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Carpet dating and design

By Rachel Barnard [email protected]

In the 1990s, during the reorganisation of the Historical Archives of Arraiolos, data emerged that helps to shed some light on the dating of the carpets. This data comes from an inventory surveying the goods left by deceased inhabitants up to 1700 and later extended to 1870.

The first reference dates to 1598 but this is an ambiguous reference. To explain why, I must turn to Portuguese.

This is a carpet belonging to one Catarina Rodrigues, described as ‘Um Tapete da Terra’. Terra has several meanings in Portuguese. It can mean a region that people come from, or soil or floor.

So this description could mean that the carpet was from the locality or that it was a carpet to put on the floor. However, there is no doubt about a carpet left in 1602 which says explicitly to have been made in Arraiolos, valued at the considerable sum of 600 reis.

So, from 1602 there is a reasonable record of carpets made in Arraiolos, the name of the owners and their value.

Carpet design can be divided into several periods: The First Period covers the end of 16th C up to the middle of 17th C. Oriental motifs prevail, mostly inspired by Persian or Moroccan designs.

Mid 17th C becomes a transitional period where oriental influence is still present, but local inspiration and taste was introduced. This led to a Second Period to the mid 18th C that can be considered the ‘golden age’ of Arraiolos carpets.

By introducing a central medallion surrounded by animals, mostly birds, a genuine ‘language’ recognisable as a true Arraiolos carpet became the prevailing design.

By the end of the 18th century, Arraiolos had a large manufacturing capacity, attested by the British author, art collector and traveller William Beckford in 1787.

He rode to Arraiolos and thus describes Arraiolos as…’an ugly and old village’. There he bought a number of carpets for his voyage all …’with a grotesque and very colourful design …products of a factory in the village that employs over 300 workers’. He goes on ‘I ordered them to be put by my bed, and looking at the diversity of colours it looked to me that they had a very exotic style’.

What all the above tells us, is that in order to achieve such production and perfection by mid 18th C, must have been the consequence of generations of carpet makers at that particular locality.

The third design period therefore, starts at the end of the 18th C to the middle of the 19th C. The design changes to what was considered to be the taste of the period.

The design consists almost entirely of large flowers and leaves or copy of tile designs. Colours are sombre and subdued. By the end of the 19th C the making of carpets had become a small domestic activity.


It was not until the beginning of the 20th C that a few individuals started to influence a revival of the carpets by commissioning new carpets for the decoration of grand Lisbon houses from the one family left in Arraiolos prepared to accept such commissions.

Over the 20th C and until now, the taste for Arraiolos carpets has developed, and although still primarily made at Arraiolos, they are also manufactured in many other parts of Portugal and the world.

This has come to present some serious problems. Alarm bells started to ring when ads started to appear in newspapers advertising the sale of ‘genuine Arraiolos Carpets’ made in China.

So the question was, and is: What is a genuine Arraiolos Carpet. Carpets sold as ‘genuine’ are not only made in other parts of the world, but also by machine. There have been attempts to introduce a trade mark to protect and preserve the authenticity of the carpets, but so far this has proved impossible.

Although a law was passed in 2002 to create an Institute to tackle the questions of authenticity, this law was never implemented. The questions asked relate to whether there should be some geographical boundary or other criteria.

In other words, would ‘genuine’ mean carpets made in Arraiolos? Alentejo? Other parts of Portugal? Anywhere else in the world using the appropriate technique, design and colours? Who would certify authenticity?

These questions matter, as the professional embroiderers of original Arraiolos carpets cannot compete with the machine-made or imitations using cheap materials, large stitches, chemically produced colours and so on.

Part 1 of this article was published in the December 9 issue of the Algarve Resident.

Rachel Barnard first became interested in the Arraiolos carpets on a strictly aesthetic basis more than 20 years ago when she first purchased one. Since then she has used her academic experience as a lecturer of politics at the University of Westminster to research the subject. She recently gave a talk on Arraiolos carpets at the Tavira Municipal Library.