In the 17th century French artists and weavers employed by King Henri IV invented the art of making Savonnerie Rugs. We explore why these rugs command over a million dollars at Sotheby’s, what makes them so artistically and technically demanding to make and why their technique has never been copied by oriental rug weavers.
1. This Savonnerie carpet with vibrant blues, gold and red can pose a challenge to a decorator. But the early 20th century Parisian decorator knew how to create a fabulous setting for it in the Salon des Huets in the Musee Nissim de Camondo, Paris.
What is a Savonnerie Rug?
History of Savonnerie Rugs
The Savonnerie got it’s start when Henri IV (King of France from 1589 to 1610) became alarmed by how rapidly the national treasury was being depleted by the importation of Oriental rugs and luxury textiles from the east to satisfy the growing appetite for these goods among his nobles who were keen to emulate the extravagant furnishings of the royal palaces. Henri decided to stop the drain of French silver by setting up the manufacture of Oriental Carpets within France and by reviving the manufacture of the French indigenous luxury products the making of which had declined during the civil strife caused by the Wars of Religion.
Henri IV asked Pierre DuPont, who had traveled in the Levant, to start the manufacture of carpets and provided him with workshop space within the Louvre palace itself.
In 1627 Louis XIII (King of France from 1610 to 1643) granted DuPont and his former apprentice Simon Lourdet an eighteen year monopoly for making carpets. DuPont and Lourdet eventually quarreled and Lourdet set up a separate carpet workshop in a disused soap factory (French savon) and the rugs made there became known as Savonnerie rugs.
These early Savonnerie carpets were made of wool, with small amounts of silk in details and are made in the Ghiordes knot (also known as the Turkish knot) and have about ninety knots per square inch. In the beginning they made copies of Persian rugs, but eventually a distinctive French style emerged featuring dense flowers and leafy vines inspired by patterns found in the friezes of classical Roman buildings as well as pictorial or armorial framed medallions all enclosed within multiple borders. The background colors were deep blue, black and deep brown. The medallions and borders could have cream backgrounds.
The best Savonnerie carpets were made after 1664 during the administration of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Minister of Finances under Louis XIV. Colbert strengthened French manufacturing and brought the economy back from the brink of bankruptcy.
Until 1768, the products of the Savonnerie Manufactory were exclusively for the palaces of the King, and Savonnerie carpets were coveted as the grandest of French diplomatic gifts.
At it’s height the Savonnerie Manufactory admitted sixty orphans aged ten to twelve for six year apprenticeships and upon qualifying one person would be selected as the maîtrise (master) and the rest would work as journeymen (a term originally used in medieval trade guilds for a skilled worker who has successfully completed an official apprenticeship in a craft and is considered competent, qualified and authorized to work in that field).
The apprentices were also instructed in the art of design and a painter from the Académie would come once a month to inspect their projects.
3. Hand painted rendering for a Savonnerie rug. Image courtesy Pierre Frey.
After some years the Savonnerie Manufactory fell into decline due to financial difficulties brought about by Louis XIV war campaigns and it’s management was combined with the Manufacture des Gobelins*, a tapestry factory in Paris which was then under the direction of Robert de Cotte, architect of the Bâtiments du Roi (Department of the Household of the Kings of France) but still the workers were often left unpaid and the looms were frequently idle even though in 1712 it was elevated to Manufacture Royale.
During the 18th century the manufactory attempted to update older designs with lighter and brighter colors and introduced Rococo motifs. Later in the eighteenth century they produced panels for screens, firescreens and wall-hangings. The French Revolution (1789–1799) brought the Savonnerie Manufactory to it lowest level. Royal symbols in the carpets such as crowns and fleurs-de-lys were cut out as they symbolized feudalism. The Savonnerie Manufactory was revived when Napoleon became Emperor in 1804 and commissioned carpets designed by his favorite artists
Charles Percier and Pierre François Fontaine who developed what became know as the Directoire and Empire styles. The stock of older drawings were sent to the new Louvre Museum. Finally in 1825, the Savonnerie Manufactory was merged with the Manufacture des Gobelins bringing to end its existence as an independent entity.
How the Art of Savonnerie Rugs was Developed
Before Louis XIV asked French artists to develop a French style of carpet, the Savonnerie Manufactory merely copied Turkish rugs because that was what was in fashion at that time.
However, the French artists whom Louis XIV commissioned were very familiar with creating depth perspective in painting and it was natural that they would use this technique to make paintings for Savonnerie carpets.
The challenge the Savonnerie weavers faced was to develop a technique for reproducing the three dimensionality in a woven carpet. It had never been done before because oriental rugs have always been made with flat two dimensional patterns. It was now up to the French weavers and dyers to invent new techniques for dyeing yarns and weaving carpets to depict depth perspective. They came up with an ingenious method that required dying yarns in hundreds of subtle shades and then combining several yarns to produce even more shades as we shall see below.
The blue pom tray showing the many shades of blue that will be used weave the blue motifs in the cartoon in image 4.The shades of blue range from dirty greenish blues at the top left, to dark blues at the bottom right. Photo courtesy Alexandre Mostras and Stephanie Thomas.
