In the 13th century, French knights returning from the crusades brought with them oriental rugs that they called Tapis Sarrasinois after their Saracen foe. Other Oriental style rugs continued to find their way West, but at the beginning of the century, they were still expensive rarities. As a result, in 1608, Henry IV, then King of France, formally commissioned a weaver named Pierre Dupont, who claimed to have discovered how to make rugs at la façon perse et du levant (french for "in the Persian and Levant" way). From that point, shop was set up at the Louvre and so satisfied was Henry with Dupont's rugs that before his death in 1610, he decreed that the output of the Louvre Atelier was to be reserved exclusively for the royal family. His son, Louis XIII, was only 9 years old when his father died, but in 1627 at the age of 26, he instructed Dupont to open up a new shop at the Savonnerie, a former soap works factory ("Savon" meaning "Soap"). The carpets, produced primarily for the royal family, were constructed of fine, close woolen pile, of approximately ninety knots per square inch. A skilled craftsman had to work a full year to make about two and one-half yards (three square meters) of plain carpet and even longer to make more complex patterns. Designs created by court artists included floral arrangements, military and heraldic references and architectural motifs. Warps were made out of linen and the woolen pile was woven using the symmetrical knots.
The earliest, well-known group produced by the Savonnerie, under the direction of Simon Lourdet, are the carpets that were produced in the early years of Louis XIV's reign. They are densely ornamented with flowers, sometimes in vases or baskets, against dark blue or brown grounds in deep borders. The designs are based on Netherlandish and Flemish textiles and paintings. The most famous Savonnerie carpets are the series made for the Grande Galerie and the Galerie d'Apollon in the Palais du Louvre between c. 1665-1685. These 105 masterpieces, made under the artistic direction of Charles Le Brun, were never installed, as Louis XIV moved the court to Versailles in 1688. Their design combines rich acanthus leaves, architectural framing, and mythological scenes with emblems of Louis XIV's royal power.
Although carpets made to cover floors and tables were the factory's mainstay, it also produced wall-hangings, panels for folding screens, upholstery, and copies of oil paintings. Since the government prohibited the import of carpets from the East, the Savonnerie factory flourished. Among other splendid presents, the king of France, Louis XV, gave Savonnerie carpets to the Ottoman sultan in 1742; he particularly wanted to impress the sultan with the quality and richness of French carpets, woven on this occasion with borders of gold thread. The greatest period of Savonnerie rug production was between 1650 - 1789.
Pierre-Josse Perrot is the best-known of the mid 18th century carpet designers. His many surviving works and drawings display graceful rococo s-scrolls, central rosettes, shells, acanthus leaves, and floral swags. The Savonnerie manufacturer was moved to the Gobelins in Paris in 1826.
The Beauvais manufacturer, better known for their tapestry, also made knotted pile carpets from 1780 to 1792.
Carpet production in small, privately owned workshops in the town of Aubusson began in the 17th century but the Aubusson manufacturer was only established in 1743. The river's pure waters were used for washing the wool that the people of Aubusson and the neighboring villages wove into the tapestries and rugs which made the region's reputation in the mid 18th century. At the time, only the king of France was able to own or rarely sell a Savonnerie carpet, leading to the development of the Aubusson. These flat woven carpets emulated the designs of the Savonnerie carpets. This lead to its vast popularity with the wealthy European community. Aubusson rugs graced the floors throughout all of Europe in the 17th and the 18th century. The Carpets produced in France employ the symmetrical knot.
Today, most 17th and 18th century Savonnerie rugs are found only in some of the world's greatest museums. However, French carpet production continues until this day, both reproducing older designs and making newly commissioned works designed by contemporary artists.
Sources and inspiration: Bérinstain, Valérie, et al. L'art du tapis dans le monde (The art of carpets in the world),. Paris: Mengès, 1996. Print.; Jerrehian Jr., Aram K.A. Oriental Rug Primer. Philadelphia: Running Press, 1980. Print.; Herbert, Janice Summers. Oriental Rugs, New York: Macmillan, 1982. Print.; Hackmack, Adolf. Chinese Carpets and Rugs, Rutland and Tokyo: Tuttle, 1980. Print. ; De Moubray, Amicia, and David Black. Carpets for the home, London: Laurence King Publishing, 1999. Print.; Jacobsen, Charles. Oriental Rugs A Complete Guide, Rutland and Tokyo: Tuttle, 1962. Print.; Bashir, S. (n.d.). Personal interview.; Web site sources and dates of consultation vary (to be confirmed). Without prejudice to official usage.