Tapestry in Daghestan

Tapestry in Daghestan

Woollen stockings. Ornamental knitt­ing. Avar work. 1967

Weaving Knitting Tapestry in Daghestan

The art of tapestry has been taking shape in Daghestan over many centuries. Its origination and extension was a legitimate result of fast-developing sheep-breeding. According to antique Greek historians, as early as in the 5th century В. C. the population of the west coast of the Caspian Sea was engaged in making colourful wool fabrics. It was known even then that fabric colouring required the use of natural dyers from plants growing in the area.
In the 12th century Derbent was famous for paints from grasses, shrubs and trees which dyed the yarn into bright rich colours. South Daghestan was a time-old supplier of natural dyers for women-weavers. The root of marena, a small grassy plant, would alone provide paints of three colours: brown, red and pink.

Saddle cover. Wool, hemp, Mixed technique. Avar work from the village of Kutlab. 1940

Saddle cover. Wool, hemp, Mixed technique. Avar work from the village of Kutlab. 1940

Until the 1860s marena roots were a chief merchandize to be exported to many countries. It was not until the invention of chemical dyers, that marena-growing came to an end. A staying brown paint was obtained from young wallnut sheel, a back paint—from the “karachup” plant and a variety of golden shades—from white clover. It was known that in the mountain depths on the territory of Daghestan there were available all chemical stuffs for yarn dyers fixation, like iron pyrites, aluminium alum and others.
Land shortages coupled with work hands redundancies and easily available raw materials in the area gave rise to the development of female crafts linked with carpet-making. Women could put in to carpet-making annually some seven or eight months during slack agricultural seasons. The women carpet-makers produced floor carpets, nap, as well as felt. Daghestan homes had earthen floors, mural tapestry, khurdjins (saddle-bags), belts for carrying jugs and other articles indispensable in highlanders’ domestic life. Ornamental weaving was common for many Daghestan villages, but especially well-known were the weaving centres, such as the Lak village of Balkhar, Darghin villages of Kischa and Kudaghu, Avar villages of Rugudja, Chokh and Koroda.
The Balkhar woven pads featured a fine brown-yellowish gamut and a characteristic pattern between the strips.
Darghin tapestry was worked out in brown-white and their pattern was fairly modest. Avar belts showed a characteristic red, yellow and light-blue colours.
In the mountainous areas in Daghestan an extremely popular trend in garments were decorated knitted socks, and also fulled embroidered footwear. In their shape and decoration pattern, these articles varied so much that in nearly every village they had some highly original features, not to be found anywhere else. Knitted footwear, a specific type of knitwork came mostly from the shoe-producing centres in the districts of Rutul, Tlyarata and Bejta.
While the output of ornamental weaving went mostly for sale at home markets, the carpets even in the Middle Ages were exported outside Daghestan. By the nature of their ornamentation and execution techniques, tapestry articles were broken down into two large groups. The first was made up of numerous rugs from South Daghestan, including the produce of the Derbent, Akhtyn, Tabasaran, Khiv and Rutul districts. Mainly, these are napped rugs, unfigured one-sided sumakhs, two-sided mural tapestry and numerous smaller carpet items, such as khurdjin-bags, saddle- covers, etc.

Curtain for a niche. Gold embroidery. Lezgian work. Second half, 19th century

Curtain for a niche. Gold embroidery. Lezgian work. Second half, 19th century

The second group consisted of articles coming from Central and North Daghestan. These were mostly smooth two-sided rugs, as well as felts and mats produced in the districts of Khunzakh, Levashin and Tlyaratin.
Felts with cut-through and fulled-in ornament, tapestry and smaller carpet items, like horsecloths, cushions and bags were all widely popular among the Kumyks and Avars in the districts of Khunzakh and Buinak.
While generally felt carpets, highly original and with a fulled-in pattern, were but a soft thick koshma with a fulled-in design of a differing colour, the simplest specimens kept intact the natural colour of wool—either white or brown-black. Fulled-in designs, soft and dim, were made up of geometrical and horn-like motifs, and commonly associated with the survivals of ancient livestock- breeding cult.
Almost each nationality out of the many that populated Daghestan had its own favourite carpet types. These included ornamented napped or pileless carpets for Lezgians and Rutuls, peculiar hemp-made articles with inwoven designs and napped carpets for Tabasarans, long woven mural tapestry and felts with fulled-in designs for Laks, originally decorated mats, smooth napless carpets and knitwork for most of the Avar districts, and, finally, ornamented cut-through felts, as well as smooth and napped rugs for Kumyks.
Varying as they were over a wide range, most of the enumerated carpet manufacture had some features in common which seem to make up the ‘all-Daghestan’ idiom of the art of tapestry.
A great originality marks down the traditional and perhaps somewhat archaic, the so-called Kaitag embroidery. Widely popular at one time in some areas in Daghestan, such as Kaitag, Darghin and Avar, this embroidery type is something one rarely comes across in modern Daghestan. The Kaitag embroidery pieces of the late 18th and the first half of the 19th century, rectangular or square rugs covered upwards and backwards with large polychrome designs, were all quilted on their front surface with large stitches fixed on the back side with an additional thread, the idea being to spare economically expensive silk threads imported from far-off areas. In the ornament of Kaitag embroidery one could discern the ancient decorative motifs widespread in their time throughout Nagorny Daghestan. There, the images of human figures, animals, birds, hands in combination with the weird outline of the motif of horns, solar symbols and geometrical elements produces an unforgettable decorative impact.

