What exactly is an Oriental rug?
This is always a good place to start if one is considering a purchase as just this information alone will deliver clarification and insight into what one is seeking. As the countries in the East have always been considered the Orient, a hand woven rug, made of wool, silk or cotton, from this part of the world is the genuine article. A little further delineation could be made if one also added in Western Europe, Northern Africa and the Caucasus. I have seen beautiful hand woven rugs from Romania, Uzbekistan and Egypt as well as the Caucasus region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. The most famous rug weaving countries are Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and India. This is a tradition that dates back thousands of years.
The oldest complete rug found in recent times was discovered in 1949 in a burial site of a Prince in the Pazarik Valley of the Altai Mountains in Siberia. It was frozen in permafrost for over 2500 years! The Pazyrk Carpet is permanently on display at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. You will find it depicted in the front of almost any rug book in living color. The rug scholars are still arguing as to where it was woven but the exact same weaving techniques are still in use today.
Oriental rugs are not made in the Unites States although we do produce many machine made copies. These would be classified as "Oriental design" rugs.
An average 9 x 12 hand woven rug takes a minimum of 3000 hours of weaving, to say nothing of the time spent on design, dye preparation, spinning the wool and setting up the loom.
A Persian rug is an Oriental rug but specifically woven in the country of Iran. If the rug is an antique (100 years old or more) to be classified as a Persian rug it would have been woven in the former Persian Empire which was much larger than the current borders of Iran.
All Persian rugs ARE Oriental rugs but not all Oriental rugs are Persian rugs. Hopefully, that makes sense. Probably the reason for this delineation is the fact that Persian weavers have histrionically been leaders in design and quality. Proof of this can be found in any major museum in the world as the majority of these rugs were created by Persian weavers.
Let's talk about basics. All Oriental rugs are woven on a loom by hand. If made in a small village the loom is usually constructed of wood and not perfectly straight but if made in a professional workshop the loom would most likely be metal and more exactly designed.
The loom is strung with vertical threads, which is the starting point of any rug. These threads are called warps and can be of cotton, wool or silk. Tying loops around a pair of the warps create the knots and the design of the rug. Each knot is tied and individually cut by hand. One by one, variously colored strands of wool are used to create the design, one knot at a time, one row at a time. After one row of knots has been completed, the weft is then inserted between the just completed row of knots and the next one to be done. The wefts function to secure the knots in place and hold the rug together. Some weavers insert only one row of wefts between the rows of knots, others 2, 3, 4 and more.
Many weavers are taught to weave at an early age by a family member and the choice of how many wefts or what type of knot to tie is influenced mainly by heritage and location. Although many of the former nomadic (pastoral) weavers now reside in villages their rugs are more often than not a reflection of patterns that have been woven for many generations, each design or symbol being committed to memory.
In the professional rug workshops the choice of design styles is normally dictated by the demands of the market, either overseas or locally. The warps and wefts are nearly always cotton or silk and the knot count is usually higher than that of village production. In rug workshops the weaving is carefully supervised by a master weaver who is responsible for every loom under his supervision. In these workshops the weavers are following an exact design drawn out on graph paper with all color choices predetermined. Tribal or village rugs are usually woven in the home with many of the design elements committed to memory as mentioned above. The opportunity for creativity in this arena is much greater. Tribal rugs are woven on wool or cotton foundations, the "foundation" being another term for the warps and the wefts. There are, of course exceptions to these general rules but mainly these concepts hold true.
Prior to the mid 19th century, many of the weaver's color choices were dictated by the availability of certain plants in their region or what could be obtained by trade. Before the seminal year of 1860, when chemical dyes first arrived on the scene, plant based dyes were all that were available. These dyes are called vegetable dyes or natural dyes and have a distinct look about them. They age beautifully, work harmoniously together and the indigo dye, which creates all the ranges of blue, even preserves the wool. Usually with vegetable dyes one can observe a slight or not so slight variation (depending on the skill of the dyer) in the color itself. Also affecting this is the type of wool being used and how it was spun. Hand spun wool, being less perfectly formed will accept the colors of the dyes at different depths of the same shade and will show more variation in color than machine spun wool. Deeply saturated wool will also show less color variation which will only appear after the rug begins to age. This variation of color is termed "abrash" and adds a certain artistic quality and charm to tribal rugs which is often highly regarded, if not too pronounced.
