Look at any design magazine or home decor social media account and you'll see richly colored rugs with interesting patterns. Often, these are tribal rugs. Antique examples of tribal rugs were often made by hand out of horsehair or wool by nomadic tribes. Different tribes and craftspeople used different designs and motifs. Flowers and geometric patterns were popular choices.

History of Tribal Rugs

The nomads in what today is considered the Middle East were the originators of hand-knotted rugs that eventually became known as tribal rugs. These people raised sheep, which gave them a steady supply of wool. First, they made rugs from animal pelts, and then, they learned to weave animal hair. Early woven (rugs) were shag carpets and were used as bedding and covering from the cold. Tribes in the western part of this region developed the knotted pile rug-making technique.

Rugs leave little archaeological evidence, which makes it hard to state with certainty how the history of the tribal rug unfolded. However, the oldest known rug is about 3,000 years old. It displays complex workmanship and advanced artistry, making it likely that rug-making was a well-established craft when this rug was made.

What Tribal Rugs Were Used For

The urge to make a home beautiful and comfortable is common across all civilizations, and nomadic tribes were no different. Rugs were initially made to cover the floors of tents, to help keep sand out and make for a more comfortable place to walk, sit, pray, and sleep. They also served as protection from sun, sand, and cold. The rugs were made to be durable, and that durability is one reason why they continue to be popular today.

What Materials Tribal Rugs Were Made Out Of

Historically, these rugs were woven with horse or camel hair, but more recently, wool from goats and sheep was used. Once, only natural dyes were used, but today, weavers also use synthetic dyes.

Tribal rugs are sometimes known by the region where they are made. For example, rugs made in the Middle East are also called Persian carpets. Certain areas, like Nain, Isfahan, Kasha, and Mashhad, are known for their unique tribal rug weaving styles. These rugs are historically also of very high quality. Rug weavers in Tabriz have kept the historic tradition of rug weaving alive during times of decline. Weavers in smaller villages typically use fewer colors and simpler patterns.

When Tribal Rugs Came to the U.S.

North America had its own tribal rug tradition, too, of course. Native American tribes have made rugs for many of the same reasons as the nomadic tribes in the Middle East. But these creations became popular with Europeans and European Americans starting in the 1950s. Tribal rugs became hot sellers at antique and art auctions in Europe and North America. Many trend-setting Americans were interested in mid-century modern décor, and tribal rugs worked well with this style. That same era also saw a rising interest in folk art and pieces made traditionally by nomadic or indigenous people. Turquoise jewelry, for example, became extremely popular. Tribal rugs were part of that overall aesthetic. Tribal rugs continued to gain in popularity throughout the 1960s and 1970s and beyond.

Today, there are factory-produced copies of tribal rugs, but there's enduring appreciation for the original, handcrafted rugs. Museums, especially those with a focus on textiles or folk art, have built collections and regularly host exhibits devoted to the art behind tribal rugs. And Persian rugs are again very popular in design circles today. Their enduring popularity is a reflection of the beauty, quality, and high craftsmanship of the rugs.