Rug. Wool, cut-through and sewed-in felt. Avar work. 1940-1950. Detail

Rug. Wool, cut-through and sewed-in felt. Avar work. 1940-1950. Detail

The pattern of ornamentation recalled in many ways the Gotsatl copper engraving, the ornamented Lak felts, the Untsukul metal damascening on wood and the Balkhar slipware decoration. Although no more in production, the Kaitag embroidery pieces were extremely widespread in the past days when they were applied as a holstery for pillows and, due to a very rich colour range and a relatively small size, made an important element of the decorative arrangement of the room. They featured golden-orange rosettes with white and cherry-colour designs which stood out against the sharply contrasted background of reserved greyish-blue. At the same time, each colour presented itself in many gradations, thanks to numerous shades of threads. Sometimes an additional accent was provided by embroidering the central part of the rosette with a gold or silver thread.
Gold embroidery became widely popular in Daghestan in the early 20th century although it had some applications in earlier times at the courts of Kazikumukh khans, Kaitag utsmiys, Avar nutsals and Tark shamkals. In the central Avar (Chokh, Sogratle, Charoda) and Darghin (Kubachi, Gubden) areas it made a common entry in a wide range of domestic articles, such as curtains for niches, pillows, mural tapestry, hand-bags and needle-holders. In fact, the custom of applying gold ornamentation to decorate broad kerchiefs for covering the head was continued in Kubachi till now. It is a fine, delicate vegetation design. Besides flowers and trefoils, the pattern would commonly comprise the bird image, a traditional motif in stone carving and silver trinketry in the 19th-20th centuries.
Gold embroidery in curtains had a large integrate design and came close to the applied ornamentation of similar pieces in North-Caucasian areas.
Khurdzhins and saddle-covers are extremely popular in high-mountain areas where horses still have significance as an important means of transport. Grain, flour and fruit are carried in saddlebags richly adorned with complicated tapestry designs. Smaller consignments of products are carried in small shoulder sacks, to be worn only by young girls. They take them along when going to the woods for berries and fruit or paying visits to the neighbouring villages. A beautiful, richly ornamented sack makes a necessary part of the dower of a Tabasaran bride. The sack is woven of dyed yarn and adorned with numerous tassels hanging on coloured laces. Each lace is twisted tightly by bright coloured threads while the pattern of the article features a complex combination of two techniques: napped and satin-stitch embroidery.

Shoes. Satin-stitch embroidery in gold thread on silk. Lak work from the village of Balkhar. 1930

Shoes. Satin-stitch embroidery in gold thread on silk. Lak work from the village of Balkhar. 1930

