For hundreds of years woven Axminster and Wilton carpet was designed on 1:1 scale point paper (or grid paper), each small square representing one ‘J’ shaped tuft of wool, horizontal lines (or the weft) and vertical lines (or the warp) forming a grid. Complex designs took weeks to create & as a result commercial design repeats tended to be smaller; wealthier clients such as royalty and the upper classes could afford the more intricate patterns with higher design fees. Colours were created by mixing primary paint colours and using them to colour in the squares. This was often seen as part of the training to be a carpet designer and these people were named “Slab Boys”.
The detail of the design is dictated by the amount of tufts per square inch, starting at as low as 42 tufts per square inch, but for a typical Axminster guestroom carpet it's more likely to be 49 tufts per square inch. Some 'fine pitch' Wilton looms can weave up to 130 tufts per square inch which would give the ability for immense detail and a very dense pile.
Picture courtesy of Axminster Carpets Ltd
Jacquard cards used to transfer the pattern to the loom and again, the cost of stamping and lacing the cards together added to the overall cost of the carpet and thus limited the size of the design repeat. The introduction of DOS based computer aided design in the mid 1980’s and then the move over to a Windows OS in the mid 90’s revolutionised carpet design and sped up the process, the downside was the jobs of many were reduced to a handful, as slowly each manufacturer saw the benefits of computer aided design. Jacquard cards were replaced with a computer design file, that programmed the loom to select the appropriate dyed yarn, and Electronic Jacquard was born.
Along with the move to computer aided design and introduction of Electronic Jacquard or ‘E.J’, designers had the ability to create a design that fitted a space of any size and dimension – there were no longer any restrictions on the design repeat, just the imagination. In addition, loom technology allowed the gripper Axminster loom to provide up to 16 colours around the turn of the century; one company with patented technology could offer up 32 colours per design.
John Templeton Co - 1927
The 1950’s bought the introduction of tufting machines, which were faster and thus created a more cost effective carpet. However, from a design perspective only simplistic designs can be achieved with a graphics tufting machine; the manufacturing process can be likened to a big sewing machine with yarn being fed continuously along the warp. Each thread can only move 2 or 4 spaces sideways which means large jumps in the pattern are impossible as are large motifs. Patterns tend to look very linear or very dotty.
In around the mid 1990’s the Colortec machine came onto the market, which had far more design flexibility than a graphics tufting machine, but not quite the same design accuracy of an Axminster or Wilton. The Colortec machine does not have a warp or weft grid system like a woven carpet, so placing motifs on the edges of a Colortec carpet can create difficulties in side to side matching. Usually with a Colortec carpet, it’s best to keep match specific motifs away from the edges, otherwise the design capabilities are the same as an Axminster and detail in the design will increase depending on the density of the tufts. Colortec technology also has the ability to create large scale pattern repeats.
Pattern is applied onto a white tufted carpet base in much the same way that an inkjet printer prints a photo onto paper. The technology started with screen printing which had limitations in terms of design and colour but transitioned to the Millitron and Chromojet dye injection system. This allows up to 12 individual colours to be injected onto a loop pile or cut pile white base to create unlimited design repeats. In many ways the designs created are similar to those in Axminster, but because the base product is tufted and has a secondary backing applied after the pattern is created, side to side matching can be difficult much like with the Colortec technology. In addition, the colour does not penetrate to the base of the tuft and due to the ink ‘bleeding’ the design clarity is not as sharp as a yarn dyed woven product.
Designing for a hand tufted carpet or rug has no limitations with colour, however the design which is created initially either as a hand drawing or most commonly using programs such as Illustrator or Photoshop, then has to be re-drawn at a factory onto a backing using a pen drawn outline. By using an air pressured ‘gun’ which has a set amount of tufts in the nozzle, the right coloured yarn is fired into the backing. This re-creation or re-interpretation of the initial pattern varies depending on the skill and accuracy of the factory worker. Some design detail can be lost in translation between the original artwork and rug creation and is reliant on the craftsmanship and experience of the tufter.
Tufting guns can vary in how many tufts they 'fire' through the backing through the nozzle and this can have an impact on how thin one line can be, and how intricate the design recreation is.
In much the same way as machine made woven carpet, hand knotted carpet is also designed on point paper, using a grid to dictate pattern structure. The amount of knots per square inch rises depending on the level of detail in the design and quality/density of the pile; for example, a 100 knot rug will have 100 knots per square inch giving an intricate level of pattern detail. As with a machine made woven carpet the original artwork can be accurately reproduced by the weaver using a limitless amount of colours.
Picture courtesy of Matthew Wailes (London) Ltd