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Classical Chinese Carpet Designs

Reprinted from TEA AND CARPETS Blogspot
Talk, news and links about oriental carpets, carpet collecting and the wonderful world of east meets west


BEIJING, Dec. 18, 2010 – Like the other countries of the ancient Silk Roads, China has a rich carpet tradition.

But it is a younger heritage than those of Central and South Asia or the Middle East and very much unlike them.

Because the first pile carpets in China seem to have been woven only some 500 years ago – in the 15th century — it seems clear pile carpet weaving arrived to China from elsewhere.

The best guess is that the technique traveled up the Silk Road into northwestern China from neighboring East Turkestan.

Northwestern China was, and is, a vast steppe land peopled mostly by Turkic-Mongol peoples. At that time, these steppe lands, which today include Inner Mongolia, were outside the Great Wall protecting China proper.

So, the early carpets were not ethnically “Chinese” — in the sense of the Han Chinese who lived within the wall (outlined in red here).

But for reasons that still fascinate historians, they almost immediately became a medium for Chinese – not nomadic – art.

And it is that quality which makes Chinese carpets so unlike their more “oriental” relatives.

Carpet scholars Muray L. Eiland Jr. and Muray Eiland III write in their book Oriental Carpets (1998) that “although it is possible that the pile carpet is not indigenous to China and was introduced from Central Asia, its designs have become as classically Chinese as those of textiles of porcelain.

“The same floral forms, of lotus and chrysanthemum, appear repeatedly, while the same simple devices of frets and swastikas are common in the borders. There is a lavish style of mythical animals and scrolling vines and more styles of the repetition of simple geometric figures.”

That the carpets should become so classically Chinese is surprising because the steppe lands — which are a rich wool producing region — had a millennia-old tradition of felt carpet making with its own rich vocabulary of motifs.

But it may be that by the 15th century, the people of northwest China already were heavily influenced by the overwhelming culture of China proper.

It is likely, too, that in many of the main commercial centers for the rugs, such as Ningxia right beside the Great Wall, urban populations were already ethnically mixed.

The rugs woven in northwest China had several markets.

One market was the nomadic lands to the north, Mongolia and beyond, where the rugs were used to decorate yurts.

A second market was Chinese Muslims who needed substitutes for prayer rugs, which were not woven in China.

And the third and richest market – and the one which undoubtedly did the most to determine styles and designs — was temples and noble homes.

Ningxia rugs, for example, were used extensively in the monasteries of Tibet and northwest China. The temple carpets included Banner rugs, Hanging rugs, Curtain carpets and Pillar carpets.

The Pillar carpets were sometimes made in two halves to fit around a column. Picture here is a column carpet from the 1880s in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection.

Interestingly, special colors were reserved for special audiences. Yellow was reserved for royal use, such the court and temples, while red was for gift carpets exchanged between aristocrats.

But if these pile carpets are so distinctly Chinese in appearance, does it mean that the indigenous people of the northwest contributed no influence of their own?

Hans Bidder, a German diplomat and carpet historian who lived many years in China before his death in 1963, believes the felt carpet culture of the steppe lands had a great effect on how the pile woven carpets were decorated.

Bidder is particularly intrigued by the way the fields of Chinese carpets so often appear to be blank canvases upon which motifs – from animals to Taoist and Buddhist symbols – are placed in almost ‘applique’ fashion.

Often the motifs stand out so dramatically from the background that almost appear to have been inlaid into the field of the carpet the way motifs are rolled and pressed into the plain backgrounds of felt carpets.

The appearance is sometimes heightened by cutting the pile to put the motifs in even higher relief – a practice that remains very common in Chinese carpets today.

That preference for high relief makes a fascinating link not only to the art sensibilities of the nomadic felt makers but also to a period in China’s own history when – due to the Mongol conquests of the 13th century – felt carpets briefly and unexpectedly rose to the level of a court art in Beijing.

Bidder writes that “during the period of Mongol Chinese rule (1260 to 1341) the felt carpet developed into a very luxurious object.”

He continues, “in the year 1299 felt carpets with an area of 331 square meters were manufactured for the ‘Palace of the Special Chambers’ (imperial harem) … felts became so refined and improved in quality that the artistry of felt carpets finally equaled that of the best Oriental carpets and sometimes exceeded it.” (Bidder, Carpets from Eastern Turkestan, published 1964.)