The same variety of techniques is a mark of the Tabasaran original footwear, puttees, with a heavily ornamented upper part.
There is close liason between carpet-making and the manufacture of saddle-covers. These are small nap rugs, with an integrate composition and fringes in the form of expansive tussels hanging on short strings. Saddle-covers counted among the articles which were in equally great demand throughout the whole of Nagorny Daghestan though they did not appear in the Avar areas until the 19th century. The articles from Lezgian and Tabasaran districts had their composition centering around the central medallion with serrate edges whose extensions stuck out into the background to achieve a greater cohesion with the latter. The tradition of smaller carpets was but an extension of the ancient craft of namazlyk prayer-rugs now no longer produced. Many elements formerly adopted for the carpet decoration under the influence of the Muslem religion (mikhrab), either disappeared, or, having lost their original significance, developed into an ornamental adjunct to the decor.
While in the compositions of old saddle-covers the central medallion consumed a modest part of the article’s surface but had numerous edgings in modern compositions out of the five edging ornamental stripes only one or two have survived while the central motif extended over the entire plane. The pattern of khurdzhin and saddle-cover ornamentation retained in this particular district many elements peculiar to large carpet articles and is affinitive with the latter through the common colour arrangement.
Even in the first quarter of the 20th century embroidered felt shoes with sharply curved-up noses were widespread in the Darghin and Lak areas. In the Balkhar village shoes were made of white felt partly holstered on top with gaudy cloth or morocco and carried an embroidery pattern of gold and silver threads. The embroidery included elements similar to the well-known Kaitag embroideries, which ascended by the nature of the design, undoubtedly, to the most ancient ornamental motifs of Nagorny Daghestan. The shoes of that type were worn by men and women, except that men’s shoes had a more modest adornment. The shoes were taken off before entering the room leaving their owner in dense patterned socks altogether indispensable in homes with earthen or stone floors.
Women-highlanders in Daghestan would practice knitting woollen socks in almost each village, each household. This art was usually learned by children five or six years old. Although in most villages knitting remained a specifically domestic preoccupation, in some highland areas (Akhty, Minrakh, Kubachi, Balkhar, Tlyarata) knitted footwear had long since been an important merchandize.

Rug. Wool, cut-through and sewed-in felt. Avar work. 1940-1950

Rug. Wool, cut-through and sewed-in felt. Avar work. 1940-1950

In common with the art of carpet-making, decorative embroidery boasted a diversified ornament and broad variety of colour schemes. Many villages had a traditional design of their own, together with the colour gamut and specific form.
Mostly, knitted articles had a geometrical ornament either vividly geometrized or vegetation-type, or sometimes with schematic images of birds and animals. The principle governing the design construction, colour schemes and individual ornamental elements was similar to the leading decoration trends in carpet-making. It stands to logic therefore, that the patterns of knitwork were the most exquisite and variegated precisely in the areas of well-developed carpet-making. Thus, Lezgian and Darghin socks tended toward purple and rich green gamuts with mild transitions between them, while Rutuls preferred dark-brown colour in combination with blue, and black diminutive and barely indicated designs.
The specific conditions of life in the Daghestan highlands predetermined that the types of knitted footwear should be extremely diversified. Along with felt shoes and socks, in the Avar districts of Charoda, Tlyaratin and Bettin we find some footwear specimens which represented an transient type. The Bettin knitted shoes retained the ornamentation and colour range to be found only in socks but with a much stronger knitting, while the sole and sharply bent-up nose were so hard and rigid that they could match in their strength the fulled and even leather footwear. An unusually diverse colouring and complexity of geometrical designs were a feature of the knitted footwear from Bejta, Kidero and Shaitl. The prevalent gamut contained oranges, yellows, reds and ochres with a contrasting white or black design. Despite sharply alternating stripes and contrasting design which made the article motley in excess, the footwear from these centres looked integrae and spectacular.
The nations of Central and North Daghestan—Darghins, Avars, Laks, Karatins and Kumyks— have long been known for their napless two-sided carpets. More often than not, their ornamentation consisted of bright, even alternating stripes. Yet, on some occasions, for example, in the Lak village of Balkhar, the stripes were further developed inside using a petty geometrical ornament. The carpets were woven first at conventional narrow horizontal looms and then sewn together lengthwise and brought into use as floor covers, murals and grain drying pads. Not infrequently they were sewn together into sacks and used for carrying grain, corn-cobs and dried fruit.
Besides unfigured napless rugs, Avars, Laks, Darghins and Kumyks were engaged in manufacturing felt decorated carpets, including the fulled-in felt rugs, of which the best specimens come from the village of Balkhar, and the widely famous arbabash felts. The latter were made up of several felt differently coloured in black, white, red and grey. The felts were piled upon one another and cut along the pre-indicated ornamental line. Then the felts of the same colour were sewn into one another and, in the long last, several arbabashes were obtained that had the same design but were differently coloured. The seam between the designs was concealed behind a white tape which might as well be woven just there and then.