More recently, new production using vegetable dyes and hand-spun wool has begun to appear in various areas. Started in Turkey in the 1980's by a government sponsored program called DOGBAG, Iran quickly followed with tribal weavers in Southern Iran creating new rugs in traditional designs. A number of countries have now moved into the game so there are currently some wonderful rugs available that prior to the last couple of decades could only have been found as antiques. A number of the new tribal pieces I have seen really quality as works of art. I consider the best of these rugs to be highly collectable as the weaver's creativity and skill is beautifully brought to fruition with the tried and true basics brought back to life.
Additionally, there is another weaving technique, which is similar to a Navajo rug called a kilim. This rug is virtually all warps and wefts as there is no pile. This also is an Oriental rug but not as time consuming to weave. The patterns on kilims are normally geometric based designs using large areas of color. These rugs work well in contemporary interiors and are often used as wall hangings. Many are quite beautiful although not as hard wearing as a knotted rug. In the past most of these kilims were woven for the weaver's own use and have only recently become more common in the marketplace.
What is important in evaluating an Oriental Rug? After my many hundreds of hours spent purchasing rugs for my retail business I have come up with the following basics. One of the most important factors in evaluating a rug are the colors and their combinations. Following this would be the actual design elements or what in the trade is called the drawing. Is the rug pleasing to the eye? Does it improve as one looks at it? Is there a sense of depth and balance in the colors and layout?
Another important factor is the quality of the wool. What one wants to avoid is "dead wool" taken off an already butchered sheep with a caustic lye type substance. This wool is very dry to the touch, has a dull cast and very inexpensive for the weavers to purchase. Rugs woven with this type of wool do not wear well and are often sold for next to nothing which is exactly what they are worth. A rug woven with excellent wool can easily survive 50 years or more with very little wear, particularly if cared for properly.
Good quality wool will actually improve the more it is walked on and will develop an antique patina or sheen that is highly sought after by rug collectors. The moral of the story is to touch the wool, rub the palm of your hand across the face of the rug. Compare it to another rug. It should not feel overly dry or stiff. Pick the rug up by the edge and see how much it weighs! A hard wearing rug will have some "body" to it. This advise would not apply to silk as the weight of a silk rug is much lighter. Silk will feel cold to the touch and will have a distinctive shine. Examine the rug carefully by walking around it and viewing it from every possible angle.
Glossy wool often reflects light and sometimes rugs woven with hand spun wool will have a light and a dark side. If the rug is old, one would look for any signs of moth damage where the pile has been eaten away. With moth eggs on the backside you will see little white lines. This is not good as the wool on the back may have been eaten so that when one vacuums the front of the rug, the wool comes out! If the rug is new, moth damage would be most unusual and is not a concern.
On older rugs one would also look for signs of repairs, such as a patch sewn in to replace a worn area or holes. Also, inspect the rug in the best possible light to ensure the pile is full as some lazy restorers just paint touch up color on worn areas and the rug will have a very short life span as the pile is worn down to the foundation. If the rug is a great deal and these facts have been indicated beforehand, then fine, but if discovered by your inspection and not disclosed, simply pass on the purchase.
These beautiful works of art never completely reveal themselves at first glance but just like the most fascinating person you've had the pleasure to meet, a good rug will spark your interest and demand your attention. The longer you look at it, the more its beauty and many nuances will be revealed. Always take your time when making a purchase and if possible, try the rug in your home for a day or two. This is called taking the rug "on approval" and any dealer of merit will easily agree to this in home trial period.
Find a retailer that you like, feel confident with and one that offers the types of rugs that you find most pleasing and you're on your way!
Penny Krieger is the owner of Paradise Oriental Rugs, Inc., located in the San Francisco Bay Area in Sonoma County . Her gallery at 137 North Main Street , Sebastopol , CA , specializes in tribal rugs and carpets woven with hand-spun wool and plant based dyes with a strong emphasis on Persian tribal rugs. 707-823-3355 paradiseorientalrugs.com