Far from being the dry-as-dust subject one might expect, the story of British carpets is full of surprises and is as threaded with intrigue, romance and human endeavour as any Dickens novel. The collective result of these shenanigans can still be seen in the carpets of today, indeed the recent history of carpet company mergers, comebacks and product innovation suggests that the trend may well continue.
Home comfort and interior design are nothing new. Just a few years ago, deep in the tundra of southern Siberia, unfolded a story that is pure Indiana Jones. Archaeologists uncovered a frozen tomb in which reposed the oldest rug ever discovered. Made over 2,000 years ago, the Pazyryk rug, itself probably the result of generations of tradition, was made with the same knotting techniques and incorporates many of the motifs that are familiar to us through examples from the middle ages and which can be seen in the museums of the world. Even today's hand knotted rugs have changed little and can clearly claim direct descendance from those of the Pazyryk era and earlier.
The merchant adventurers and explorers, with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, brought back to us an awareness of textiles and rugs from the East and these luxury works of art became treasured possessions. In 1540, that wily schemer Cardinal Wolsey, on being presented with a bale of rugs by the Venetian Ambassador, promptly demanded a hundred more. The Venetians, undoubtedly the foremost wheeler-dealers of the age, were out- manoevered but, with a great deal of effort, raised the cash for a further quantity to decorate Hampton Court. From this date rugs were "in" and the fashion quickly spread. Holbein, often included rugs in his paintings and currently in the National Gallery, you can see his newly restored "The Ambassadors", said by some to depict the Venetian incident. A double pleasure for me as the painting also includes a delightful example of my other passion, optical illusions. The intrigue, as well as the British Carpet Industry, had arrived.
British wool was already a major money spinner, creating a class of wealthy traders. It was traditionally spun and woven into apparel cloth but some of the coarser types were used in rougher flat woven fabric called "Fote Cloth". Commercial success with hand knotted pile fabric, in the manner of the "Turkie Worke" of Wolsey's rugs, was achieved with growing success through the next two centuries.
The Verulam carpet, made for Queen Elizabeth 1st, is evidence of the knotting techniques inspired by these Eastern pieces and superb examples of Persian carpets such as the Ardebil, made in 1580, are on show in the Victoria and Albert Museum providing a wealth of styling inspiration for the carpet designers of today.
The appreciation of textile floorcoverings took hold. In France, Aubusson rugs were made in Beauvais from 1580 and ten years later, Pierre Dupont opened a weaving shop in the grounds of the Louvre Palace, moving in 1620 to the unlikely premises of a disused soap factory, and these "Savonnerie" rugs became highly regarded for original and beautiful designs that owed nothing to the East. Paradoxically, pure new wool, hand-made needlepoint carpets in Aubusson style can still be bought today, albeit made in China.
Around 1720, Lord Pembroke actually smuggled Huguenot craftsmen from France in empty wine casks in order to integrate the latest weaving skills into the Wilton carpet factory which was set up in 1655. Wilton is still a carpet making centre and descendants of the original Huguenots reside in nearby Dorset.
Smuggling or abduction were not the style of the pious Thomas Whitty of Axminster, although he was not averse to a spot of industrial espionage. Enthused by an entrepreneur's desire to produce faster, wider and cheaper, he visited London in 1755 and took lodgings at the Golden Lion in Fulham. There, he made the acquaintance of a weaver from the factory of Parisot and inveigled a tour of the premises. The knowledge he gleaned enabled him to start making similar carpet in Devon. Increasing competition wiped out Parisot but the Golden Lion is still in business although the attractions on offer in 1975 when I stopped by, purely in the interests of carpet research and a pint, were a couple of "Exotic Dancers". Mr Whitty's Axminster carpets graced the more salubrious buildings such as Carlton House and The Brighton Pavilion and, selling coals to Newcastle, he even supplied the palaces of the Sultan of Turkey. British wool carpets are still made in the town and are in demand for the some of the most prestigious buildings around the world.
Hand knotted carpets and rugs continued to be produced in England until well into the 20th century but, as in every area of production, the relentless quest for quantity, efficiency and greater choice resulted in innovations that are with us today.