Pillow (face). Satin-stitch embroidery on silk untwisted warp. Darghin work. 18th century

Pillow (face). Satin-stitch embroidery on silk untwisted warp. Darghin work. 18th century

Ornamental patterns were essentially vegetable in character, with outlines which were always smoothcd-ovcr and seemed to be flowing, and with many elements similar to the horn motif, everpresent in the felts of North-Caucasian nations. Compared with smooth napless rugs the felts demonstrated a greater variety of colours and, not infrequently, complex combinations of green, ochre, orange, yellow and other colours.
Another item of Daghestan craftsmanship which was usually produced in the central and north Avar and Kumyk areas were original chibta mats coming nowadays from a number of chibta-producing centres of which the most significant is perhaps the village of Urma, district of Levashin, where they are made of dried sedge, thin and strong, with the base made out of coarse unpainted grey wool and a decor of painted wool yarn. The decoration consists of expressive geometrical forms arranged in a mirror-like symmetry. The ornament of strongly elongated angular stems has a black outline filled up with crimson dark-blue. The austere design stands out in sharp contrast with the light-grey, aureate background.
Close to the Avar chibtas by their decoration pattern are napless double-sided large-size carpets. They are davaghins, or Dums in Kumyk, though, generally speaking, such carpets are produced in many areas in Daghestan where they are known under different names. Same as in most carpets of the Avar or Kumyk origin, they have a great deal of free background, blue or dark-blue 1960 in colour, to accommodate expansive designs of the carpet’s central motifs.
Davaghins are manufactured on broad vertical machines and, being up to six meter in length, are often big enough to cover two walls in a highlander’s home. Central to the carpet arrangement 196o. Detail is a pattern of several big medallions with an exquisitely cut outline. Running upwards and downwards from the lozenge-shaped medallions are off-shoots, like the long outstretched birds’ necks, bearing triangular caps. Among women carpet-weavers this ornamental motif is known as “many-necked house”. In the middle part davaghins are enframed with a broad frieze out of a geometrical design fitted over a terra-cotta background. Contrasting combinations of warm and cold colours, a clear-cut monumental ornament and abundance of free background make the original features of this style in decorative carpet-making.
In the dums (another carpeting type) made by Kumyks the preferable background colouring is light-grey in the village of Kazanitzi and black in Kumtorkala. The central medallions are sharply dismembered by the internal ornamental patterns but at the same time have no off-shoots.
The colour of edging is identical with that of the central decorative motif. Juxtaposed to the black or light background, the rich colours of the ornamentation outlined in black, create a tangible decorative effect.
Executed in the same smooth technique as dums or mural tapestry, the napless salmagh carpets, especially their late 19th-century specimens, have a surface, long and rectangular in shape, filled with heavy ornamentation out of many decorative elements. A number of medallions with internal ornamentation cross the centre of the carpet field, while smaller medallions with “manynecked” off-shoots are used as a passing motif. Running out from the central rosettes are also off-shoots—twigs which sometimes bear flowers. The carpet’s edging is broken down into several squares containing a succession of light and dark colours, the general colour gamut being greenish- grey with brown and dark-blue interspersions.
The Lezgians and Kyurins from the districts of Kasumkent, Kurakh and Khiv manufacture one-sided napless sumakh carpets used, as a rule, for floor carpeting, which could not but have an effect on their characteristics. Thus, sumakhs have a great size because one sumakh is supposed to provide the floor covering for the whole room; they are very dense to prevent dust absorption but at the same time soft and springy because their back side is totally covered with long woollen threads forming a sort of a sub-carpet layer. This accounts also for sumakhs’ low heat-conductivity, a vital characteristic, considering the earthen and stone floors of the old-time Daghestan homes.
Practical as they are, sumakhs feature also high quality of decor. Their pattern is always complex, terse and geometrical. The central field carries, the carpet length permitting, several principal medallions with passing motifs and broad edging. The sumakKs graphical pattern is made up of threads which are woven on the base in a herring-bone array, with a weft passing in-between. The expressive contoural and graphical quality is especially common for the Lezgian sumakhs whose pattern of brightly coloured wool provides a contrasting outline over the grey-blue or dark-red background. The general colouring of sumakhs, in contrast with all other carpet styles, is extremely rich, being made up of dark-blue, grey-blue, white, brown-red and red.
But it is napped carpets, the chief item of Daghestan tapestry, that gained it special recognition at home, but also far beyond its borders. Coming as they do from Lezgian, Kyurin and Tabasaran areas, the nap carpets are known under the common name of daghestan or derbent and yet a single term stands for a large variety of carpet types with differing structure and ornamentation techniques. In fact, South Daghestan alone possesses eight different napped carpet types.
