invention of silk in China, the elaborate, detailed embroidery and patterns of Turkey and Mongolia, and the global development of more advanced looms and weaving processes.
Oriental carpets were originally imported to Europe by Italian traders, where they were utilized as wall hangings and floor coverings. A prominent weaver’s guild had emerged in France by 1600, and England wasn’t far behind. England began to weave in the 1700s, and by 1830, a significant amount of the country’s wool production was going toward carpet production.
Numerous devices were developed to facilitate the weaving process, and modern looms are so advanced that computer algorithms power them. Prior to the start of mass manufacturing and the development of industrial grade machinery, rugs were not generally accessible in the United States and Europe.
The first steam-powered loom was introduced in 1787, and carpet manufacturing increased significantly when the Axminster loom, a device that allowed for the unrestricted use of color and pattern, was developed in 1876. The introduction of synthetic fibers and tufted carpet—a type of carpet created by inserting yarn tufts through a backing fabric—made the process of producing and acquiring carpets in large quantities simpler, quicker, and less costly.