What is a tribal rug?

(Posted on 14/04/17)

What is a tribal rug?

The term tribal rug is sometimes used to describe any rug or woven artifact that is essentially tribal in character and appearance, regardless of the function for which it was made or the ethnic origin or lifestyle of the weavers.  However, the term should perhaps be more properly applied only to those items that are produced by people living in tribal societies, in a limited number of weaving techniques, and that are primarily used as floor coverings or associated furnishings.

Consequently, rugs woven in a tribal style by non-tribal weavers in small villages or larger urban workshops cannot be properly classified as tribal in origin.  Similarly, decorative tapestries, clothes and number of other woven artifacts, despite their tribal authenticity, cannot be regarded as rugs.

In practice, however, there are exceptions to this precise definition, and some items that cannot properly be described as either tribal or rugs are nevertheless generally accepted as falling into the category of tribal rugs.  For example, the term tribal is sometimes applied to all the items woven in the predominantly Kurdish town of Bidjar, Iran, although the vast majority of Kurd’s in the area live a settled existence as part of the general Iranian population, non-Kurd’s may have participated in the weaving, and the rugs made in the town have long since evolved their own distinctive regional, rather than tribal, character and appearance.

Similarly, the expression rug is frequently used by dealers as a collective term for a range of items that include tent partitions, door-flaps, eating cloths, stove covers and variety of bags, animal trappings and other woven artifacts.  The same is true of the blankets, ponchos, etc., produced in various parts of North, Central and South America, which, although not strictly rugs, are often considered to have a sufficiently close association with rug weaving to fall under the general umbrella of tribal rugs.  It is also common practice for some types of associated items – e.g. ikats, namads and certain types of tapestry weaving – to be placed under the broad heading of rugs if they originate from one of the traditional rug weaving areas.

The term tribal rugs should therefore be viewed as a general, somewhat arbitrary, classification that includes not only items that can be regarded justifiably as both tribal (in origin) and rugs (in function), but also one that contains a number of other items that have traditionally fallen within the brackets of tribal rugs.

However, there are some broad criteria governing the origin and lifestyle of the weavers, the function for which an item is made, the weaving techniques and the region that are generally as fundamental to any definition of tribal rugs.  These criteria can be used as broad guidelines to differentiate between authentic tribal rugs and items that are only tribal in character and appearance, although there may be some exceptions.