It is interesting to speculate on how much this experience may have helped set the subsequent taste for bold, high-relief motifs on knotted rugs. But the impact of Mongol rule on Chinese rugs may have been still larger than that.

Bidder notes that ancient China – the Han peoples within the Great Wall – traditionally associated wool with the barbarian world. Their fabrics of choice were cotton and silk, instead.

It was only through centuries of contact with nomads on the northern border that Chinese slowly began to adopt the use of felt mats as utilitarian floor coverings or insulation padding on beds. The example of the Mongol court would have done much to convince Chinese to regard wool as an artistic medium, as well.

Still, when weaving looms for carpets arrived in China, many people still regarded them as something alien.

Bidder, a scholar of Chinese texts, cites the earliest known mention of the technology as noting the “weaving process has been taken over from the barbarians and is performed in their strange way.” The book was written sometime in the Ming period of the 14th to 17th centuries.

But if wool carpet weaving took hold relatively late in China, it rapidly developed into a major industry.

The most active centers in the northwest – the ones most early carpets are named after – became the provinces of Kansu, Ningxia, and Suiyan (a now defunct province located in today’s Inner Mongolia), as well as another part of Inner Mongolia near the city of Baotou (or Paotou)

These centers thrived in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, setting the stage for the phenomenal growth of the Chinese export carpet industry when China opened to the world and major new weaving centers appeared in Peking and its nearby port Tiantsin.

From historical records, it appears wool looms appeared in Beijing in the early 1860s. There carpet-maker developed new patterns based on Ningxia carpet designs but which progressively responded to Western market demands.

Like the earlier Chinese carpets, the new Peking rugs depicted Chinese symbols and designs used for hundreds of years.

But where the symbols tended to be profuse and cluttered together on domestic rugs, the new rugs spaced them out — usually around a central medallion — in harmonious designs more suited to western tastes.

Blue Peking rugs made in Western room sizes gained huge popularity, particularly in America. They were followed by other rugs directly produced for the American market, often by companies owned by American expatriates in China.

The most famous of these “American” exports were the Chinese Art Deco rugs of the 1920s and 1930s.

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The Story of Nichols Rugs

The Story of Nichols Chinese Rugs

This article is a reprint scanned in from a brochure published in the 1930's by the Nichols Chinese Rug Company

Story of Nichols Rugs fly cover



This little brochure has been compiled with the object of presenting Chinese Rugs in general and Nichols Super Rugs in particular before prospective purchasers in a manner we believe will stimulate your interest and appreciation.

All experts agree that Chinese Super Rugs as made today represent the greatest intrinsic value in floor covering fabrics produced anywhere in the world.

Nichols Super Rugs combine that wonderful fabric with designs, colors and workmanship placing them in a class by themselves. We have illustrated the following pages as profusely as possible with actual photographs to help us achieve our objective.

Brief history

The art of making woven rugs and tapestries goes far back into the musty realms of antiquity. Chinese rugs may have originated from other countries such as Egypt and Persia but the first woven rugs were spoken of in Chinese annals so

long ago that Chinese carpets may well have antedated those of any country. The theories as to whether rug making originated in China or came from the Near East cannot be substantiated because records so far back in the dim past are confusing. The growth of rug weaving may even have been contemporaneous in the two parts of the world as a result of the intercourse maintained by early traders. The swastika which appears in so many Chinese designs is also found in Egyptian symbolism. It means good luck, abundance, happiness and prosperity. Some scholars believe this sign to have originated in China. Carpet weaving attained a high degree of artistic value in the Tigris,Euphrates Valley and though no Chinese designs are linked with the ruins of Ninevah, the Persian knot used in weaving most Chinese rugs may have come from there. At first carpets woven in China were used principally for saddle cloths and for the K'ang or brick couch of the North but with the advent of Buddhism they assumed greater artistic importance being used not only for prayer rugs for devotees to kneel upon but also for temple floor coverings and wall hangings. Until the Ch'ing dynasty carpets were made only in Northwest China and were brought into Peking as tribute to the Court. The modern industry was founded by a Llama priest who came to pay tribute to the Court bringing with him examples of the rug weavers art of Northwest China. The rugs were so popular at the Court that the priest set up a weaving school outside the East Gate of the city of Peking, and so taught the art of weaving to the people. It is from the teachings of this Llama priest that the modern Chinese rug has sprung.

