Magic carpets – made at home
We are so used to seeing wall-to-wall carpets in modest households that we no longer view them as a luxury. Yet the use of rugs was a relatively recent development in the domestic arts, and as late as the era of the first Queen Elizabeth, the floors of castles and manor houses were strewn with sweet hay and herbs as protection from the cold of the paving. So few rugs had come into England that only 400 were listed on the inventory of royal possessions made in 1547 at the time of the death of Henry VIII, and those 400 were more likely to have been hung on walls than spread on floors. Paintings of the period often show Turkish carpets as table covers, as in the younger Holbein’s portrait of Georg Gisze or, two centuries later in America, in such conversation pieces as Robert Feke’s portrait of Isaac Royall and his family.
With the long tradition of English needlework,`it was inevitable that the craft of rug making, now familiar from the piled Oriental carpets, would be adapted to native skills and tastes. Women of leisure, the chatelaines of large establishments, with armies of servants under their direction to accomplish the drudge work, were freed to devote themselves to more satisfying forms of creativity. It was merely a step from their familiar work in needlepoint on canvas or linen to the larger-scale, room-size rug. Mostly worked in wool – or occasionally in silk – the patterns of the needlepoint rugs were developed in cross-stitch or tent-stitch, with a zest for bright coloration and individual design that signaled a strong sense of artistry in the maker. Like the American patchwork quilt, an English or French needlepoint rug was often the masterwork of a frequently great, but anonymous and unsung, artist.
Professionals, mostly architects, began to take on rug designs in the 18th century. The Palladian villas that began to crowd the English landscape were the products of architects with a flair for history and a yen for perfection. The intricate plasterwork of the ceilings (glorious in some of the Irish Palladian houses), to their eyes, called for an equally intricate, if not matching, design for the floors. Size was another factor that took rug making out of the hands of housewives, since palace-size rugs were too difficult for an inventor to handle.
The growth of leisure in the prosperous 19th century brought about a renaissance of rug making on the domestic level. Well-off Victorian husbands and fathers were proud to relieve their wives and daughters of the more onerous burdens of domesticity, better left to the ill-paid tweeny or scullery maid, while the mistress of the house and her sisters and daughters could devote themselves to the joys of needlework. With what delight they stitched carpets with cabbage roses or tendrils of honeysuckle, or more somberly, the leaves of the honored English oak. Yet it would be a mistake to think of Victorian needlepoint rugs as always somber – often they were gay, if not gaudy, as though the women making them were infiltrating some gypsy wildness into their proper drawing rooms.
Some of the carpets were like botanical studies, rich in color and intricate in design. Or, in a more mannered style, makers would adapt motifs from Gothic stained-glass windows or Persian tiles to fill out a difficult allover pattern. (If the national provenance of a rug is in doubt, a petit point rug in tent stitch is most likely to be French.)
With the appeal of needlepoint rugs undiminished by thime, it was inevitable that some savvy business man would find a way to produce them on a commercial basis. Fortunately this coincided with the long tradition of rug making in Portugal, where a pool of skilled needlewomen had been producing rugs in Arraiolos ever since the 16th century, probably at first under the tutelage of Moorish rug makers. Today, at a guesstimate – so many of them work at home that it is difficult to pin down their exact numbers – 60,000 or os Portuguese women are at work on needlepoint rugs, either as a cottage industry, or in workshops where larger rugs are made. The Portuguese have a long history of adapting to fashion, doing Persian-style rugs when those were in fashion, or Aubusson-style when French designs were wanted, or botanicals when style veered that way. Today the Portuguese needlepointers work mainly to follow the trends of the American market, using whatever color schemes are currently desired by decorators’ clients. In 1985 gors-point rugs cost about $55 a square yard, according to Joan Chatfield-Taylor in the New York Times. Petit-Point was almost twice as expensive, at $90 to $130 a square yard (such prices, naturally, would have to be multiplied for today’s values.)
Still, there is no reason any woman with time and patience cannot follow the Victorian tradition of making her needlepoint rug at home, perhaps to her own design in her own choice of colors. (This suggestion is not meant to slight those gentlemen – often surgeons seeking to keep their fingers supple – whose needlepointing is of the highest order.) One of the finest contemporary needlepoint rugs I have ever seen was stitched by a woman on the staff of Vogue, who made a 9-by-12 rug during the slow times in her department. It was a gem, a current joy and a future heirloom, well worthy to measure up to any antique predecessor.