The close shades of blue will be used to create gradual shading using a special technique called battages developed at the Savonnerie Manufactory. This technique for creating three dimensional looking motifs is so painstaking and intricate, it has never been successfully copied by the rug weaving centers of the east. To date only European rugs such as Aubusson, Savonnerie and Needlepoint rugs have depth perspective.
How Savonnerie Rugs are Made
Savonnerie carpets are made on an upright loom. The weaver unrolls the hand painted design (called a cartoon) to the part being woven. The white cotton warps are stretched vertically between two steel rollers. A pencil outline of the pattern is sketched on the warp threads to serve as a guide for the weaver. Photo courtesy Wikimedia.
Wool and silk yarns are dyed in the colors depicted in the painted design. Yarn tufts of each color (called poms) are arranged in a tray so the entire color palette of the Savonnerie carpet can be seen at a glance. Photo courtesy Alexandre Mostras and Stephanie Thomas.
This tray shows shades of pink, rose and red that will be used in the Savonnerie carpet depicted in the cartoon in image 4. Photo courtesy Alexandre Mostras and Stephanie Thomas.
This tray shows the shades of yellow, gold and greenish-gold that will be used to make the Savonnerie carpet. Photo courtesy Alexandre Mostras and Stephanie Thomas.
Yarns of several close shades of green are combined on a single bobbin. When you weave with these combined yarns the shading is more gradual and the depth perspective is heightened. By combining yarns of several close shades the weaver is able to create hundreds of subtle shades. Photo courtesy Alexandre Mostras and Stephanie Thomas.
The cartoon is painted on a long sheet of paper and is of the same size as the carpet on the loom. The weavers unroll the section of the cartoon they are weaving. Several weavers work at the same time on a carpet. The table has all the bobbins needed for this Savonnerie carpet.
Photo courtesy Alexandre Mostras and Stephanie Thomas.
Strong cotton warp threads run up and down and are held at high tension between two horizontal steel rollers at the top and bottom of the loom. The outline of the pattern is drawn on the warps to guide the weaver. This picture is taken from the back of the rug, the weavers sit facing the front of the rug. Photo courtesy Alexandre Mostras and Stephanie Thomas.
After tying a row of knots the weaver tamps them down with a heavy steel comb. Photo courtesy Alexandre Mostras and Stephanie Thomas.
Tamping the knots with a heavy steel comb packs the knots densely making the rug more durable. Photo courtesy Alexandre Mostras and Stephanie Thomas.
After a row of knots have been tied, a cotton weft thread is passed from left to right and back again. The weft thread will secure the row of knots in place. The warp threads runs vertically and the weft threads run horizontally and they together form a grid that keeps the knots securely in place. Photo courtesy Alexandre Mostras and Stephanie Thomas.
A weaver nudges individual knots into place with a needle working from the back of the rug.
.Photo courtesy Alexandre Mostras and Stephanie Thomas.
A row of knots has been completed using yarns of different colors. Photo courtesy Alexandre Mostras and Stephanie Thomas.
Another section of the pattern. The next step is to shear the excess yarns create a line of pile. Photo courtesy Alexandre Mostras and Stephanie Thomas.
The weaver shears excess yarn with specially designed Savonnerie carpet shears.
Photo courtesy Alexandre Mostras and Stephanie Thomas.
After several inches have been woven the weaver shears the pile again to make it more even. After the entire rug is woven, the warp threads are cut and the rug is taken off the loom. The next step is washing, drying and a final shearing. Photo courtesy Alexandre Mostras and Stephanie Thomas.
How to View the Hand Making of Savonnerie Rugs in Paris
Did you know that Savonnerie rugs are still being made by hand in Paris in the same way they were made in the 17th century?
Savonnerie rugs are still being woven by hand in this imposing workshop in Paris ever since its founding in the 17th century. Called the Manufacture des Gobelins*, you can easily reach it by the metro. Call ahead to book a fascinating 90 minute guided tour in French. Tours in English can be arranged for for groups of 25.
Next time you are in Paris, a short ride on the metro to the Les Gobelins station can take you back 350 years to the time when Louis XIV first set up rug making in a converted soap factory which has given these rugs their name Savonnerie rugs, literally meaning “soap factory” rugs.
Make sure you book a tour ahead of time as you cannot do it at the premises. When you come up from the metro station walk over to the imposing building at 42 Avenue des Gobelins called the Manufacture des Gobelins, now run by the the French Ministry of Culture and open for guided tours on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursdays*.
Today the workshop employs 30 weavers who manage to complete just three or four Savonnerie rugs and tapestries in a year. On my last visit they were making a Savonnerie rug to replace one at Versailles. The artist pointed out the very vibrant original colors they had found through research. We are so used to seeing colors that have faded over time that we believe antique rugs always had muted colors. Just the opposite is true.
Today the Le Gobelin artists no longer produce copies of Louis XV Savonnerie rugs. Instead they create contemporary Savonnerie rugs and tapestries but still weave them with methods developed in the 17th century. Over the years the workshops have made works by Alexander Calder, Sonia Delaunay and other famous 20th century artists.
Here is a video tour of the Savonnerie workshop with narration in French: