Making the Invisible Visible: Conservation and Islamic Art

April 2–August 4, 2013

Featured Textile: The Emperor's Carpet

Yael Rosenfield
Assistant Conservator, Department of Textile Conservation

Dye analysis provided by Nobuko Shibayama
Associate Research Scientist, Department of Scientific Research

Fiber Microscopy by Florica Zaharia
Conservator in Charge, Department of Textile Conservation

The Emperor's Carpet, second half 16th century. Iran, Safavid period (1501–1722). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1943 (43.121.1)

Weave Structure

The carpet's weave structure is composed of silk warps intersected by a repeating pattern of one row of wool knots and three passes of silk wefts. In tightly woven carpets, warps are often dense, causing them to be pushed into two levels, with every other warp "depressed." Using silk for the foundation creates a finer weave and therefore a higher knot count; there are approximately 5,425 knots per square decimeter (equivalent to a 4 x 4 in. square). Dense warps and a high knot count allow for more intricate and accurate rendering of motifs, clearly demonstrated by the extremely fine design of this carpet.

Above: Sketch of the carpet weave structure. Drawing by Janina Poskrobko

Left: Asymmetrically knotted wool pile (Persian or Sehna knots), knots open to the left (front view); Right: Back view showing partially depressed silk warps and a repeating pattern of three silk weft rows and a row of dyed wool knots. Photographs by Yael Rosenfield

When several weavers work simultaneously on a wide carpet, the areas where discontinuous weft threads meet are marked by a series of diagonally arranged points called "lazy lines." These lines are found in the top two corners of the carpet.

Left: Lazy line at the top proper-right corner (front view); Right: Lazy lines are more visible on the back of a carpet. Photographs by Yael Rosenfield

Fibers and Dyes

The foundation of the carpet is composed of silk, a precious and rare fiber characteristic of carpets commissioned by rulers; the pile is a fine quality sheep's wool. The carpet's approximately sixteen colors were all derived from natural plant and insect materials: redwood, madder, weld, indigo (plant based), and lac (insect based). Dye analysis was performed by the Department of Scientific Research using high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC).

Left: Silk fiber used for warp and weft, fiber used for warp and longitudinal view (400x); Right: Silk weft, cross-sectional view (1000x). Photographs by Florica Zaharia

Left: Fine wool fiber used for pile, longitudinal view (400x); Right: Fine wool fiber used for pile, cross-sectional view (1000x). Photographs by Florica Zaharia

Conservation Treatment

To strengthen fragile areas, the carpet was restored in the early twentieth century, before its acquisition by the Museum in 1943. More than seven hundred patches had been applied to the reverse of the carpet, often sewn in layers, indicating they were applied over several time periods (see image below right). Many losses also had been mended with thick threads and too-tight stitches, causing distortion of the carpet's alignment. To document the history of the carpet and as a part of the Museum's conservation process, the patches were numbered and photographed before removal. All previous restoration also was removed, which allowed the carpet to settle and resume its original shape.

Overall view of the front (left) and back (right) before conservation. Photographs by The Photograph Studio

A support backing was created in order to strengthen the carpet and fill in areas of loss. The wool backing was custom dyed in four colors and its layout accurately drafted so that its main color areas would correspond to those of the carpet. Some "windows" were left uncovered; these were chosen because the carpet was in fairly good condition and would provide access to the reverse of the carpet for future examination. All losses were consolidated to the backing fabric using embroidery floss and a laid couching stitch.

New wool support backing, back view. Photograph by Yael Rosenfield

Left: Bottom proper-right corner after removal of old restoration, before conservation treatment; Right: Bottom proper-right corner after conservation, with couching stitches visible. Photographs by Yael Rosenfield

Transport, Display, Storage

When being moved or stored, the carpet is rolled together with archival materials on a large-diameter tube. It is rolled with its front facing outward, in the direction of the pile. During its six-month display rotation, it is exhibited on a custom-built adjustable platform. Between rotations, it is stored in the Museum's Ratti Textile Center on a suspended tube so as not to bear its own weight.

Installation of the carpet on its custom-made platform. Photograph by Yael Rosenfield

Additional Reading

Dimand, M.S. Oriental Rugs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1973.

A.F. Kendrick, A. Upham Pope, W.G. Thomson. The Emperor's Carpet and Two Others, London and Persia: Cardinal & Harford, 1928.

Klose, Christine. "Imperial Puzzle: Sixteenth-Century Persian Spiral Vine Carpets with Animals," in Hali: Carpet, Textile and Islamic Art, Issue 170, Winter 201.

Volker, Angela. Oriental Knotted Carpets in MAK, Vienna, 2001.

Daniel Walker and Florica Zaharia. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, catalog 181, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011.

Installation of the carpet on its custom-made platform

This video documents the ambitious three-year conservation program to stabilize the condition of the carpet.