Index of Selected Artists in the Collection

Caucasian (East Transcaucasia)
Sileh Brocaded Cover , Late 19th century
Wool ornamental wefts on wool warp and weft
8 ft. 7 in. x 6 ft. 1 in. (2.62 x 1.855 m)
Gift of Ernest H. Roberts in honor of Dr. Wolfgang Stechow, 1975
AMAM 1975.163

Called "sileh" in North America and "verneh" in Europe,1 this colorful flat-woven cover is of a type long prized by collectors and museums. With its design of sixteen stylized dragons, it represents the end of a long tradition of Islamic adaptation of Chinese artistic imagery.

A fairly common form of Caucasian weaving in the late nineteenth century, sileh covers invariably exhibit the archetypal s-shaped design of stylized dragons. Although one famous anomalous example, now in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, shows the dragons in slightly more recognizable form,2 the vast majority of extant examples include the abstract motifs of the Oberlin piece. 3

Usually alternating in white and dark blue, sileh covers were woven in two strips on a fairly narrow loom, and then sewn together. They were executed in a technique known as sumak brocading,4 which gives them a characteristic flat and tightly woven surface.

The Oberlin sileh cover was probably woven near the Caspian littoral in the east Caucasus in the last third of the nineteenth century. There exist no examples of sileh covers with woven inscriptions bearing such a date. However, our knowledge of the late-nineteenth-century revival of Caucasian village weaving, and the evidence of some examples of sumak production that appear to have been woven with aniline dyestuffs,5 support this attribution.

Some controversy surrounds the precise meaning and proper orientation of the dragon forms, but the weight of scholarly opinion holds that the pairs of small projections--or hind legs--belong at the top, while the long projections--or lower jaw of the dragon--belong at the bottom. This dragon form had been adapted by Islamic artists from Chinese artistic prototypes in paper, silk, and porcelain from the fourteenth century onward. By the time the Oberlin cover was woven, the original cosmic symbolic connotations of the dragon form had most likely disappeared.6 The Oberlin sileh is a testament to the longevity of weaving traditions and the persistence of conventional motifs.

W. B. Denny


The cover was owned by the dealer Louis Jacoby in Berlin in the late nineteenth century. According to Jacoby, the piece arrived in Berlin as wrapping or packing material for the marble fragments of the great Altar of Zeus from Pergamon, which was acquired by the Berlin Museums from the Ottoman government of Turkey about 1880. (A similar provenance was no doubt given to a number of later carpets appearing on the Berlin market in those days.) The cover passed to Gertrud Jacoby, wife of Meinhard, younger brother of Louis, from whom it passed to Wolfgang and Ursula Stechow in Oberlin. It subsequently entered the collection of the noted American collector Ernest Roberts, who gave it to Oberlin in honor of Professor Stechow in 1975.

Omaha, Joslyn Art Museum, 1974-75. A Rich Inheritance: Oriental Rugs of the 19th and Early 20th Centuries. 17 November - 12 January. Cat. p. 48.

Oberlin, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, 1978. Islamic Carpets from the Museum Collection. 23 September - 22 October. Cat. no. 49.

Arts Club of Chicago, 1991. Masterworks of Color and Design. 23 January - 13 March. Cat. no. 14.

Oberlin, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, 1993. Order and Rhythm: Carpets from the Islamic World. 10 September - 7 November. Checklist no. 35.

Cloudman, Ruth H. In A Rich Inheritance: Oriental Rugs of the 19th and Early 20th Centuries. Exh. cat., Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, 1974, p. 48.

"Silé Rugs." In The New Encyclopedia Britannica. 15th ed. Chicago, 1974. Vol. 9, p. 48 ill.

Spear, Richard E. "Acquisitions: 1975-76." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 34, no. 1 (1976-77), pp. 4-6 ill.

Roberts, Ernest H. "Islamic Carpets from the Museum Collection." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 36, no. 1 (1978-79), cat. no. 52, p. 76.

Rosenzweig, Daphne. "Stalking the Persian Dragon: Chinese Prototypes." Kunst des Orients 12, no. 2 (1978-79), pp. 150-76, ill. p. 156, no. 8.

Denny, Walter B., et al. Masterworks of Color and Design: Islamic Carpets from Oberlin College. Exh. cat., Arts Club of Chicago, 1991, cat. no. 14, p. 15, ill. p. 9.

Technical Data 7
Length: 8 ft. 7 in. from one end of woven fabric to the other, measured along the center, plus braided fringe at each end, with variation of +/- 1 1/2 in. elsewhere.
Width: 6 ft. 1 in. from selvedge to selvedge across the center, with variation of +/- 1 in. elsewhere; two strips of approximately 36 in. in width sewn together.
Warp: red-dyed wool, 2 ply S, Z-spun, 24 warps per inch.
Structural weft: red-dyed wool, 2 ply S, Z-spun, 19 wefts per inch.
Decorative wefts: dyed wool, 2 ply S, Z-spun; light blue, dark blue, red, yellow, brown, white, 19 wrapped rows per inch.
Edges: structural wefts reverse direction at last warp.
Ends: Fringe of "pigtails," each with 20 - 24 warps braided together, 3-4 in. long.
Handle: Typically supple.
Condition: Good: some areas of wear and corrosion of dark brown; some early repairs with faded colors, especially along edges.

1. The origin of these terms-- sileh and verneh --is uncertain; both are used to denote a type of cover brocaded with a design of dragons.

2. 2.21 x 1.257 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Joseph V. McMullan, inv. 1971.263.5; reproduced in U. Schürmann, Islamische Teppiche: The Joseph V. McMullan Collection (Museum für Kunsthandwerk, Frankfurt-am-Main, 1968), and on the cover of Rugs from the McMullan Collection (Smithsonian Publications, Washington, D.C., 1966).

3. There are many similar examples published in the scholarly and sale literature: Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Vienna, reproduced in Walter B. Denny, Oriental Rugs (Cooper-Hewitt Museum, Smithsonian Institution, New York, 1979), no. 45; 2.51 x 2.21 m, Arthur D. Jenkins Collection, The Textile Museum, inv. L1978.5.106, reproduced in Cathryn M. Cootner, Flat-Woven Textiles (exh. cat., The Textile Museum, Washington, DC., 1981), no. 49, and in Eberhart Herrmann, Seltene Orientteppiche V (Munich, 1983), pp. 66-67.

4. Sumak brocading, also known as weft-wrapping, is a weaving technique in which the design of a textile is formed by extra multicolored wefts added to the structural warps and wefts of a fabric, usually passing over four warps and back under two. See Walter B. Denny, Oriental Rugs (Cooper-Hewitt Museum, Smithsonian Institution, New York, 1979), p. 18, fig. 4.

5. First introduced into the Middle East from Europe in the 1870s.

6. See Jessica Rawson, Chinese Ornament: the Lotus and the Dragon, 2d ed. (British Museum, London, 1990).

7. In carpet analysis, "S" refers to a clockwise spin of the yarn or the twist of two or more yarns piled together. "Z" refers to spin or twist in the counterclockwise direction. For an explanation of how and why carpets are analyzed, see Walter Denny, "A Note on Technical and Structural Analysis," in Walter B. Denny and Daniel Walker, eds., The Markarian Album (Markarian Foundation, Cincinnati, 1988), pp. 63-69.