Every house in Uzbekistan is decorated with carpets. Though these days they will often be factory-made synthetic rugs from China, traditionally they would have been handwoven locally. Each community would have produced carpets in a distinctive style, and they were valued as much for their artistic qualities as for their functional properties. The largest single collection of carpets is thought to have belonged to the Emir of Bukhara: he had over 10,000 examples in his palace.
There are three main types of carpet produced in Uzbekistan: felt mats, flat-woven carpets and pile or tufted carpets. The first of these is the most ancient form, and would have first been produced by nomadic herders with surplus wool from their sheep. When wool is kneaded with soap and water, it becomes a thick, heavy felt that is not only warm but, as local legend has it, cannot be walked upon by a spider, nor crawled upon by a snake. It is either left in its natural colour (usually a cream or grey), or dyed with natural pigments such as indigo (for blue), moraine (red) and pomegranate bark (yellow). In desert areas, women also made similar rugs with camel hair.
It's not known exactly how long carpets have been woven in Uzbekistan, but archaeologists have found spindles in Stone Age sites that are similar to the wooden spindles still used in some rural areas of the country today. On the spindles you can spin a thick, coarse yarn that is required for julhirs, the loosely woven carpets still produced around Dzhizak and Nurata. Such carpets are often woven with a pattern of longitudinal stripes, edged with a chain of rhombuses and triangles. Modern flat-weave carpets can be woven from either woollen or cotton threads. The smooth surface is created by interlocking the warp (vertical) and weft (horizontal) threads. They are produced on a simple loom made from narrow, wooden beams. The width of the carpet strip is dictated by the width of the loom, but typically does not exceed 50cm. To make a wider carpet, therefore, several strips must be stitched together.The flat-weave carpets produced in Bukhara are considered to be the finest in the country; those from Surkhan Darya are unique in that the base threads are in two colours.
The most valuable carpets, however, are the tufted carpets. The finest fleece is used to produce their thread, and a thread count of 100 or more knots per centimetre is not uncommon. This makes the production process exceptionally time-intensive, and it requires an exceptionally high level of attention to detail; a single knot of the wrong colour in the wrong place will ruin months of work.
Though men do sometimes produce knotted carpets, it is generally considered a job for women as it helps to have small, deft hands. Women pass carpet-making techniques from mother to daughter, and it is still commonplace to see young girls working away at a loom. The warp threads are stretched on the loom, and onto these the weaver knots individual threads, hitting each one down with a metal hook so that it sits tightly alongside the previous knot.
Historically a small number of carpets were woven with golden thread and silk. Produced in Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva for their respective courts, they became famous well beyond Uzbekistan and were prized as diplomatic gifts. Without imperial patronage, such carpets are increasingly rare.