Friday, February 19, 2016

Nineteenth Century Carpets: Under Foot Yet So Stylish

If you’ve read many novels set in the nineteenth century, particularly in the homes of the aristocracy, you may have come across the names Aubusson and Axminster. You might say they were the royalty of carpets during that time. But what exactly was an Aubusson or Axminster carpet and how did it compare with an Oriental carpet, which you will also see mentioned? Inquiring minds want to know!

Oriental Carpet—Exotic and Fashionable
The weavers of the Ottoman Empire, China, Persia, Egypt, and India created pile carpets and flat-woven carpets like tapestries using silk, wool, and cotton. They used motifs of flowers and medallions with bold colors that had specific meanings in their cultures. While the meanings were generally lost on the Brits and Americans, that didn’t stop enterprising business men from importing and selling the colorful, well-made carpets to the wealthy. But in the eyes of the fashionable, these carpets had a problem. You had to take what you could get; it was relatively difficult to commission one of a particular color and size to fit the decor of a specific space. In other words, you had to design the room around the carpet. So, the search continued for alternatives that would be as luxurious and beautiful.

Aubusson—One Step Down from Royalty
France knew it could do one better. The weaving industry had been thriving in the town of Aubusson for decades. Aubusson rugs were flat-woven rugs, much like tapestries. Many featured the same bold, exotic designs of the Orient, but others incorporated floral and Greco-Roman patterns and pastel colors. The weavers also borrowed designs from Savonnerie, a rug manufacturer that sold exclusively to the King of France. The rugs were highly popular among the ruling classes until the middle of the nineteenth century, when looms stopped producing. Ironically, the designs are now reproduced in the Orient and made available for sale around the world.

Axminster—Closer to Home and Still Quite Fine
Of course, for much of the nineteen century, England and France were at war, and America was blockaded for one reason or another. Obtaining French rugs might be tricky, and some deemed the practice downright treasonous. That’s one of the reasons Axminster carpets came into prominence. In 1755, Thomas Whitty, a weaver from Axminster, Devonshire, became obsessed with a Turkish carpet he saw in London and would not rest until he was able to recreate its like on his own equipment. The beauty and style of Axminster carpets caught the attention of the British aristocracy, and it wasn’t long before Axminster carpets graced the floors of Chatsworth (home of the Duke of Devonshire), Brighton Pavilion (Prince George’s favorite home), and the palaces of King George III. King George and Queen Charlotte toured the factory to see how the carpets were made. The company was so well thought of that the Sultan of Turkey commissioned a huge carpet, 74 feet by 52 feet for the Topkapi Palace. It took 30 men to carry it from the factory. Sadly, the factory caught fire in 1828 and was nearly destroyed. The carpets were so famous, however, that another company took over the manufacturer, and Axminster carpets are still available today.

A Carpet by Any Other Name
Aubusson and Axminster were not just locations where these carpets were made but designated a particular way of creating a rug. It might be the manner in which the loom was strung, or the type of weave or yarn used. You will find Aubusson and Axminster carpets made in places nowhere near the two towns. For instance, this reproduction was of a carpet originally made in America in the late 1700s, although it is called an Axminster.

Never can be too careful what you have underfoot.

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