What is an ‘oriental’ carpet? Reimagining, remaking, repossessing the patterned pile carpets of South, Central and West Asia since 1840

Dorothy Armstrong

PhD Viva completed 2019-2020

Holbein carpet, handknotted, wool, 276 x 203 cm., Turkey, late fifteenth-early sixteenth centuries. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2009.458.1)

Dorothy Armstrong Reimagining, remaking, repossessing the patterned pile carpets of South, Central and West Asia since 1840


This thesis excavates what lies beneath commonly accepted judgements of the patterned pile carpets of South, Central and West Asia, widely known as ‘oriental’ carpets, in order to open new areas of investigation into these artifacts. Beginning with a critique of the dominant European and North American connoisseurial and scholarly position on these artifacts, the thesis analyses the role they play in materializing ideas of the Other, the subaltern and the colonized. It investigates their participation in complex global networks of materials, technology, skills, and ideology. It interrogates important concepts underlying not only European and North American ideas about the patterned pile carpets of South, Central and West Asia, but about crafts more broadly. Contested concepts such as tradition, authenticity, authorship, originals and copies, handmade and machine-made are explored, and the binaries implied by them are challenged.

Chapter one interrogates the assumptions underlying European and North American writing and thinking on these artifacts since around 1840. It argues that rather than articulating stable and enduring evaluations of aesthetic and cultural value, these assumptions express certain psychological, political, social and economic ideas in which Europeans and North Americans invested from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. The chapter examines the circumstances which brought into being this dominant reading, a reading I describe as the European and North American orthodoxy; deconstructing the work of its foundational thinkers, and the practice which enacts and polices it.

Chapters two, three and four investigate the orthodoxy at work, both materializing its values in carpets it reinvents as iconic and excluding carpets it regards as transgressive of its values. I use three examples to argue my case. The first is the reimagining of the canonical sixteenth century Persian Ardabil carpet in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, as the preeminent example of the values of the orthodoxy, from its arrival in the museum in 1892 to the present day. The second two examples are of carpets that transgress the European and North American orthodoxy’s values and are consequently defined by it as of low aesthetic, cultural and commercial value. They are machine-made versions of these artifacts woven at the Templeton Carpet Manufacturing Company in Glasgow from 1840, and handmade carpets produced for a global export market in colonial Punjab from 1860, and independent Pakistan from 1947.

The thesis takes an approach which is at once political, rooted in the framework of orientalism, postcolonialism and decoloniality; historical, setting out to write a history of objects and history through objects; material, focused on technology, making, dyes and fibres; and experiential, drawing on haptic and psychoanalytical thought. From these perspectives, the thesis argues for an opening up of the conversation about these artifacts, beyond the frequently used constraints of connoisseurship and provenance. It sets out to readmit excluded weavers and their carpets to the story of these artifacts; and to reposition these carpets in the discussion about creativity, how things are made, and how that making changes across time and space, a conversation where their role has commonly been restricted to that of exemplars of the traditional and the Other.

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