The New
Rug Society
Presents An
Online Exhibit

To Have and To Hold:
Art and function in Transport and Storage Bags



Exhibit Notes

Tech Notes



Welcome to another online exhibition sponsored by the New England Rug Society. The subject of our focus this time -- transport and storage bags -- is of special interest to collectors for several reasons. First because, being utilitarian objects created primarily for the weavers' family use, they tend to more candidly reflect the rich design lexicon of their owners’ tribal culture than do their rugs, whose designs were more influenced (some say diluted) by market forces. Also, because they are small and usually affordable, making them especially appealing as collectibles. And third, because they are fascinating and often beautiful objects. We hope you will share our enthusiasm for this very special art form.

The final selections were chosen from photographs of 176 pieces submitted by NERS members. To maximize impartiality during the selection process, our panel was not informed who owned the pieces. Our objectives were threefold: to show a wide variety of transport and storage implements, to represent a wide geographic swath, and to demonstrate how interesting and attractive this category of ethnographic textiles can be.

For those who have not worked on an exhibition of this sort, it is hard to imagine the amount of time and energy it requires. The selection panel, consisting of NERS members Jim Adelson, Bob Alimi, Yon Bard, Jeff Spurr, Mike Tschebull and myself, spent many hours compiling a balanced selection. The lenders willingly accommodated our frequent requests with patience and understanding. Yon did the digital photography. Mike researched and authored the text with assists here and there from others. Holly Smith of Holly Lorraine Smith & Co. generously donated many hours doing the technical analyses. Beau Ryan of Rare Elements provided us both facilities and storage of the pieces, and tolerated our presence with grace and patience. And our talented webmaster Bob Alimi put it all together and made it happen, perhaps the most time consuming task of all. Please join me in extending warmest thanks to all of our lenders and committee members for making this undertaking possible.

We hope you’ll enjoy your visit and return often to savor these examples of an intriguing and historically important textile art form.

Mark Hopkins, President
January, 2004


An Introduction to the Exhibition
by Mike Tschebull

What is it that so intrigues collectors about transport and storage bags from North Africa and the Middle East? Some of their fascination derives from the sheer beauty of the objects. Some find equal interest in the amazing variety of their structures and formats. Others favor these bags from an art historical perspective, perhaps motivated by the thought that they are vectors for the westward movement of ancient and important graphic design motifs and concepts. And some find them intriguing simply because they are a link to a now largely bygone way of life, that of the pastoral nomad.

Transport and storage bags from the largely treeless geographic swath stretching from the western gates of China through the Maghrib were produced largely by nomadic people, with the remainder made by villagers in more limited formats. Most often they were woven with wool and hair sheared from local livestock. The bags had to be practical and durable. They also had to be reasonably quick and easy to make, as nomads frequently pulled up stakes and followed their flocks to new grazing areas. Over time, bags became emblems of a sort, serving as identifiers of clan or tribe. They also served as expressions of beauty, became outlets for artistic creation, functioned as capital to be liquidated at appropriate times, and were enduring reservoirs of design concepts. Transport and storage bags were part of the nomads’ matrix of household furnishings and shelter – almost all being fabricated from animal fiber using methods developed as a result of evolving nomad technology. Its other elements included felt or woven hair fabric to cover yurt or tent frames, bands or straps to hold yurts in place or to secure bags on animals for transport, and floor coverings or ground cloths on which to sit, eat, and be warm and protected from the dirt.

In addition to animal fiber, cotton and sometimes silk were used for embellishment, both woven and embroidered, and also for foundations. Normally use of cotton was restricted to areas where it was cultivated. Silk, in all cases, was a trade item. There was also a felt-making tradition in Central Asia that stretches back millennia, and there is one felt bag in the exhibition (plate 36).

