Photo/Illutration A “kasen” floral-patterned felt rug kept at the Shosoin Repository (From Vol. 42 of the Bulletin of Office of the Shosoin Treasure House)

NARA--Ancient felt rugs embellished with exquisite floral designs, part of an imperial collection from the eighth century, may have been produced by skilled artisans in Central Asia and China, new research suggests.

A wool grader has discovered that the wool used for the “kasen” rugs stored at the Shosoin Repository, which houses artifacts cherished by Emperor Shomu (701-756), is similar in quality to wool from sheep currently kept in the Arabian Peninsula, Central Asia and other arid regions.

“We couldn’t determine who made the rugs in our research,” said Masumi Honde. “But judging from the quality of the wool and the production techniques, they were likely made in Central Asia and China. There could have been highly skilled artisan groups in these regions.”

Separate research laid out by felt artist Jorie Johnson found subtle differences in the same design motif, suggesting several talented artisans worked on a single rug.

The two experts reported their findings in scientific papers published in Vol. 42 of the Bulletin of the Office of the Shosoin Treasure House.

The collection kept at the Shosoin, located in Todaiji temple in Nara, includes many “mosen” felt rugs believed to have been imported from China and Central Asia, among them floral-patterned kasen rugs. The rugs were previously believed to be made with goat hair, but research conducted in 2015 determined they were made from wool.

In her paper, Honde said she compared 10 samples of wool from modern sheep breeds to determine the types of wool used for the kasen rugs at the Shosoin.

She concluded that the kasen rugs contain wool fibers of different thickness, while their curly tips and luster are close in quality to those of the wool produced in Turkey and currently available in the market.

Honde has yet to identify the specific sheep breed. But based on the structures of the wool fibers and other clues, she found characteristics common to a breed originating in Mesopotamia, usually found in arid regions.

It turns out one of the mosen felt rugs contained fragments of sheep skin, indicating that scissors were used to shear the wool. Honde said she assumes that using the tool made it more efficient to shear, while the blade shearing likely left about 1 centimeter of wool on the sheep to protect them from freezing in cold regions.

Another paper written by Johnson, who also serves as a lecturer at Kyoto University of the Arts, examined the production techniques.

Johnson created a kasen rug from Turkish wool using ancient techniques replicated based on traditional methods handed down in Central Asia and China.

During the exercise, she discovered that ancient artisans used highly developed felt-making techniques little different from the present day.

Johnson noted one of the kasen rugs was potentially made by several artisans, after she found subtle differences in style for the same design motif.