In 1924 W. A. B. Nichols of Tientsin, North China, introduced the Super Chinese Rug which has become world famous. It is known in every market as the most durable and beautiful product of the modern Chinese weavers art and adorns the homes of people all over the earth.



There are five major departments to be considered in the manufacture of a Super Rug, namely:

Materials (Wool, Woolen Yarn, warp and Weft)

Dyes and Dyeing

Color and Design


Chemical Washing

To obtain perfect results all these things must be of the highest quality and coordinated under one management. A Nichols Super Rug is entirely a Nichols product. It is transformed from raw wool into a beautiful floor covering within the confines of our own factories and when we say our own factories we mean that we own the buildings, own the looms, own every tool and every rice bowl that is used in them. We do not "farm" out our yarn to be made into rugs by others - we do it all from beginning to end.



Visitors are always welcome to our plants so let us pretend that you have taken a trip halfway round the world and landed in Tientsin and dropped in to call upon us. We will take you on a tour of our factories and show you each phase of rug making separately in order that you may have a clearer understanding of just how it is all accomplished.



Wool, of course, is the largest component part of a rug, accounting for about 80% of its weight, therefore it is of the utmost importance to the fabric. All the wool that goes into a Nichols Rug is first carefully selected for length and strength of staple-only live resilient wool being considered suitable. Next it is thoroughly scoured with soap and warm water to remove dirt and foreign matter. This is very important because wool that has not been properly scoured will smell very sheepy for years after. Next the clean wool is sorted again and all the short pieces taken out, also the black and brown is eliminated and only pure white fleecy wool goes to the spinning mill. Here it is spun into a uniform woolen yarn by the Mule system of spinning and this white yarn in the grease goes to the dyer.



The dyeing department is one of the greatest importance. Only the best foreign dyes are used and these are applied to the yarn by the fastest known process for dyeing wool. The yarn must first be washed to remove the spinning oil otherwise it will not dye even and streaks show up in the carpets.

We have over eight hundred different colors and tones of colors in our collection and still are always developing new ones. Every one of these colors is guaranteed to be fast to light and washing.


Dyed in the Wool

All our indigo blues are dyed in the wool to insure uniform shades. We have twelve tones of indigo blue running from light to very dark.

This is China's national color and used a great deal in Chinese rugs and are to be found in most antique carpets.

Among the ancient traditional designs the dragon occupies the foremost position. It is symbolic of royalty and ranks first on all carpets, embroideries, bronzes, porcelains and palace buildings.

The eight immortal Genii of Taoism, believed to have been disciples of Lao-Tzu, have passed on their deified attributes as motifs for designs. The phoenix is also very important. As a messenger of the eight Genii it is the medium of intercourse between them and living beings. Its appearance heralds good times and happy events.

India has contributed most of all to the designs of Chinese rugs through Buddhism. The designs of Chinese carpets are all older than carpet weaving itself because they are derived from those used in silk weaving. These in turn have the same origin as the paintings found on old Chinese pottery. A wealth of designs which have been utilized for carpets are found in old manuscripts and on painted and carved walls of ancient temples. They have been closely related to the legends and the various religions of the Chinese people. Thanks to the tenacity with which the Chinese cling to all that is ancient we still find these old designs being woven lending to the Chinese carpets a very special charm not only on account of their great antiquity of design but also on account of their peculiarity and unique characteristics retained through centuries and making of each carpet a surviving evidence of an historical past.

The continuous development of carpet designs owes its loveliest inspirations to the trees and flowers of China. Natural flowers are always realistically reproduced and are seldom so conventionalized as the design on Persian carpets so that every species of flower is recognizable at sight. The peach blossom, symbol of the spring and the

blossom of the fruit of life; the lotus flower, emblem of the summer; the chrysanthemum, emblem of the autumn; the narcissus, emblem of the winter; the plum blossom; symbol of beauty; the orchid, valued for its fragrance; the bamboo, emblem of longevity and enduring bloom; the peony, flower of wealth and respectability. All these are the flowers which are used most often and to great advantage. Neoclassic designs are the very latest influence in Chinese rug styles taking as they do the old classic patterns and working them up in colors of today. Also bringing out the design by beveling all around it, producing a very beautiful molded effect.

