Floors, Walls, Ceilings, Surface Finishes

Weaving a New Old Look

Carpeting is an important, and often overlooked, part of many historic preservation projects.

Click here to see a glossary of terms from this article.

By Maureen Mant, David Luckham Consultants Ltd.

The Saloon (main drawing room) carpet at Saltram House was designed by Robert Adam and made by Thomas Whitty's workshop circa 1770-1780. Photo: National Trust Photo Library, UK, John Hammond

For hundreds of years, carpets have reflected the culture, status and aspirations of their owners. Vernacular weavers in Turkestan created, and still create, floor and wall carpets that reflect their daily lives and incorporate patterns that are intrinsic to their culture. In Europe, the early carpet weavers copied the designs of the imported Asiatic carpets that were so admired, but with the Renaissance came a new appreciation of architecture and geometry that led to carpets and decorative floor designs reflecting the architecture and Classical nature of the buildings in which they were placed.

For the great houses that Robert Adam designed, such as Saltram House near Plymouth, England, Adam created carpets to be as integral to their location as the plasterwork and moldings. In order to reflect the three-dimensional architecture of the rooms, the two-dimensional carpet drawings incorporated appropriately drawn shadows and a myriad of shades to express the missing third dimension. Later, fitted and area carpets reflected the prevailing styles of their times. Today, whether a building is large and public or small and domestic, the impact of the floor covering must not be underestimated, if only because of the proportionately large area involved.

Any introduction of a new carpet to an established historic interior is bound to make a considerable visual impact: for good or for ill. Too often, a safe, neutral carpet is chosen, the purpose being to avoid drawing attention away from the walls, ceilings and other decorative features. However, the effect of a design that does not reference and enhance those features is to reduce their visual presence, so that the interior loses its cohesion and impact. The importance of the choice of carpet in any location cannot be overstated, simply because the carpet provides a background to the features surrounding it and items placed upon it.

The Drawing Room of the Hampton mansion near Baltimore, MD, now has a new historically accurate carpet. Photo: Hampton National Historic Site, National Park Service

Additional Criteria
Any choice of carpet will, naturally, be governed by the purpose and appearance of its intended location, but for historic carpets, there are additional criteria. Has the location's usage or footfall changed over time? What evidence is there for the type of carpet to be used, and is this type of carpet still made? These just two of the questions to be answered. Whether the chosen carpet replaces an original or is a new creation for the location, the answers will determine the level of authenticity to be specified, and once this level has been determined, the process of selection becomes relatively straightforward.

In situations where a curatorially accurate reproduction of a carpet is required, usually because the original has become fragile or the room use has changed, strict control must be exercised over the drawing, color palette, quality of yarn, construction and finish, all of which vary considerably from culture to culture and over time. Where possible, the new carpet should be made by the same method, in the same materials and, ideally, in the same country as the original, or at least under the supervision of experienced workers from that country or culture.

The Drawing Room of the Hampton National Historic Site with original 1849 carpet, photographed in 1949. Photo: courtesy of Hampton National Historic Site, National Park Service

Where the existing carpet is already a copy of an earlier one, a choice has to be made whether to copy the characteristics of the existing carpet or to research the character of, and replicate, the original. Without doubt, the choice should be made on the basis of the finest quality, usually the original, which will produce the most handsome carpet with the best wearing characteristics. However, it is not always possible to reproduce the construction of the original carpet because the skills and technology may no longer exist.

Such was the case with the printed tapestry velvet Drawing Room carpet at the Hampton National Historic Site near Baltimore, MD. These instances pose an added challenge as it can be extremely difficult to re-create the very particular character of a carpet using a different technology. In the case of the Hampton carpet, the loom able to replicate the 39 colors and fine drawing of the original carpet was a full-pitch-spool Axminster loom, one of the last of its kind in the world and the type of loom that superseded the printed tapestry technology.

The Living Looms workshop with yarn loaded on to the loom for the first half of the pattern and, on the left, spools being set for the second half. The yarn is set on each spool with colors in the correct position for one row of the design. The Hampton carpet required 1,440 spools. Photo: courtesy of David Luckham Consultants, Ltd.

Historically, the impetus behind carpet making has been to widen markets through faster and cheaper methods of manufacture and materials, so that modern loom technology is no longer able to replicate the fine character of earlier carpets. Therefore, where traditional carpet mills survive it is important to support and use them not only for historic authenticity and character, but also because their skills and technology may otherwise be lost.

In any historic setting, where there is no existing carpet to be reproduced, research is required. This can range from a search of an appropriate carpet manufacturer's archives to extensive documentary research of house receipts, inventories, wills and letters, together with a physical search of the building for evidence under existing carpets and in attics, leading to a carpet archive search or a newly commissioned design based on the evidence or reflecting the architectural details of the location or both.

Old, partially washed, fragment of carpet laid on new carpet. The fragment is a worsted, printed tapestry velvet carpet, and the replica is a worsted, full-pitch spool Axminster carpet. Photo: courtesy of David Luckham Consultants, Ltd.

Even where a basic level of authenticity is required, care should be taken as changes to an archive design, such as simplification or altering the scale to accommodate a different technology, can quickly lead to a carpet with an inappropriate, modern character. It is vitally important that a close affinity exists between the new carpet and its surroundings and that it enhances, but does not dominate or detract from, the features around it, providing an integrated, grounded component of the space.

