Patterns in Rugs and Their Meanings

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It may be a bit of a stretch to say that every design in a rug has a deeper or hidden meaning, but we can certainly state that almost every detail in a carpet is telling us something of importance. In fact, carpets have sometimes been used to create a lasting map or a portrait of a ruler. But the majority of carpets are not pictorial pieces; instead they have a pattern built up of symbolic motifs. 


There are too many symbols used in rugs to discuss all of them.  The most common designs include fauna and flora.  Take for instance the floral medallion designs prevalent in city carpets.  In a broad sense, floral designs are taken to represent spring, and all of the allegory associated with rebirth and fertility.  But each flower also bears meaning.  The lily stands for purity, the lotus for rebirth and the peony for power. 

Animals provide a wealth of both design and metaphoric potential in carpets.  The ram’s head is a motif sometimes created with the image of a ram, but also represented within scrolling vine work in some floral patterns. The ram symbolizes virility and protection.


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All sorts of birds are very common in rugs. The peacock is a symbol of pride and beauty.  It is sometimes drawn in its entirety, other times only the plumage is used.  We have had beautiful medallion carpets with the medallion comprised of a fanned out peacock tail.  In addition, roosters symbolize strength and courage and birds-of-paradise are used in tree of life designs to stand for paradise or the heavens.

In tribal and village pieces, scorpions are very common.  The scorpion is admired for never surrendering and is a symbol of pride and strength.  Butterflies are used in both tribal and city rugs and, much as in the west, represents transformation and beauty.  

Other well-known symbolic designs include the elephant footprint, which is woven almost exclusively by the Turkeman tribe (although some Balouch weavings borrow this motif, and the Pakistani Bokhara copies this as well).  The Silk Road crosses through the heart of Turkeman territory: naturally, this meant that Turkeman men would often travel on long trade journeys.  And, so the story goes, the woman left behind would weave a rug with an elephant’s footprint wishing for her husband’s step to be as strong as an elephant’s on his travels.


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In the Persian culture, fish symbolize prosperity and are a very popular New Year’s (Nowruz) gift.  In carpets, the fish design is rendered with fish swimming in four directions which represents infinity.  So a rug with a fish design is all about infinite prosperity – not bad!

Of course there are patterns that don’t reference animals or plants. And some patterns are less poetic and more directly informational.  For instance the mother and child paisley design is comprised of a small paisley nestled within a larger paisley and is traditionally woven by a women expecting a child.  And shepherds such as the Qashqa’i and Lori often weave goats into their rugs as a marker of their livelihoods.

And these are just the symbols common in carpets!  Kilims have their own symbolic lexicon.  We love sharing our knowledge of carpet patterns and welcome you to visit us in our shop to learn more.