In the world of home decorating, there are perhaps no other rugs more sought after, admired and appreciated than hand-knotted Oriental rugs and carpets. Although there are many imitations, and a myriad of machine-made rugs available today, they are completely unable to replicate the vivid hand-died colors, subtle variations, meaningful motifs and rich beauty of these distinctive works of art. Hand-tied Oriental rugs are full of wonderful surprises. The more you look, the more interesting variations you may find. It is almost impossible to open up a fine home décor magazine and not find numerous rooms that feature an oriental rug as the focal point or anchor for a room. Oriental rugs, particularly Persian rugs, add a warmth and depth to whatever space in which they are placed. Without exception, every single one has a story to tell — an expression of the life and presence of each person who contributed to the making of these unique works of art. These labors of love and necessity are a symphony of colors, designs, motifs and messages to us from the women and families who have worked together producing these amazing rugs. Day in and day out their triumphs, joys and challenges become a permanent part of the story each rug tells.
The Very First Oriental Rugs
There is no way to tell when the very first Oriental rug was woven; however, it is assumed that the nomadic tribes of central Asia were the first to do so. The earliest hand-knotted rugs were small rugs that included geometric plant and animal motifs. Throughout the centuries, these wandering peoples spread their utilitarian art to new lands and other nomadic tribes.
In 1949, a Russian archaeological expedition to the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia excavated a royal burial mound that contained a frozen carpet, now known as the Pazyryk carpet. This carpet was used as a saddle cover for a horse and dates from the fourth or fifth century BC. Oriental carpets are known to outlast all others due to their workmanship and materials. All Persian rugs can be classified as Oriental; however only hand-made, hand-knotted rugs made in Iran can be considered true Persian rugs.
The Rise of Oriental and Persian Carpets
The Persian Empire, one of the greatest civilizations ever known to man, has produced the world’s most magnificent carpets for over 2500 years. Initially these rugs were woven out of necessity to protect nomadic and semi-nomadic people from the harsh realities of tent living. Today, the people of Iran, descendants of the Persian Empire, still produce more rugs and carpets than all of the other carpet-making regions of the world — combined.
Eventually these rugs were elevated by their sheer magnificence to works of utilitarian art. Due to their increasing opulence, creativity and workmanship through the centuries, they became sought after by kings, noblemen and those wishing to exhibit their great wealth through the decorative use of these exquisite carpets. It was primarily through Italian merchants, particularly in Venice, that the Oriental rug became recognized and valued in Europe. Extensive Oriental rug collections became fixtures in the great courts of Europe by the early sixteenth century.
What is an Oriental Rug?
In order to be considered Oriental, rugs must have been produced in countries east of the Mediterranean Sea. These countries include, but are not limited to, Iran, Turkey, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Western China, India and Pakistan. Throughout the centuries, these rug-producing regions have each developed their own unique methods, materials, dyes and design motifs. Some of these motifs include symbols for various plants, trees, flowers, fruits, animals, birds, objects, crosses, fish, stars and people. The use of color also varies from region to region with the availability of dye materials.
Tribal Rugs and City Rugs
Tribal rugs are woven by nomadic or shepherding people who live in the countryside and tribal villages located in traditional Oriental rug-producing countries. These rugs are the by-product of the mutually dependent relationship between animals and people. The wool-producing sheep need their caretakers in order to thrive in the often challenging climates and terrains, as well as to provide protection from predators. The caretakers need the sheep for the precious wool rendered at the time of shearing. It is a family venture as the wool is washed, spun, dyed and hung to dry wherever there is free space, such as a drying line or even a bush.
Depending on a host of factors, such as humidity, rain and natural variations in the wool, there can be many differing colors that eventually emerge from wool dyed in the same lot. This is what often creates an “abrash,” or a variegated quality, that is sometimes seen in Oriental rugs and carpets. To the untrained eye, this may seem like a flaw, but to serious collectors and enthusiasts these rugs are considered to be some of the most valuable and sought-after carpets in the world.
Most tribal rugs are made by women who for generations have passed their family motifs, techniques and styles on to their own children. With a few additions or deletions, depending on the artist, these weavers carry on their unique style of rug from generation to generation. Their secrets are guarded carefully among them. As in every age, having abundant livestock and rugs is considered a sign of wealth in these nomadic lands. Tribal rugs have meaning and value as currency and furniture and are useful in the everyday lives of their weavers. Tribal rugs are made on ground looms, usually not more than five-feet wide, which can be dismantled and re-assembled while traveling.