The construction of any new carpet should reflect the period and use of its location. Narrow-width Wiltons, Axminsters, flat-woven ingrains and hand-knotted carpets can be woven to archive designs or designed to order. These traditionally constructed carpets have excellent wearing characteristics and keep their good looks over many years.

Protective floor coverings, too, such as mattings and druggets, play an important role in historic locations and can still be obtained. In public buildings, druggets often welcome the visitor and constitute the main visitor route. It must be remembered that originally they were removed when visitors were expected, to show the rooms to their best advantage.

The design of the new carpeting in Charlton's Coffeehouse in Williamsburg, VA, was the result of discussions between the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and David Luckham Consultants, Ltd. Photo: courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Sympathetically designed druggets and barrier mattings can provide acceptable modern solutions to many problems, like the grey-green felt drugget on the main visitor route at Syon House, England, quietly protecting the famous scagliola floor without compromising the impact of the design.

In some areas, such as offices, shops or restaurants where a fine carpet would be inappropriate, good-quality woven nylon and printed tufted carpet can be less expensive and more practical. The choice should never be seen as a convenient option, rather as a deliberate and carefully considered selection. Even carpet tiles may be appropriate under certain circumstances. For the carpet to be appropriate to these spaces, the historic design and color palette should be carefully considered to maintain a sense of place. The shock of the new is not usually attractive or appropriate in an historic setting.

Fitting and Maintenance
Important as the carpets are, correct fitting and maintenance are essential parts of any successful installation. These factors prolong the life of any carpet, and a little extra investment in these areas provides long term savings in both time and money. Methods of fitting vary according to the construction and contribute to the overall appearance of the carpet. For example, a 12-ft.-wide plain broadloom Wilton will not have the same character as a plain 27-in.-wide Wilton sewn in the traditional manner.

The Charlton's Coffeehouse body carpet is shown here on the loom. Photo: courtesy of Avena Carpets, Halifax, England

Fitting details, such as borders, especially on stairs and landings, can also change the historic character of an installation and determine whether the carpet can be moved regularly to prolong its life. Like the reduced number of looms, however, the number of carpet fitters trained in these traditional skills is also decreasing.

During the refurbishment of a building, the provision of the carpet needs to be considered early in the process and not added at the end or, as often happens, under-funded. A more accurate, appropriate and better value specification can be proposed if it is taken out of the major contract, which also allows a more successful installation to be completed when the site is clear and clean.

A survey of the requirements for the floor coverings should provide proposals for both short-term and long-term investment, and a holistic, planned approach to protection and maintenance will enhance the performance of the investment.

Specifying appropriate carpets that enhance their historic interiors is not a cheap option. However, these carpets form an integral part of their locations and must be treated as of equal priority with other fittings and finishes, such as plasterwork, gilding and hangings. By choosing fine-quality materials, the yarn will not tire quickly, and the original appearance of the carpet will be maintained throughout its long life. If the cost of such carpets is considered on a whole-life basis, it will be seen that they represent excellent value for the money.


The Living Looms Project

The Living Looms heritage carpet weaving workshop was created by David Luckham and Mo Mant in 2007 to preserve, maintain and develop the unique technologies and craft skills associated with historic, narrow-width carpet looms. When old-style looms are scrapped, these skills are lost as craftsmen and women retire or are made redundant.

The Workshop is not a museum. It is a not-for-profit production unit conserving high- quality traditional carpet looms by maintaining them in production to provide carpets for historic houses worldwide and to provide the opportunity for future generations to create new products that can only be made on these looms.

From discussions with other textile consultants and makers since the birth of the Living Looms, it became clear that the project needed to be extended beyond carpet, to provide a resource that would support traditional weavers and provide convenient access to their products for conservation professionals and the general public.

Initially, the founders rescued 11 unique Axminster carpet looms to weave a special- quality carpet in 2008. Now, the attention is focused on creating a heritage carpet weaving workshop and textile resource center in a building that was considered at risk, a derelict Victorian carpet factory in Kidderminster, Worcestershire, UK. Built in 1884, the building was originally a carpet factory. It is located adjacent to the site of the first carpet factory in Kidderminster (1746).

The Living Looms project now comprises three parts.

  • The carpet workshop producing historic and new, production and bespoke, high-quality carpets that cannot be made satisfactorily on other looms.
  • The resource center, which will be a database and showcase of current makers and suppliers of quality traditional textiles.
  • The educational resource to provide courses, from basic skills to professional development courses, in the traditional machine carpet-weaving process through design, engineering, weaving and installation, together with courses for curators, architects and decorators in the history, recognition and specification of traditional carpets.

Twentieth-century electronic technology has been successfully applied to the Victorian looms to ensure greater reliability and efficiency, and this collaboration of the new with the old, be it technology, design or skills, is central to the ethos of the Living Looms project. For more information, go to www.thelivinglooms.com.


Co-director of The Living Looms and secretary for David Luckham Consultants, Maureen Mant has a PG Cert. in Architectural History and an MSc in Historic Conservation. She can be reached at momant@btconnect.com. David Luckham has worked with international designers and manufacturers for almost 40 years, specifying textile floor coverings for historic properties in America and Europe. In the U.S., he has worked at sites such as Colonial Williamsburg, the Hampton National Historic Site and the White House of the Confederacy. He is currently working on a number of projects, including Montpelier. For more information, go to www.davidluckhamconsultants.com.