Why Do Great Rugs Have Abrash?

What is Abrash? Most dictionaries do not contain this word and a search on the Internet yields two definitions, both incomplete:

  1. Abrash: A variation in color (often applied to Oriental rugs). Wiki dictionary.
  2. The natural and variable change in color that occurs in an Oriental rug over time when different dyes are used. Yahoo Dictionary.

great rugs, Ardabil great rug

The Ardabil Carpet in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London is at the pinnacle of the world’s great rugs. Remarkable for its beauty and fine workmanship, this very large rug is one of a pair ordered by the Persian King Shah Tamhasp and completed between 1539 to 1540 AD. The Victoria and Albert Museum website says: “Note the abrash, the colour difference caused by different dye batches, in the yellow of the central medallion”. Note there is more abrash in the outside border band and in the cartouches inside the main border. Note also the variations in shapes, sizes and colors in the pendants hanging from the yellow medallion.

Today nearly everything is made by machine and we have become accustomed to expecting products to be perfectly shaped and evenly colored, otherwise we discard them as defective.

While machine like precision is an appropriate criteria for judging a Mercedes, a BMW, or a fine Swiss watch, is it also appropriate for judging a Botticelli painting or a hand carved Louis XV chair?

By insisting on machine like perfection we end up with soulless objects, bypassing genuine works of art and great rugs.

If we judge a great rug such as the Ardabil by the same criteria we apply to a Mercedes, we will certainly declare it defective. There is nothing straight or regular about this rug.

If the curators at the The Victoria and Albert Museum were also to apply the criteria of machine like precision to their vast holdings of art, antique furniture and great rugs, they would have to discard everything and replace them with perfect objects made by precision machines. Stated this way, we immediately recognize how ridiculous this criteria is. Yet, we often fall into this kind of thinking and end up selecting soulless objects while passing up the truly enlivening works of art.

The ancient makers of great rugs, paintings and furniture were not interested in what we call perfect today. They were much closer to nature than we are and their art exhibited the natural variations found in nature.

Hand spun wool yarns

The Spinner by William-Adolphe Bouguereau shows a woman hand-spinning with a drop spindle. Held in her left hand is the distaff a tool for holding the wool fibers so they stay untangled. Source: Wikepedia

The wool for the Ardabil carpet came from local sheep and was spun by hand by village women. The dyers combed the forests for plants and flowers from which to extract vibrant colors. The rug was woven by hand and washed in a nearby stream.

Abrash occurs naturally in hand spun yarn. Hand spun yarn is made by drawing the wool fibers from the distaff and twisting them until they turn into yarn. Inevitably the yarn gets twisted more tightly in some places than in others. When this yarn is placed in a dye bath, the highly twisted sections do not allow the dye to penetrate as thoroughly as the loosely twisted sections. Even though all the yarn is dyed at one time in the same dye bath, the yarn takes colors in many shades, some lighter some darker and this is what creates abrash in a great rug such as the Ardabil.

The same kind of variations occur in nature. If we look closely at a flower, we will notice that each petal has a slightly different shade, shape and size.

The ancient artists loved nature’s infinite variations and were pleased when the great rugs they made had myriad natural variations. They even created additional variations themselves as you can see from the pendants around the yellow medallion that were intentionally made different from each other.

great rugs inspired by trees

Like the ancient artists, we too admire the endless variation of pleasing colors, textures and shapes in this tree trunk. Why then do we so easily forget to use the same criteria when looking at great rugs and great art?

Great rugs have abrash, red, gold, beige geometric rug

Ascot a red and gold geometric needlepoint rug made with yarn spun by hand from wool from an ancient breed of sheep. The variations in the wool and the yarn produce many shades resulting in a natural abrash.


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