Weaving with animal fiber could not really begin until selective breeding had developed woolly sheep starting about 6,000 years ago.1 The first record of woven bags comes from Assyrian cuneiform tablets, dated to about 2,000 BCE, that document trade of textiles and tin between the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys and Anatolia. None of those bags survives.2

The first group of early nomad bags to actually survive comes from the Pazyryk Tombs in Siberia. Because objects in these 5th century BCE Scythian tombs were preserved in permafrost, a great deal can be learned from them. Found in the various sites, according to Elena Tsareva, were “twelve different leather and fur bags, including one saddle bag”, but no woven bags, only scraps of wool cloth that might have been parts of bags at one time.3 The fiber remains include magnificent felt fragments, but no felt bags. To this day, there is a Central Asian tradition of using both leather and felt bags.

Evidence of the further development of transport bags can be seen, for example, in Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) and Uighur fired clay tomb camels, many with readily identifiable representations of what must have been wooden packframes supporting large double bags.4

Many miniature paintings survive from 15th – 18th century Middle Eastern court ateliers, and one would think that they would offer glimpses of bags in use. But a recent search shows they have few secrets to reveal. Baggage trains followed Ottoman troops across a wide area, but there are apparently no paintings of them. Mounted troops themselves are depicted in many miniatures with bow cases, quivers and saddle rugs, but without bags. Safavid scenes of encampments are highly stylized, and are generally acknowledged as depicting members of the court rather than more ordinary nomads. One such example in Harvard’s Sackler Museum,5 shows a “nomadic encampment” scene in which there appears to be a large, horizontally striped bag hanging at the back of a white tent in the lower right quadrant of the painting. A second Safavid example,6 a painting by Mirza 'Ali shows a shepherd with a vertically striped shoulder bag that is complete with a strap, open at the top end, and exhibits a format much like plate 24 in this exhibition. Its red and white stripes would be unusual to encounter in a weft-faced weave, suggesting the illustration may represent a warp-faced fabric.

The bags in this exhibition are primarily examples of ethnographic art. While they are beautiful, they are or were also fully functional in their cultural context. Learning something about the culture from which they come can be very rewarding,7 but therein a problem lies. Although anthropologists studying these tribal groups may accurately describe present day cultural conditions, their information cannot always be applied to the past. And as an aside, anthropologists are seldom very interested in textiles, a point of frustration to many collectors. To make things more difficult, seldom do there exist good period accounts of the production and use of folk art textiles such as transport and storage bags. To form a complete picture of why and how bags were woven - let alone where and when, or what the designs on them might mean - the collector, unless he wants to do the fieldwork and other basic research him or herself, is left to cobble together information from specialist historians,8 geographical and climatological studies, travelers’ accounts, and the memories of dealers.

To overlook the cultures from which transport and storage bags come and appreciate them only for their color harmonies or arresting designs is to miss a prime ingredient of their importance. They are remnants of a way of life that is fast disappearing from the globe. When they are gone, there will be no more like them to be found. As such, today’s collectors are the stewards of artifacts that possess as much value in their historic significance as in their many esthetic merits.


Drawn from New England Rug Society members’ submissions, this group of bags and bagfaces is by no means a balanced representation and contains flashy examples that may not be typical. Many nomad and village-woven bags were utilitarian but not particularly interesting or beautiful, and those groups of weavings are not represented.

Bags woven within the boundaries of historic Iran represent an eye-opening two thirds of the total pieces exhibited here. This is due, among other reasons, to a long and strong Iranian artistic tradition, high value given to textile art, very good geographical conditions for nomadism, and the cultural influences of the many invaders who made up these nomadic populations.

Pile-woven bags, representing a bit more than 40% of the total exhibition, are probably over-represented, and many were probably originally woven for sale.

