Kilim Rug Motifs

Many motifs are used in traditional kilim rugs, handmade flat-woven rugs, each with many variations, and we will take a look to kilim rug motifs in this post.

In Turkish Anatolia in particular, tribal women wove themes significant for their lives into their rugs, whether before marriage or during married life. Some motifs represent desires, such as for happiness and children; others, for protection against threats such as wolves (to the flocks) and scorpions, or against the evil eye. And, these motifs were often combined when woven into patterns on kilims.

In these tribal societies, women wove kilim rugs at different stages of their lives, choosing themes appropriate to their own circumstances. Some of the kilim rug motifs used are widespread across Anatolia and sometimes across other regions of West Asia. However patterns vary between tribes and villages, and rugs often expressed personal and social meaning.

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Tree of Life (Hayat Aǧacı, top and bottom of image) symbolizes the desire for immortality.

Each Tree of Life symbol here contains at its centre an Earring (Küpe) motif, a wedding present symbolizing the desire for marriage. Although the name kilim rug  is sometimes used loosely in the West to include all type of rugs. Rugs such as cicim, palaz, soumak and zili, in fact any type other than pile carpets, the name kilim rug properly denotes a specific weaving technique. Cicim, palaz, soumakand zili are made using three groups of threads, namely longitudinal warps, crossing wefts, and wrapping coloured threads. The wrapping threads give these kilim rugs additional thickness and strength. Kilim rug in contrast are woven flat, using only warp and weft threads. Kilim rug motifs are created by winding the weft threads, which are coloured, backwards and forwards around pairs of warp threads, leaving the resulting weave completely flat. They are therefore called flatweave or flatware rugs.

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Diagram of Kilim slit weave technique, showing how the weft threads of each colour are wound back from the colour boundary, leaving a slit


To create a sharp pattern, weavers usually end each pattern element at a particular thread. Winding the coloured weft threads back around the same warps, leaving a narrow gap or slit. These are prized by collectors for the crispness of their decoration. The motifs on kilim rugs woven in this way are constrained to be somewhat angular and geometric.

In tribal societies, women woved kilim rugs  at different stages of their lives: before marriage, in readiness for married life. While married, for her children; and finally, kilim for her own funeral, to be given to the mosque.

Kilim rugs thus had strong personal and social significance, being made for personal and family use. Feelings of happiness or sorrow, hopes and fears were expressed in the weaving motifs. Many of these represent familiar household and personal objects. Objects such as a hairband, a comb, an earring, a trousseau chest, a jug, a hook.

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Kilim rug motifs meanings

Detail of vegetable-dyed Konya Kilim, numbered to identify motifs:
1) Eye (Göz) / Evil Eye (Nazarlık)
2) Eye, containing Cross (Haç)
3) Ram’s Horn (Koçboynuzu)
4) Fertility (Bereket)
5) Wolf’s Mouth (Kurt İzi)
6) Star (Yıldız), containing Love and Unison (Aşk ve Birleşim)
7) Star, containing Fetter (Bukaǧı)

The meanings expressed in kilims derive both from the individual motifs used.  And by their pattern and arrangement in the rug as a whole. A few symbols are widespread across Anatolia as well as other regions including Persia and the Caucasus; others are confined to Anatolia.

An especially widely used motif is the elibelinde, a stylized female figure, motherhood and fertility.

Other kilim rug motifs express the tribal weavers’ desires for protection of their families’ flocks from wolves with the wolf’s mouth or the wolf’s foot motif (Turkish: Kurt Aǧzi, Kurt İzi), or for safety from the sting of the scorpion (Turkish: Akrep).

Several protective motifs, such as those for the dragon (Turkish: Ejder), scorpion, and spider (sometimes called the crab or tortoise by carpet specialists) share the same basic diamond shape with a hooked or stepped boundary, often making them very difficult to distinguish. Several motifs,hope for the safety of the weaver’s family from the evil eye (Turkish: Nazarlık, also used as a motif), which could be divided into four with a cross symbol (Turkish: Haç), or averted with the symbol of a hook (Turkish: Çengel), a human eye (Turkish: Göz), or an amulet (Turkish: Muska; often, a triangular package containing a sacred verse).

The carpet expert Jon Thompson explains that such an amulet woven into a rug is not a theme: it actually is an amulet, conferring protection by its presence. In his words, “the device in the rug has a materiality, it generates a field of force able to interact with other unseen forces and is not merely an intellectual abstraction.”

Other motifs symbolised fertility, as with the trousseau chest motif (Turkish: Sandıklı), or the explicit fertility (Turkish: Bereket) motif.

The motif for running water (Turkish: Su Yolu) similarly depicts the resource literally. The desire to tie a family or lovers together could be depicted with a fetter motif (Turkish: Bukaǧı). Similarly, a tombstone motif may indicate not simply death, but the desire to die rather than to part from the beloved.

Several motifs represented the desire for good luck and happiness, as for instance the bird (Turkish: Kuş) and the star or Solomon’s seal (Turkish: Yıldız). The oriental symbol of Yin/Yang is used for love and unison (Turkish: Aşk ve Birleşim). Among the motifs used late in life, the Tree of Life (Turkish: Hayat Aǧacı) symbolizes the desire for immortality. Many of the plants used to represent the Tree of Life can also be seen as symbols of fruitfulness, fertility, and abundance. Thus the pomegranate, a tree whose fruits carry many seeds, implies the desire for many children. Symbols are often combined, as when the feminine elibelinde and the masculine ram’s horn are each drawn twice, overlapping at the centre, forming a figure (some variants of the Bereket or fertility motif) of the sacred union of the principles of the sexes.

Kilim Rug Motifs

All the motifs can vary considerably in appearance according to the weaver. Colours, sizes and shapes can all be chosen according to taste and the tradition in a given village or tribe; further, motifs are often combined, as illustrated in the photographs above. To give some idea of this variability, a few alternative forms are shown in the table.

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