The exact date of the origin of weaving of rugs is not known but it is estimated that weaving as we know it today evolved in Egypt and central Asia around second millennium B.C. The earliest known pile rug was found in a Scythian burial site in outer Mongolia and has been dated back to the fifth century B.C. By this time, the art of rug making had already attained a highly skillful level. Oriental rugs are frequently depicted in icons and paintings of both the western world as well as the oriental miniatures.
The art of oriental rug making reached its pinnacle under the Safavid Empire of Central Asia in the 17th century, from where these reached to Europe via the Silk Route and newly discovered sea trading routes. These rugs were greatly prized by the rich and the aristocrats, who were the ones who could afford them, usually as hangings and table covers. With the rise of the middle class with the industrial revolution, the oriental rugs reached the common masses of Europe and America by the mid 19th Century leading to a renewed interest in the oriental rugs.
In this century the needs of the foreign buyer have become a big influence on the rug industry in the near east with most oriental rugs now being woven in commercial establishment of factory proportions
What Is an Oriental Rug?
Perhaps the only thing that all real Oriental rugs have in common is that they are woven by hand. Oriental pile rugs are constructed by first stringing warp threads, which will run the length of the finished rug, onto a loom. Weavers often choose cotton for the warps, particularly for larger carpets; because it stretches less than wool, cotton can be strung on the loom more easily and evenly. Some areas traditionally use wool to produce their warps, however, which is generally satisfactory. The number of warps per inch of width largely determines the fineness of the rug. The rug is started by passing wefts through the warps to produce a grid-like fabric called a flat weave that stabilizes the end of the rug. The weavers create the pile of the rug by tying pile knots around adjacent pairs of warp threads across the width of the rug.
Two types of knots are used: the symmetric (or Turkish) knot and the asymmetric (Persian) knot.
Local custom determines which type of knot weavers’ use, as there is no great advantage of one over the other. For example, many areas in Iran actually use the symmetric (Turkish) knot. When trimmed, the ends of the knots become the pile of the rug. Using different yarn colors to tie pile knots produces the design of the rug. After the weavers tie a row of knots across the width of the rug, they pass 1 to 3 weft threads of cotton or wool between the warps, then pound them down to secure the knots in place. Above these knots, they tie another row of knots; then more wefts, more knots, and so on until the rug is completed. Together, the warp and weft threads form a grid, which serves as the foundation of the rug. A selvage constructed along each side, usually by wrapping a bundle of warp threads with wool or cotton yarn. A narrow band composed of only warp and weft threads is often woven at the ends of the rug to anchor the knots. The weavers then take the rug off the loom and finish it by knotting or weaving the warp ends together to prevent it from unraveling. The loose ends of the warps become the fringe.
Most rugs have wool pile, but some rugs are woven with silk pile. Although the best of these rugs are both beautiful and valuable, many are neither. Silk does not wear or clean as well as wool, and we recommend the use of silk rugs only in very low-traffic areas or as wall hangings. Some rugs — especially finely woven wool pieces — contain silk detailing. This detailing does not normally create cleaning problems, and can enhance a rug’s beauty. So-called “Art Silk” rugs are simply attempts to defraud: the “Art” stands for “artificial.” These rugs are made of rayon or mercerized cotton, which are completely inappropriate and impractical materials for rugs.
The other major class of Oriental rugs is the flat weave. Different flat weaving techniques such as Kilims, durries, sumak and chain stitch produce rugs with different thicknesses and surface textures. Since these rugs do not have pile, they are not appropriate for very high traffic locations. In the right setting, they will last for many years and their lower prices and dramatic designs can be very appealing.
Oriental rug designs may be geometric or curvilinear (floral), depending on the type of lines used to construct the design, but all gradations between the two types exist. Modern floral rugs descend from rugs woven in the medieval court workshops of Persia, Turkey, and India. The villagers and nomads of the Middle East, on the other hand, have woven geometric rugs, for at least 3000 years. Many tribal and village rug designs were passed along simply by daughters watching mothers weave. Intricate floral rugs must be woven from a “cartoon” or plan, a schematic drawing that shows where knots of different colors should be placed. Floral rugs must be fairly finely woven — more than 100 knots/sq. in, and often more than 200 knots/sq. in — in order to carry off the intricate design. Geometric rugs are commonly and appropriately woven with knot densities of 40-75 knots/ sq. in.