Much has been said and written regarding the value and beauty of antique rugs but it is a recognized fact that people of good taste and refinement today prefer modern rugs and this choice comes from the fact that in modern rugs one can achieve a more artistic interior----one more suited to the individual and in perfect harmony with their surroundings. There is no rug that lends itself to this more than the Chinese. Too much cannot be said about the beauty and interpretation of Nichols designs, for into these rugs is woven the culture, beauty and heritage of China. The designs have been gleaned from old palace rugs, porcelains, pottery, temple decorations and bronzes, the old containing a mixture of the new thus modernizing the design and making the rug a thing of beauty for the western home. We maintain a staff of skilled artists who are always on the alert for something new and who combine the best elements of the Western and Chinese designs into a harmoniously blended whole.

We are also pleased to execute the ideas of our customers in weaving designs submitted by them or in working up designs to meet their individual requirements as to type or color. Having selected a design and color scheme and with the yarn all dyed accordingly, we now enter the weaving room. Assuming the carpet is to be made in the popular 9xI2 size we find the loom that has been allocated for this order and the four weavers who will weave the rug (one weaver usually works a section 2 1/2  feet wide).

These four weavers now start stringing the warp. This is done by carrying a strong cotton cord around the loom and back again, looping it over a steel or bamboo rod at the bottom, thereby making one continuous warp for the whole rug. The warp cord itself must be very strong and free from knots. Only the best knotless warp is used in Nichols Rugs.

After the warp has been strung the upper and lower beams of the loom are spread apart by a powerful jack and wedged in that position.

Next the paper loom drawing which is the actual size of the design to be made is placed behind the warp and weavers trace the pattern on the warp itself with red ink. (If this ink is not properly made and applied it often discolors light ugs when they are washed at some future date.)

The design having been transferred to the warp the weavers now start the rug by making a webbing of cotton about one inch wide at the bottom. This is not only to form part of the fringe but also to enable the yarn to be pounded down tight as the weaving progresses.

The weavers then start putting in a row of woolen yarn by twisting it around the two warp cords forming a figure eight, the outside loop of which is chopped off leaving the two ends sticking out, creating the pile of the rug. The warp cords are separated by a harness that goes around each one and is fastened to a stick that is behind the weaver's head. This he reaches up and pulls after every line of knots has been tied and thus crosses the warp cords and pinches the woolen yarn in between them.

A line of cotton weft threads is then inserted between the crossed warp cords above the woolen yarn and the warp is crossed again. These are all beaten down together with an iron fork. Another line of woolen knots are tied and the same operation is repeated over and over again. The weft threads are not carried all the way across the rug but are short lengths and taken from one weaver to another, overlapping where they meet by a few lengths of warp. Each weaver ties about 8,000 knots a day, completing about one square foot of the rug's surface. Each knot is chopped off when it is tied about 1/8 of an inch longer than the height of pile required and then this extra length is cut off with scissors. After a day's weaving has been finished the surface is trimmed up again with wider scissors until it is perfectly even.

A 9x12 rug is usually woven about four feet and then the loom beams are loosened and the whole warp is shifted down and around the back of the loom. The loom is tightened up again and weaving resumed. This operation is repeated until the rug is completed. Before the rug is shifted the design must be cut all around the edge to make it stand out from the  background. This is a distinctive feature in Chinese rugs. No other Oriental rug has ever had this carved effect. When the rug is finished it is cut down from the loom and the weavers must spend a day or two fixing and trimming it up after which it is carefully examined by expert inspectors and if found satisfactory the weavers are paid for their work and start on another rug.

It takes four weavers about one month to weave a9x12 rug. Of course, the more intricate the design the longer it takes to weave. The weavers are paid extra for hard designs.

There are no carpet weavers in China superior to those employed by us. They are carefully selected and trained. They work in the cleanest and most modern factories in China where they are well fed and housed and where medical attention is always available. They come from the Northern provinceswhich have always been the home of the finest weavers. We employ no child labor or apprentices. Because of their ideal working conditions happier workmen cannot be found, and knot by knot their deft fingers create the most beautiful carpets in the market because it is the innermost desire of these weavers, influenced by tradition, folklore and superstition, to produce a product which cannot be surpassed.

