A Survey of Zilu Weaving
Mohammad Said Janebollahi
Reprinted from: Hands and Creativity Magazine, No. 3, Summer 1995
A Survey of Zilu Weaving Techniques in Meibod (Iran)
”Zilus” have occasionally been confused with “kilims”, whereas these two textiles present large differences concerning both their weaving techniques and raw materials. The fiber used in Zilu is “cotton” thread, a material in agreement with rural life, while the raw material of kilim is “wool”, produced in tribal societies.
The prolific rural population of Meibod has long been competent in the art of Zilu weaving. Such was the fame of Meibod Zilus that, for a long time, they covered the floors of most mosques and shrines throughout Iran. A research, dating back to 1978, gives the number of Zilu looms as 3000. Alas, the art of Zilu weaving declined thereafter, to the extend that, according to a survey carried out by the author, only 400 looms still existed in Meibod in 1982, of which a mere 250 were in operation.
Causes of decline of Zilu Weaving
1- Changes in the economic structure of Meibod
As Zilu production depends entirely upon agricultural production, and since the latter has undergone changes resulting in an increased migration of the working rural population, the reduction of labor power caused the wages to rise, in turn making Zilu production costlier. Therefore, being no more a cheap floor cover for low-income villagers, Zilus have been replaced with less expensive industrial products.
2- Lack of assistance on the part of governmental organizations and institutions
3- Impossibility of replacing traditional techniques with industrial ones
4- Modification of cultural values
Zilus were mostly utilized in mosques and other religious edifices, since people preferred holy places to be simple, unadorned environments. But in recent years, popular tastes having changed, such locales now have their floors covered with expensive carpets.
Zilu Weaving Loom
With only slight difference, the loom used in Zilu weaving is the same as that in weaving carpets. Its component parts are called:
A Shelit is a bunch of multi-stranded spun threads, itself subdivided in accordance with the intended pattern into smaller bunches. Each of these has a name and function of its own. Two are called “Sefid-Jow” and “Siah-Jow” and three other, called “Modakhel”, are related to the border pattern.
Shelit includes seven other types, called “Maj”, which affect the ground pattern. The number of Maj bunches varies with the pattern chosen. The Shelit of Zilus including a border, involves a total of 13 Maj bunches, of which 7 pertain to the ground. The nomenclature of Shelit strands begins from the area most accessible to the weaver that is at the bottom of the Zilu. From there upward, these are called:
3- Maj-e Pa’in
4- Barmaj-e Pa’in
5- Barmaj-e Miun-Pa’in
6- Barmaj-e Miun
7- Barmaj-e Miun-Bala
8- Barmaj-e Bala
9- Maj-e Bala
10- Modakhel-e Pa’in
11- Modakhel-e Miun
12- Modakhel-e Bala
These are fixed, together with other components called “Gort”, to the strands of “Chelleh”. A Gort likewise refers to a bunch of thread, which is tied from one extremity to the Chelleh and from the other to the Shelit and Shemsheh.
The extremity tied to the Shelit has two parts, called “Gort-e Doj”, when it is related to the border pattern, and “Gort-e Naqsh”, when it belongs to the ground pattern. Plain Gort, which plays no role in creating the pattern, is invariably tied to Shemsheh, serving to displace the warps. Otherwise, Gorts are tied differently in function of the pattern involved.
Setting the Gorts
In case of border patterns, the suffix “Doj” is used, and the single term “Naqsh” is applied in relation with ground patterns.
There are 14 different border patterns, called:
7- Tekrar-e Char-Kash
8- Tekrar-e Kongereh
11- Tekrar-e Char-Kash
12- Tekrar-e Kongereh
13- Tekrar-e Char-Kash
14- Tekrar-e Knogereh
Four or five of these are principal patterns, and the rest are simply repetitions of the same. In order to creat each of the patterns, the Gort are tied following various sequences to the strand of Chelleh. For example, in case of the first pattern, four Gort bunches are alternating tied to the Sefid-Jow andSiah-Jow.
Tying Maj Gorts
In tying Maj Gorts, that is the Gorts of the ground pattern, a Gort is tied to each of the Maj, and the work begins at the lower Maj. By repeating in reverse each such cycle of tying the Gort from the lower end to the upper, the complete pattern of a “flower” is formed, and as the ground includes at least 15 “flowers”, the process must be repeated as many times.
Zilu Special Patterns
Numerous patterns are used in Zilus, and the number of Maj increases in proportion with the complexity of the pattern selected. In the past, Zilus involving 70 Maj were woven, but today 7-Maj, and rarely 13-Maj Zilus are the norm. The most famous 7-Maj patterns are:
1- Part-e Tureh
6- Hasg-Par-e Kuchik
And the most famous 13-Maj patterns are:
11- Band-e Ru,I
14- Hasht-Par-e Bozorg
Technical Stages of Zilu Weaving
The artisan selects the number of Shelit strands required by the pattern, and, using a hook, forms a “flower” and ties his wefts. In tying the wefts, with one hand he passes the Dami through the opening of the Chelleh, and with the other, which he plunges to the elbow amid the warps, he catches the Dami and swiftly throws it toward the opposite end. And the Panjeh-zan rapidly beats the weft, with his Panjeh (comb).
At the end of every full cycle, the weaver swiftly actuates the Kali and Kamuneh mechanism, which acts like the pedal system used in pit-mounted looms, and resumes laying the weft.
Only two colors, which can be blue and pink, green and pink, or blue and white, are used in Zilus, with the latter two combinations being reserved for those woven for holy sites.
Length Scale in Zilu Weaving
The length scale used in Zilu weaving is called the Banum. Every 6 to 8 wefts represent a Banum, and each pattern spans 2 Banums.
Pattern Creation and Weaving Method
As in tying the Gorts, weaving the Zilu begins at its border, and the border and ground each measure 12 Banums. The border is woven with Modakhel threads, and the ground with Maj.
At this stage, at least five groups are involved in the work:
1- Panjeh-zan, usually a boy aged 8 or older
2- Pu-Kash, an exclusively male master artisan
3- Kalaf-La-Kon (spinners of multi-stranded thread), more often girls and women
4- Tuneh-Tab, whose task is to spin the Chelleh thread, as women used to do using a manual spinning-wheel before the advent of factory-spun thread.
5- Zilu Foroush (Zilu merchant), who takes care of buying and selling Zilus, and is also exclusively a man.
Relations of Labor Forces
Usually the capital of the Zilu weavers belongs to intermediaries, but all the production stages are carried out under the supervision of the weaver, who therefore both earns and pays wages. Although he provides most of the labor force from within his own family, he occasionally has to enroll outsiders as well. As paymaster, he not only teaches the trade to his pupils, but also educates them in social behaviors. Sometimes such friendly relationships are established as to lead to the pupil becoming the master’s son-in-law and establishing himself within his household.
Zilu merchants offer a small fraction of their goods on the local market, exporting the main bulk to those lying outside their perimeter of activity. The bazaars of Tehran, Meshed and Isfahan are generally considered the main buyers of Zilus.
The majority of patterns adorning Zilus are familiar motives rooted in ancient Iranian culture, later blended with those derived from the Islamic culture. Among these there is the cypress tree, a symbol of immorality in ancient Iranian culture, as well as the knot and the key, both also used in Islamic architecture and often found on Zilus, woven for mosques. Also a number of better-known patterns, such as Part-e Tureh, Talog and a few others, are inspired from indigenous cultures.