Oriental rug designs usually contain two elements: the border and the field (see graphics below). The border typically consists of a wide main border and 4 to 6 (or more) subsidiary or guard borders, each displaying a repeating design motif. The field generally contains either a medallion, with or without related corners (spandrels), or a repeating (all-over) design. Since the field is the background for the design, its color determines the overall color tone of the rug. Rug designs are usually symmetrical; only certain tribal pieces, folk art rugs, and prayer rugs are intended to be viewed from one direction. Most modern rugs are woven from some sort of cartoon, but in a number of the smaller villages in Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan, weavers produce from memory the same designs their ancestors used.
Dyeing and Spinning of Wool
Although almost any color can be found in at least a few Oriental rugs, the traditional field colors are reds, blues, and ivory. Almost every shade of red is used; from pale pink, too salmon, to fire engine, magenta, or liver. Blues range from light to nearly blue-black. Pale colors were commonly used in 19th century Oushaks from Turkey and several districts in Persia. Many more colors, particularly soft ones such as dusty rose and grey-green, are available as field and accent colors in modern rugs. These rugs, while upsetting to traditionalists, can be pleasing from a decorative viewpoint; they allow Oriental rugs to coordinate with color schemes when traditional colors might clash.
Dyes used in antique Oriental rugs were derived largely from vegetable matter: blue from indigo, red from madder root, yellow from various plants, green from over dying blue on yellow, etc. When these rugs were new, the colors were bright and sometimes harsh — the soft, rich colors we see today resulted from the fading and aging of the dyes. Chemical dyes, developed in the 1870’s, are easier to apply than natural dyes. By the 1890’s to the 1930’s — the time depends upon the location — they had largely replaced vegetable dyes in the dyers’ cauldrons. Early chemical dyes were generally poor, and many faded quickly. The modern chrome dyes used in most good-quality new rugs, however, are very stable and provide a vast range of colors. They sometimes face criticism on two grounds, though. First, the colors may be garishly bright or simply inappropriate: i.e., bright green, orange, and plum Pakistani Bokharas. Such rugs are easily avoided. Secondly, the colors may approach but rarely match the soft richness seen in (much more expensive) old rugs. The recent revival of vegetable dyeing in Turkey, Pakistan, and India appears to be the beginning of a trend back to more “authentic” colors. The best of these rugs are among the most exciting Oriental rugs produced in this century. A recent craze has been tea-washing, which gives a brownish cast to some colors. The result may be attractive, but cheaper tea-washed rugs tend to simply look muddy.
When buying a rug, you should consider the colors carefully. Do the main colors please you? If you dislike one of the colors that figures prominently in the rug, it’s the wrong rug for you. A minor accent color is a smaller problem, as long as it doesn’t distract you from the rest of the rug. Secondly, did the weaver or designer have good color sense? Some colors simply don’t fit together, at least to Western eyes. And, finally, does the rug complement existing fabrics and paints in the room in which it will be used? As confirmed rugaholics, we sometimes think this last question is phrased the wrong way. Because a good rug has a much longer life than drapes, upholstery, or paint, we suggest that decorating should start with the rug. Despite this eminently sensible advice, many people buy rugs to enhance an existing color scheme. Do make sure that the rug will coordinate with colors other than those in your current color scheme, however. You may want to redecorate in the future, and a rug with unusual colors may not be particularly adaptable or salable.
As with dyes, there is a modern and a traditional way of spinning the wool (twisting the straight fibers together to produce a yarn). Hand spinning has been practiced for millennia, but had largely been supplanted by machine carding and spinning, which produce a much cheaper, more even yarn. Though even yarn might seem to be a good thing, many rug enthusiasts object to that evenness, particularly in tribal and nomadic rugs where some irregularity is often charming. For that reason, many of the new rugs made with natural dyes also use handspun wool. You should expect to pay more for a good rug with handspun, naturally dyed wool than for a rug of equivalent quality with machine spun, chemically dyed wool.
