THE ART OF ANATOLIAN KILIM – Now at the de Young Museum

Sean Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

A world-class collection of Anatolian kilims gifted to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco by Caroline McCoy-Jones from 1988–89 is showcased in a choice exhibition of two dozen of the finest examples. Presented in the textile arts gallery at the de Young September 10, 2011 through June 10, 2012, the pre- 19th-century Anatolian flat-woven kilims on view include a variety of design types, regional styles, as well as superb examples of artistic and visual prowess. The kilims in the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s permanent collection are considered the most important group of Anatolian kilims outside Turkey.
Click here for more information: DE YOUNG MUSEUM

Kilim, 18th century, Turkey, Anatolia.
Wool, cotton; slit tapestry weave. 56  x 138  inches.

Major patrons to the Fine Arts Museums Textile Arts Department, Caroline and H. McCoy Jones have generously donated more than 800 textile works to the museum. The importance of these collectors is paramount in the textile arts community and The Art of the Anatolian Kilim is a celebration of their gift. Curator Jill D’Alessandro explains, “The first presentation of works from this collection in 1990 signified a breakthrough in the appreciation of this weaving tradition. Not only was it the first time a Western museum had mounted a major exhibition dedicated to Anatolian kilims, but it was also the first time that kilims of this age, rarity and fragility were seen by the public; subsequently, the Anatolian kilim entered into the pantheon of the textile arts. With more than 20 years passing since this important collection made its public debut, many visitors, scholars and textile enthusiasts will be able to enjoy and study them for the first time.”

This selection of dynamic weavings were produced between the 15th and 19th centuries by seminomadic and village women of Anatolia, the land east of the Aegean often called Asia Minor by ancient geographers that constitutes much of present-day Turkey. Woven in the slit-tapestry technique, primarily from the wools of sheep, goats or camels, these works obtained their rich, earthy hues from natural dyes derived from locally harvested sources (with the exception of indigo, which is imported). The kilims are characterized by bold abstract designs that have been translated as symbolic renderings of architectural, human, animal and floral motifs, some of which trace back to Neolithic times.

Kilims were not only created for personal use but also serve as an expression of group identity, a representation of wealth and a source of currency. Over the centuries and up to modern times, both technique and design have been passed down from generation to generation of Anatolian women. Traditionally, they were used as floor and table coverings, room dividers, door flaps, prayer rugs and burial cloths. Many were given to local mosques to be used as floor coverings—layered one on top of another, they lent warmth and comfort. The kilim was also an important part of a bride’s dowry.

D’Alessandro explains, “These surviving examples, in their fragmented states, show thepassage of time. Although structural disintegration has interrupted the design field on some of these pieces, their colors remain deeply saturated and their patterns simple and powerful.”
The term kilim is not a technical term in that it defines a particular woven structure. It appears to have originated in the Near East as a general designation for flat-weaves—textiles without pile. In the past decade the term kilims has been used almost exclusively to denote textiles in slit tapestry weave.

Kilim, 18th–19th century, Turkey, Anatolia.
Wool, slit tapestry weave, 132 by 71 inches

Throughout its long and complex history, Anatolia has been home to many rich civilizations, including nomadic and seminomadic tribes. Over millennia the region was settled by the Greek, Roman, Persian, Byzantine, Mongol, and Ottoman Empires, among others, but it was perhaps the Oghuz Turk conquest of AD 1071 that had the largest impact on Anatolian traditions. The Turks brought with them a nomadic lifestyle, and for hundreds of years waves of tribal groups traversed the peninsula. Remarkably, despite the cycle of different rulers, the lifestyle of these groups—the Yörüks, Turkmen, and Kurds, all producers of the flat-woven kilim—remained relatively unchanged.

It is still not known when the weaving of kilims first began in Anatolia. From inscriptions on ancient clay tablets we learn that the weaving industry and textile trade were already highly developed in the area by the third millennium BC. Yet the first definitive reference to the kilim in Central Asia comes in the Persian Shahnameh, Abolqasem Firdowsi’s history of the Sassanian Empire written around AD 1000. In recent years, radiocarbon dating has shown that surviving examples were produced as early as the ninth century.

The Anatolian kilim’s diversity of pattern and composition traces an overlay of myriad cultures. In the earliest weavings we may discover echoes of prehistoric beliefs, while more recent examples display complex patterns with multiple influences. However, in the words of rug scholar Jon Thomson, “The most important influences on design are so old that we cannot trace their origin.”


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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at:


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