From early in the 19c, jute was imported from India and replaced the more expensive flax and cotton warps. The inventions of Hargreaves, Arkwright, Crompton, Cartwright and Watt's steam engine brought mass production. In fact, industrial development in England between 1750 and 1850 practically saw the end of cottage industries. From France came the most significant device for mechanically creating predetermined designs, the Jacquard. The "cards", as the system is known, is still used in the textile trade and you will have seen the same principle employed to create mechanical organ music. When this was eventually linked to the new looms engineered by the Americans Halcyon Skinner and Erasmus Bigelow, and then harnessed to the phenomenon of steam power, the British carpet industry became capable of taking on all-comers.
The development and growth of machine-made carpets was driven by many companies that are still making fine carpets today. In Kidderminster, the carpet dynasty of Brintons founded in 1783, went on to develop the Gripper Axminster loom of Skinner to make automated patterned carpet and was the first company to introduce "modern" phenomenon of wide-width carpet or Broadloom way back in 1906. Brintons' neighbours are Tomkinsons, Woodward Grosvenor and Adams, all founded in the last century and still going strong.
From the very beginning, perceived gaps in the market and consumer needs inevitably encouraged ingenious solutions. Hard floors and comfort led to the demands of Wolsey, a widening appreciation of the luxury of rugs encouraged English factories, high labour costs and loom width restrictions challenged the inventors, the need for a new look brought design creativity to English and French rugs, a desire to cover more of the floor led to mass production of repeatable designs in strips that could be sewn together and eventually Broadloom was an obvious answer. Bordered carpet squares were originally sewn up from 27" wide strips and were for many years seen to be the norm until, early this century, fitted carpets could be bought by the exceptionally well-to-do. These wall-to-wall carpet were mainly made with narrow width material sewn together until wide looms became more common from the 1930's.
The American connection is integral to the evolution of the British carpet industry and several of the pivotal inventions for making woven carpet came from there. Indeed, the founder of Scotland's famous carpet company was Alfred Stoddard, an American who, in 1862, took over an ailing tapestry factory in Elderslie and built a reputation for weaving fine carpets. In more recent times stoddard absorbed Widnell's in Edinburgh and then s of Glasgow and continues to supply top quality British wool carpets.
The USA however, is also responsible for the two major innovations which have had a huge impact on the floorcovering markets of the world. The introduction of a completely new method of making carpets adapted from looms designed to make candlewick bedspreads down in the cotton country of Georgia, during the 1930's. These new tufted carpets, as they became known, were produced more quickly, with less raw material and lower labour costs than Axminster or Wiltons. The demand for tufted carpets has grown to the extent that they now account for over 90% of global carpet sales.
The second US driven breakthrough was the development of man-made fibres to feed these new machines. The three main synthetics suitable for carpets are polyester, polypropylene and polyamide (nylon). All of them have different properties which make them ideal for specific textures and styles, but the three attributes that they all share are; the ease with which they can be made into carpet on this new equipment, hard wear and lower prices. These remarkable fibres combined with the efficiencies of the tufting machine have brought carpets within the reach of practically everyone and no longer just the privileged few.
From the 1970's, the need for tufted carpets to also compete in the top end of the market prompted the industry to offer woolrich products and today, in the UK wool has a substantial and growing share. The carpet business is coming full circle, from exclusive wool rugs through mass market machine mades, alternative fibres and the economies of scale back to quality and natural fibres.
But, even with the innovative tufting machine, there was a snag. The one area in which tufteds could not effectively compete was design capability, Axminster and Wilton carpets had this area sewn-up. In the main, tufted carpets were more suitable for plain carpet production - until last year.
The technique of presenting a different coloured yarn to the Axminster and Wilton loom, as and when the pattern demands, has altered little since the Jacquard of 1801 and could not be tailored for the tufting machine. But recently, Ryalux Carpets have introduced a completely new type of tufted patterned carpet called Ryaweave. Using an entirely new principle it emulates Jacquard's invention and, for the very first time, we can choose a patterned tufted carpet made from quality wool yarns, in a width wide enough for most rooms. Surely the ultimate, or is it?
The luxury of carpet is no longer automatically associated with the grandees of international trade but we can thank the avaricious Cardinal Wolsey for setting a trend that allows us all to make our house into our home.