Using Rug Patterns and Motifs to Discover its Story

In times of antiquity, rug artisans used great skill to weave rugs that weren’t just works of art but great stories communicated through a flowing structure of pattern and motif. While it’s undeniable that Oriental and Persian rugs are pleasing to the eye, it can be easy for some collectors to take for granted the communicative power and symbolism invoked through such masterpieces. Deciphering these stories can be an art unto itself but a few basics can start you on the right foot down a path of rich discovery with your antique carpet.

Great rugs are never started out spontaneously; rather there is a great deal of forethought and planning before the first knot is cinched. To communicate their stories, the skilled weavers would often choose symbols to repeat in an organized design most commonly referred to as a pattern. Pattern is often paired with a sense of symmetry, which is a greater organization of the pattern itself. Weavers played off of symmetry with patterns, at times adhering to the familiar while other times confounding expectation to convey the statement of the piece. You’ll find myriads of designs bringing these works of art to life but the grouping of patterns frequently falls into one of three layout types: medallion, one-sided, and all-over. Pattern variations will fall into either the rug's border, which runs the perimeter of the rug, or the field, which is the body of the rug excluding the border that surrounds it.

Patterns are made up of systematic groupings of common motifs. These rug motifs carry great meaning integral to your rug's story. Despite a vast array of motifs from which to choose, a weaver typically only employs a singular motif per rug.
  • Herati: One of the many motifs to use a floral design to great effect, the commonly occurring Herati motif imbeds the floral design within a diamond shape accentuated by leaf-like curvature that reinforces the strong sense of symmetry.
  • Mina-Khani: Appearing frequently in Persian designs, the Mina-Khani motif employs daisy shapes forming a chain linked by diamonds or circles. Mina-Kani is particularly favored as an all-over layout.
  • Boteh: Popular culture embraced the Boteh motif in the ‘60s with paisley making its way into the fashion world. This darling of the all-over layout was meant to evoke natural elements such as fire, water drops, and seedlings.
  • Shah Abbasi: Typically found in borders and finding just as much use in medallion layouts as all-over, the Shah-Abbasi motif is easily recognizable for its distinctive miniature palm design.
  • Gul: Taking its name from the Farsi word meaning “flower”, the Gul motif is an intricate floral pattern quite at home in any manner of layout.
  • Rosette: Frequently relying on the overall picture of the rug, the Rosette motif is a radiant pattern of rose petal shapes that works perfectly for medallion layouts, though can be seen in other layout types.

So what do these motifs and patterns actually mean? There are whole books devoted to the symbolism engrained in these works of art but we’ll take a moment to highlight some of the more popular symbols woven into Persian and Oriental rugs along with their basic meanings.
  • Diamond – femininity, women; when linked it can symbolize the union between man and woman
  • Cross – faith
  • Hand – prayer
  • Lily – pureness, spirituality
  • Lotus – resurrection, immortality
  • Parrot – safety, protection
  • Peony – power
  • Tree of Life – the path traveled from Earth to Heaven
  • Pomegranate – abundance, fertility
  • Star – fortune, good luck, spirituality
  • Snake – protection, wisdom
  • Leaf – the everlasting, resurrection

It’s easy to stoke the flames of curiosity once the wealth of information woven into these majestic rugs is realized. Following the code of symbols and patterns in antique rugs can be a lengthy and challenging experience at times but the rewards are obvious and the journey is often enlightening. Resources on symbolism in rug patterns and motifs are easily accessible. So what is your rug saying to you?
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