Vintage and antique European rugs were introduced to Europe by the Moors of Spain between the eighth and thirteenth centuries. While Oriental rugs initially had a significant influence on antique European rugs, various regions came to develop their own unique styles and techniques over time. In France, starting in the seventeenth century, factories in Savonnerie and Aubusson began producing some of the most exceptional rugs of the last few centuries. From 1660 until 1743 Savonnerie was a manufacture royale, carrying out commissions for pile rugs and carpets specifically designed for the Royal Palaces. In England, high-quality rug production in the town of Axminster in the late 18th century gradually paved the way for the Arts & Crafts rugs in the late nineteenth century when William Morris designed a pattern for an Axminster rug.
The Savonnerie carpet factory, located on the site of the present Musee d’Art Moderne, inherited its name from the soap making factory it took over at the behest of Louis XIII. From 1660 until 1743 Savonnerie was a manufacture royale, carrying out commissions for pile rugs and carpets specifically designed for the Royal Palaces. In the 1770s, the tapestry looms at Aubusson in the Creuze Valley near Limoges were converted to produce flat-woven rugs and carpets under royal warrant. No one knows precisely when carpet weaving began in this area, but it is certain that tapestries were first woven there long before the Gothic era. Many weavers who settled in France were Huguenots who had fled Spain during the Inquisition in the early sixteenth century. By issuing the edict of Nantes, Henry IV granted all non-Catholics freedom of worship, thereby protecting the carpet weavers in Aubusson. Aubusson weavers became the finest craftsmen in the world. Louis XIV’s influential Prime Minister Colbert established the long and hard apprenticeship necessary to obtain the title “Master of Tapestry”. Even today, the center in Aubusson, under control of the French Ministry of Arts, is busily producing carpets and rugs of the most exquisite quality. Antique Savonnerie and Aubusson rugs and carpets are considered to be among the finest examples of carpet production undertaken in Europe over the past 350 years.
During the Islamic occupation of the eleventh century, Medieval Spain was the first European country to make knotted pile rugs. The Hispano-Moresque society was a tremendously cultured civilization with diverse populations: Muslim Arab, Jewish, Christian and Berber, all intermingling for many centuries. In addition, other prevailing design influences came from Persia, Italy, and France. Along with tapestries, cushions, bed sets and chests, oriental style rugs were indispensable to the nomadic life of the Spanish nobility. In the fifteenth century, geometrically patterned Spanish carpets from Alcaraz were embellished with figural panels and emblazoned with armorials of the noble patrons who commissioned them. Throughout the Renaissance, Spanish carpet and rug making closely followed the prevailing trends of European fashion by incorporating bold wreath and trellis-work designs. Retaining the idiosyncratic structure of the Spanish knot, early Hispano-Moresque rug weavers employed the method of a single-warp knot in their carpets. The original bright red and blue colorations of these antique Spanish rugs have faded over time into the muted gold and blue tones now associated with antique Spanish carpets. Neoclassical and Turkish influenced pieces were made in the workshops of Quenca. In 1712 Charles III founded the Real Fabrica de Tapices Manufactory in Madrid and produced European style carpets to compete with the sophisticated French workshops of Aubusson and Savonnerie.