Although a “cartoon,” or picture of the rug to be woven, is utilized in the making of the rug, there are often many wonderful “mistakes” or variations in the pattern that become apparent after the rug is completed and sheared by a skilled shearer. These interesting variations are often not apparent at first glance, but on closer study, they reveal themselves. Many tribal rug enthusiasts find great delight in these subtle pattern variations and look for them wherever they happen to run across a tribal rug. These rugs work wonderfully well in décors that include more primitive, rural antiques, or in more casual decorating schemes. A simple tribal rug that is left unsheared is called a “Gabbeh.” These rugs can have a pile of two to three inches and are often used in the lands of their origin for sleeping. They are becoming more and more popular in many of today’s relaxed decorating styles.
The larger and more intricate “city rugs” are at home in opulent and more formal interiors or rooms containing fine antiques and furniture. City or “workshop” rugs tend to be larger and very tightly woven with much finer yarns, which enables them to have a greater number of knots per square-inch, and more elaborate and intricate designs. They are woven on metal looms in workshop facilities under the supervision of a master weaver who ensures that the rug is produced to exacting standards and patterns. City rugs are, for many rug collectors and enthusiasts, breathtakingly beautiful in their symmetry and intricate motifs. It is a labor-intensive process to tie each finely spun yarn in its exact place.
Buying Oriental and Persian Rugs
Finding the right Oriental rug for your décor can be a challenge. If you are planning on purchasing an Oriental rug, you can’t possibly go wrong by purchasing a hand-tied Persian rug. When shopping for area rugs, Orientals and Persians may seem expensive; however, you might be surprised to find out just how affordable they can be, if you are an informed buyer.
Factors that will have price impact and determine what sort of Oriental rug you opt for will include:
- Is the rug made in Iran or in another country?
- Is it an antique or a reproduction?
- Is the rug handmade and hand knotted or machine
- How many knots are there per square-inch? The more
knots, the finer the rug and the higher the price.
- Is the rug made of natural fibers or is it a synthetic rug?
- How original is the design?
- How intricate is the design and weave?
If you wish to purchase rugs that will last a lifetime and become heirlooms, if they are not already, Oriental and Persian rugs that are handmade and hand knotted are your best choices. Wool rugs made in Persia are the finest you can purchase because they are tightly woven and made of wool, which will last for generations. Wool rugs are soft, endure even high traffic, and are the standard by which all other rug fibers are measured.
At one time, Persian rugs were woven solely of wool, wool/cotton blends and wool/silk blends. Today, however, synthetic fibers are being introduced which have resulted in making these rugs more affordable to the average consumer who otherwise could not afford to purchase a true Oriental rug. Machine-made rugs are the least expensive Persian-styled rugs on the market. There are several machine-made rug manufacturers who make rugs in the USA and countries outside the Orient. These companies manufacture reproductions of many classic Persian rug patterns. Some are made better than others and some have sought to replicate many of the exotic colors of the original handmade, hand-knotted rugs. It is important to note that hand-knotted rugs will last longer and hold up better to traffic than even the best machine made rugs.
Shop around. There are many reputable Persian rug dealers selling the real thing at very affordable prices. Be sure to purchase your Persian rug from a reputable dealer, who will be happy to take the time to help you with choices that fall in your price range and décor needs. When purchasing an original Persian rug, be certain to obtain a certificate of authenticity. This is important for insurance reasons and to establish the value of your rug.
There are many local and regional sources for fine Oriental rugs. A well-chosen handmade rug will not only do great things for your décor, it will appreciate with age if it is in good condition and remains so. Seek out knowledge from reliable sources and you will make a wise, informed choice that you will happily be able to live with for decades to come.
Finally, your choice of whether to purchase an Oriental or a Persian rug is a subjective and personal choice. To many people there is something mesmerizing and utterly enchanting about Persian rugs. Their legacy represents thousands of years of enduring and exquisite art. These rugs have a rich and regal quality that bears witness to their beauty and permanence throughout ages past and ages to come.