"A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever," sang Keats, and this can truly be said of a Nichols Chinese Rug, for it creates joy in the heart of its owner and its beauty spreads sunshine wherever it may be. One can read the glory and culture of China's imperial past when studying the rare old designs of these rugs, for China in sign and symbol has been woven into them.


Chemical washing

This is a process that puts a silky sheen on the surface of the rug and makes it soft and pliable. It takes out of the rug all the surplus wool fibres that would otherwise come out in six months of sweeping and it polishes the tip of each individual wool tuft so that dirt and dust will not stick to them, making a washed rug much easier to keep clean than an unwashed rug. People often remark that they have been told the washing takes out half the life of a rug. This is not a fact. The washing process does reduce the height of the pile a small fraction of an inch but Nichols Rugs are made with a higher pile when they are woven to compensate for this loss. Here are some of the important points to remember when considering the relative merits of a washed rug and an unwashed rug. The chemical washing is a severe process-there is no doubt about that. It brings out all the latent defects in any rug. Therefore when you see a washed rug you see just what you are going to get for your money. You can feel it and judge for yourself the life that is left in it. You can see if it has faded.

If it has not faded in the washing it will never fade. It has been saturated with water two or three times, therefore it is washable and you can wash a Nichols Rug as many times as you'd like. It is disinfected by the chemicals and safe to be laid down in your home. It contains no uncertainties. On the other hand unwashed rugs of any kind contain all the uncertainties we have just mentioned and a lot more. Some of the Persian rugs, when they are washed, lose nearly all their color and have to be painted with dyes in the New York washing plants. It is a common practice to change the entire color scheme of there rugs to meet the current demand. No such thing can be done with Nichols Rugs. Their colors are FAST and are only softened and mellowed in the washing. Some people also say the sheen does not last. This is not true. If you could keep your rug in a glass case the sheen would last indefinitely, but dust and dirt dulls it and then a washing with soap-and water will restore to your rug the original beautiful lustre. We have proven this statement a thousand times by washing customers rugs purchased from us years before and they have never failed to turn out as lovely as the day they were bought. Experience has taught us that chemical washing is also a protection against moths. Washed rugs are not susceptible to the ravages of this insect nearly as much as unwashed rugs. We have actually had cases of our washed rugs in storage for over two years without any protective material such as napthalene and the rugs opened up in perfect condition. This is important when it is considered that many of our customers buy their rugs "in bond" and may be obliged to leave them packed for a much longer period than anticipated. We unhesitatingly recommend the chemical washing process and all Nichols Rugs are so treated unless we are specifically instructed to the contrary.

Care of Rugs

Because of the beautiful clean condition in which you find your Nichols Rug when it is delivered to you, its care is reduced many fold and the only necessary attention for many years is merely that of routine house cleaning which is done with either a broom or a vacuum cleaner. You do not need to be afraid to use even the strongest vacuum cleaner on a Nichols Rug. When the fringes are soiled they may be cleaned with dry cornmeal by brushing the cornmeal vigorously in and out of the fringe; if soiled sufficiently, scrub the fringe with soap and water.

Nichols rugs may be washed with soap and water or, if only the surface is soiled, use a small portion of alcohol or ammonia in tepid water and go over the rug with this mixture. Most stains can be removed with gasoline or soap and water. It is better to dry the rugs on a flat surface rather than hang them on a line. Of course, all large cities have rug cleaning establishments and we recommend any reliable firm of this kind for a thorough cleaning; they cannot damage a Nichols Rug in the ordinary course of any cleaning process. Our New York Office will be glad to give you advice on this subject if you consult them


In Peking we have converted the former palace of a Manchu Prince into a weaving establishment containing fifty looms. The Old Audience Hall, seventy.five feet long, serves as our rug showroom. The original living quarters of the Prince's familv now house our two hundred weavers. This "Palace Factory" is now one of the sights of the city and visited by thousands of tourists every year. Should you be fortunate enough to ever spend a few days in Peking you are cordially invited to come and go through this unique place from a purely sightseeing point of view. It is not necessary to buy a rug - just see them made in a Palace and you will agree they are "Fit for a King."

nichols Chinese rug factory image factory

See our Chinese rugs for sale:

#7266 Antique Art Deco Chinese Carpet 8’11” X 11’10”

#7728 Antique Nichols Art Deco Chinese Oriental Rug 9’0″ X 11’11”