Historic French Rugs
Updated: Feb 11
(Originally published in the Napa Valley Register)
I’ve been on a rug kick lately. Writing about the intriguing patterns and origins of those from the Far and Middle East, the exhilaration of custom-designing Tibetan rugs from Nepal, and even describing how to use their sizes to define a space. Today, I’m exploring two rugs that have deep roots in France.
The first, the “Savonnerie”, was considered the most prestigious of knotted, pile rugs in 17th century Europe. Its name comes from its manufactory, located on the Quai di Chaillot downstream from Paris, that had previously produced soap – “savon” in French. The soap factory, by the way, had been established by Pierre DuPont in 1615 after returning from the Levant. The back story to this lies in King Henri IV’s desire to revive the French arts after their collapse during The Wars of Religion. French silver was being drained to the Levant and Persia in exchange for their knotted rugs. DuPont was one of several craftsmen to whom the king provided a workshop in the effort to produce French goods. Savonnerie rugs were under the exclusive ownership of the Crown (like a patent) and became some of the grandest of French diplomatic gifts.
Savonnerie rugs were constructed of fine, close woolen pile at approximately 90 knots per square inch in small, patterned detail. It took a full year for a skilled craftsman (who had apprenticed for at least six years) to weave a 5-foot by 7-foot rug. More complex patterns took even longer. Early productions broadly imitated Persian models but later settled into purely French designs. Since the king had prohibited the import of rugs from the East, the Savonnerie factory flourished. In 1742, King Louis XV (Rococo Period) gave a Savonnerie rug to the Ottoman Sultan in the hopes of impressing him with a border woven in gold thread. Today, some thirty-five Savonnerie rugs are in Le Mobilier National (the oldest furniture depository in the world).
The second rug of interest is called an “Aubusson” and named after the town in which the first looms were set up, about 200 miles south of Paris. This was most likely done by Flemish refugees in the 1300s. The production of Aubusson rugs, however, did not begin until the 1500s when they, like Savonnerie rugs, took part in the revival of the French arts. While the patterns were based on those of Savonnerie rugs, Aubussons were flat weaves rather than piles. They were also available to those beyond the royal palace who could who could afford them, typically the upper class and sophisticated aristocracy of Europe.
The long history of Aubusson rugs would come to an end around 1870 when production ceased in the town of Aubusson.
Both Savonnerie and Aubusson rugs fashioned Baroque and Rococo motifs, densely massed and naturalistic floral bouquets, leafy foliage, coats of arms, heraldry, and architectural images all within multiple borders. The colors used were deep blue, black, and brown as well as pastels. They were among the most important styles of rugs throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and subsequently influenced Spanish weavers during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Today, Savonnerie and Aubusson styles are copied and produced in India, Pakistan and China with great efforts to keep alive the look and feel, as well as the original designs, for people to continue to enjoy.
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