It is interesting to see that sumakh-decorated bags constitute almost as large a percentage of entries as pile-woven ones. The term sumakh may well be a fabricated word, but the weaving technique it defines is real enough: wefts are wrapped progressively, ever forward, around groups of warps to form patterns. It is a very basic “pileless” weave that may have had its beginning in basketry. Sometimes the weaving term is spelled “soumak”, sometimes “sumak”. One theory is that it derives from the town of Shemakha in the eastern Transcaucasus. Another, put forward by Mahammedkhan Mahammedkhanov, a Daghestani ethnographer, is that the term has Daghestani origins. To muddy the waters further, Roya Tagiyeva, Director of the Carpet Museum in Baku, prefers to use the word “geyik” rather than any variation of “sumakh”.9 The spelling we use in the plate descriptions is sanctioned by Danny Shaffer, editor of Hali. In general, transliteration of Turkic, Arab and Iranian words from the original into English is more art than science.10

Since the concentration of sumakh-woven textiles – not only bags, but also rugs, horse covers and other animal trappings – comes from the Transcaucasus, Daghestan and Azarbayjan in Iran – it is reasonable to conclude that the technique developed there. A number of academics and other specialists concur, and many of the designs one sees on sumakh bags may be indigenous to the area, perhaps derived from pottery and baskets.11

It must be said that collecting transport and storage bags from western and central Asia can be an inexpensive way to learn about a wide variety of formats and structures, unusual cultures, and art objects that will draw you in and often not let you go.


Raoul "Mike" Tschebull has a special interest in village weavings of northwest Iran and the Transcaucasus, which has taken him to Iran and the Caucasus to speak at conferences and to do field research. He has authored several journal articles on the subject, and is perhaps best known for his seminal 1971 exhibition catalog "Kazak: Carpets of the Caucasus". A former international banker, he is now the owner of Tschebull Antique Carpets in Darien, CT.

1) Private correspondence with Dr. Elizabeth Barber, Professor of linguistics and archaeology at Occidental College, Los Angeles, CA

2) Barber, E., Women's Work, The First 20,000 Years, New York, 1994, chapter 7

3) Private correspondence with Dr. Elena Tsareva, senior researcher in the Department of Ethnography for South and Southwest Asia and head of textile programs at the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg.

4) Attribution on the basis of Metropolitan Museum of Art signage.

5) An image of  the Sackler museum miniature can be found on the web at:

6) Currently part of the Hunt for Paradise: Court Arts of Iran, 1501-1576 at Asia Society in New York and entitled “Rustram recovers Rakhsh”. Illustration 4.15 (p. 98) in the catalogue Hunt for Paradise: Court Arts of Iran, 1501-1576, edited by Thompson, J. and Canby, S., Milan, 2003. The miniature is from Shah Tahmasp’s Shahnameh, from the period 1522-35.

7) One of the latest sources of good information on the culture of nomadism is Tapper, R. and Thompson, J (Editors), The Nomadic Peoples Of Iran, London, 2002

8) The history of the Transcaucasus and northern Iran is very interesting to study, as the textiles from that area are beautiful and the politics are complex. An excellent source on this subject is Atkin, Muriel, Russia and Iran, 1780-1828, Minneapolis, 1980

9) Opinions of Mahammedkhan Mahammedkhanov and Roya Tagiyeva about the term “sumakh” were part of their unpublished papers given at the Azerbaijani Carpet Symposium in Baku in May, 2003

10) Witness the multiple spellings of words like khorjin and chuval. Sometimes the best way to transliterate is to hear the original repeatedly and just have at it. Sometimes transliterations come into English through another language, like German, and make almost no sense in English. Conventions change, and spellings mutate into new forms. Governments can play a role. In Azarbayjan, local Turki is written in Arabic script. In Azerbaijan, the written script was Arabic, then gradually Cyrillic when the Russians arrived, now, by fiat, Roman script, like in Turkey. But in Azerbaijan, they now use "Q's" to begin words that Turks in Turkey would use "K's" for (Quba, Qarabagh, etc.).

11) See Wertime, J., “Back To Basics: Primitive Pile Rugs Of West & Central Asia”, Hali 100; private correspondence with Dr. Elena Tsareva; for examples of pottery design forebears, see Tagiyeva, R., Azerbaijan Carpet, Baku, 2001


Online Exhibition 

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New England Rug Society
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To Have and To Hold