Rugs are generally named for the town or district in Persia, Turkey, or the Caucasus where the design originated. Anyone familiar with Oriental rugs can quickly recognize an old Bidjar, Konya, Kazak, or Belouch. Most designs are now woven throughout the Middle and Far East, however, so with new rugs we must specify both the country of origin and the design (such as Indo-Sarouk or Sino-Bidjar). Interestingly, many Oriental rugs which were formerly quite popular in the U.S. — 1920’s Sarouks and 1950’s Kirmans from Iran — were not local designs, but simply responses to American decorating trends.
Although some countries have been historically noted for particularly high- or low-quality rugs, all of today’s major weaving areas produce both very good and very bad rugs.
A new trend is for weaving companies to move their production from country to country to take advantage of low labor costs and political stability. Thus, one may see rugs in traditional Persian designs woven in China or Rumania with Turkish hand-spun, vegetable-dyed wool. What do you call the resulting rug — a Sino/Turko/Bidjar?
Weaving with child labor is also an ongoing problem in India and Pakistan. In the most serious cases, children are indentured to a weaver and function as forced labor. Because of the near impossibility of monitoring weaving operations in these countries, however, the certifications of childfree labor you may sometimes see are simply not believable, and are a marketing gimmick rather than a statement of fact. Unfortunately, given the severe overpopulation problems in India and Pakistan, workers must too often choose between weaving under bad conditions or starvation. Most reputable Oriental carpet dealers try to avoid buying rugs woven with child labor, with the exception of tribal rugs, which have always been woven by family groups.
Is this rug a good investment?
We hear this question a lot. When answering, we have to consider old and new rugs separately. Age alone is not sufficient to give an old rug value unless it is very old — early 19th century or older — but condition is always important. In the recent past, antique Oriental rugs have increased in value, just as other antiques have. Rugs that is very good examples of particular types have regularly increased in value, and hold their value well during recessions. In contrast, more ordinary old rugs (and rugs with problems) have risen significantly in price during inflationary times but may prove difficult to sell during hard times. One thing we strongly recommend is treating antique rugs gently like a hundred-year-old person, wool tends to become brittle with age. If you wish an old rug to maintain its value, keep it out of heavy traffic and don’t vacuum it heavily.
The “investment value” of new rugs is tough to predict and should not be the major factor in buying a new rug. A rug’s value as an investment will be something your children and grandchildren will discover. Like other furnishings, rugs initially decrease in value when used, but good quality, attractive rugs will then increase in value as they become older. The attributes we always stress are beauty, quality and care. A beautiful late 19th century carpet has real value whether it is from Iran, China, or India. Therefore, if you’re interested in the long-term value, be sure to get a good carpet now. Anyone who tells you that a bright red Iranian Kashan, an Indo-Aubusson, a Pakistani Bokhara, or a crudely tea-washed Chinese Persian is an investment piece is simply trying to pull the wool over your eyes. Based upon the history of rugs whose designs and colors are responses to interior decorating trends, we’d also recommend that you avoid modern rugs that stray too far from traditional designs and colors, unless they are truly modern and striking designs. When prices obtained for 1920’s Sarouks, 1960’s Kermans, and 1970’s Taba Tabrizes are compared with more traditional rugs from the same areas, these “decorator” rugs are far behind.
The condition of an Oriental Rug is a critical factor when evaluating it. Is the rug worn or torn? Has it been damaged by stain, damp, moth or mildew? Has it been repaired, and how skillfully? The colors of an Oriental rug should be bright or faded with age; the pile should be in good condition and the fringe, ends and the edges in good state of repair.
The availability, or rather the lack of availability of similar types, formats, design and weaving-styles of certain rugs increase their desirability as collectibles. Usually, the value of rugs in terms of how well they represent the cultural traditions of the countries where they were woven is also an important factor. Too often, rugs are made according to the dictates of the fashions or the current fads in the market rather than the true traditions of rug-weaving societies. Many collectors of Oriental Rugs tend to avoid the commercial aspect of many fine Oriental Rugs. But, in the end, the collectibility, of an Oriental Rug, for the lack of common consensus on this issue, still depends largely on the buyer’s individual preference