Being at the crossroad of various civilizations, Tunisia has always been well known for its weaving. The ancient Greeks already famed the carpets and tapestries of Carthage, five centuries before Jesus Christ. During the 1st century of Islam, the “Aghlabides” emirate of Kairouan paid its tribute to the calife of Baghdad partly in carpets and tapestries. Later, travelers reported the usage of various forms of weaving in the palaces, the homes and by the tribes : floor carpets, saddle carpets, etc.
Anchored in the traditions, but also open to external contributions, this know-how was at the origin of typically Tunisian weaving, inspired by the oriental carpets but also following regional and ethnic traditions, whilst filling out daily needs and having sometimes several functions. A carpet is a knotted decorative textile work, generally long wool, with a tied stitch, cut an woven on a vertical loom, often with a velvet-like surface, used to cover the ground. An example is the “Kairouan”.
Legend attributes to “Kamla”, the daughter of a Turkish governor of Kairouan, the introduction in 1830 of the knot of “Ghiords” (ghorza) of Anatolian (Turkish) conception. The “Kairouan”, which inherited the name of the city where it was originally produced, is the ascendant of a variety of present day Tunisian carpets. It is a rustic carpet, made of natural or dyed long wool. Its pattern includes a large and generally hexagonal central space, corner pieces with stylized patterns and large border strips with geometric or floral designs.
This carpet was introduced in various Tunisian cities, resulting in a myriad of varieties, each characterized by regional artistic influences, religious beliefs, prophylactic symbols as well as inputs from ceramic decoration and embroideries. At the same time as the introduction of the “Kairouan”, vivacious color schemes were increasingly adopted in function of the imagination of the artisans. A graduating of blue, green, black and white with an influx of shades and lights, usually settled on a desert yellow, where dunes are always moving.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the introduction of industrial dyes and their sometimes bad application somewhat altered the quality of the Tunisian carpet. This lead to the creation of a new type of carpet, the “Allouche” which uses the natural scale of sheep wool colors from black to white, through the different shades of gray, beige and brown.
In Kairouan, women do the weaving. They produce two types of wool carpet - pile and short-nap. The short- nap carpets are either of the “Mergoum” style (a diamond pattern worked into a neutral ground), and “Klim”(and not Kilim)which are formed by alternate strips of natural-colored wools. They belong to the millennium old art of North Africa’s first inhabitants, the “berbers” and remind us of their jewelry, their potteries and even their tattoos. The pile rugs, known as "Zerhivas" consist of a central motif bordered by an arabesque pattern. While there is some room for variation, most of these rugs follow traditional designs and motifs. The "Zerhivas" are more expensive than the short-nap carpets and take much longer to make. Those made out of silk were considerably more expensive but were beautiful.