Technologically, the carpets may differ according to the density and length of the nap in terms that dense carpets have usually short nap {akhty, mikrakh) while low density predetermines long nap (tlyarata, djengutai). Yet there are some carpet varieties with equal length and density of the nap (rushul, kazanitze) and some others where a relatively high density goes with high nap. Short-napped carpets are more plastical and silky, and as the nap length increases the carpets become denser, springy and rigid at the fold.
The motifs of Daghestan napped carpets arouse an all-embracing feeling of the multiplicity of decoration forms, diversity of compositional patterns and variety of colour schememes. In this sense, a Daghestan carpet can be viewed as a landscape where by a simple stretch of imagination one can see the blossoming gardens in spring, or the mountains shrouded in the haze of a summer day’s heat, or abudance of fruit in the fall.
The customary ornamental motifs include the images of animals, man, architecture, labour tools, arms and domestic utensils. The way in which these objects are rendered through ornamentation and colour range arises from the women-weavers’ artistic perception, distinctions of the national culture, domestic life and ambient nature.
As if scattered on the mild-blue or bright red field are the pinkish-white almagyul (the apple bloom), rounded patnusi (trays with grapes), serrate changi (leaves), kum-gyul (a nightingale and a rose), and many others. The basic ornamental forms are supplemented by karchars (the jairan’s horns), ketzer (cats), etc.
Earlier, the most popular decoration motifs would also include rushul, Mecca, Kaaba—whose names suggest the millennial Islam religious background in these areas. The very terms,’such a Kaaba (mosque), mikhrab (prayer niche), lamka (oil-lamp) testify to the ritual, religious purpose of the rugs. After the prayer-rugs went out of use these ornamental motifs, too, lost quite a few of their characteristics while some others, chiefly with compositional significance proved to have more staying power, one example being the mikhrab columns which accentuate the vertical thrust of lines and make a well-chosen adjunct to the edging.
The general outline of mikhrab persists in yet another variety, a napped rug of the Tabasaran type, though without any adjuncts. Its contour is woven into the pattern of medallions as a passing motif. The napped carpet technique reflected ornamental motifs close to the “manynecked” Avar davaghins.
On the other hand, there is no doubt that the southern areas were the home of large flowers (carnations) with an internal ornamentation out of triangular forms (cypresses). Along with the forms which underwent a major change, some images still persisted in which animal figures are easily identifiable, like horses with solar rosettes, dogs, birds and snakes. The latter image, often juxtaposed to the wavy motifs, brings to mind the ancient cult of water.
In South Daghestan emphasis in tapestry is on the carpet types safar-chechne, turar-chechne gasan-kala. The safar-chechne carpet has a decor made up of several colourful rosettes linked together with passing motifs. Each element is encompassed by several outlines and has karchars (jairarts horns) growing from it on its four sides. Woven out of white woollen yarn, they make a contrasting motif over the dark carpet field. Between karchars there are inserts of fantastic changi leaves, with inclusions of small flowers of light-blue, orange, brown and bright red colours. The central field is in harmony with the border edgings, their number varying from three to nine. Their ornamentation consists of floral rosettes and either geometrical or vegetable motifs. The carpet’s background may be executed in a good many colours, with rich red or deep blue as a predominant shade.
Similar but nonetheless specific carpet type is manufactured in the village of Orta-Stal. The patterns of turar-chechne (sabre) or topancha-chechne (pistol) dimly recall the image of criss-cross arms, having transformed into queer, exquisitely coloured figures. The pattern fits out over the white, warmly tinged, background in a few medallions and trees, flowers and fruit scattered all around between them. The design of the central field and edgings features an interplay of white and reddish-black. Modern topancha carpets have the background executed in red or dark- blue wool.
The name of tabasaran applies to the carpets produced in the numerous villages of the central portion of the Tabasaran area. An interesting specimen of this style, a napped carpet entitled Djigits’ Dance (Djigit being a Caucasian horsemen), is long, vertical and includes four large hexangular medallions set on the same axis. The central field is inscribed into a double edging filled with diminutive tracery in the form of stars. What sets it aside, however, as a highly original piece of tapestry is, as the name suggests, schematic human figures in one of the characteristic poses of the highlanders’ dance. Though of a small dimension, the figures are well-read on the deep dark-blue background of the carpet’s central portion. Along with the dancing djigits, the field is studded with tiny figures of horsemen and horses, together with flower and solar patterns. The clear-cut presentation of petty motifs is made possible by the monotonous rich colour gamut and the striking simplicity of geometrical forms. The light border which runs around the central portion adds emphasis to the richness and harmony of the prevalent red-blue colour scheme.