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 one of a kind 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.
An Amazing Discovery
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 4th or 5th century B.C. 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 Old 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 shear 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 16th 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 and India. 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, people and the like. The use of color also varies from region to region with the availability of dye materials.
Traditional Role of Color in Persian Rugs
Traditionally the colors used in Persian rugs also had special meanings assigned to them. Below are some of the traditional meanings used by the makers of these rugs that all carry their own unique message.
- Red: Beauty, Wealth, Courage, Luck, Joy and Faith
- Gold or tan: Power and Wealth
- White: Purity and Cleanliness
- Blue: Power or Force. Depending on the hue it can also signify Solitude and an allusion to the After-life.
- Black is often used for outlines, but can also signify mourning
- Green is considered a holy color and is used sparingly or in places least likely to be walked on. It can also signify Hope, Renewal, Life and the return of spring.
- Brown: Fertility
- Orange: Humility and Piety
Most people, who purchase oriental rugs today, purchase them for the same reasons they have been purchased throughout the ages…for their decorative impact.
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 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 the 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 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 familial 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! Imagine how much time goes into the creation of these rugs, from the very outset, as each piece of yarn is spun and hand tied by its makers. 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, furniture and are useful in the everyday lives of their weavers. Tribal rugs are made on ground looms, usually not more than 5 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 decors that include more primitive, rural antiques or the more casual decorating schemes we love so well.
A simple tribal rug that is left un-sheared is called a “Gabbeh.” These simple rugs can have a pile of 2–3 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 more relaxed decorating styles.
The larger and more intricate “city rugs” are at home in opulent and more formal interiors or rooms containing the fine antiques and furniture. City or “workshop” rugs tend to be larger, very tightly woven with much finer yarns, which enable 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. Although there are exceptions and other standard sizes, these rugs are generally produced to specific size specifications, such as:
- 3.5 x 5 ft
- 4 x 6 ft
- 5 x 7 ft or 5 x 8 ft
- 6 x 9 ft
- 8 x 10 ft
- 9 x 12 ft
- 10 x 14 ft
- 12 x 15 ft
- 12 x 18 ft
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.
Every now and again you will find that a Persian or Oriental rug has been signed by its maker. Some also contain a favorite saying encased in a cartouche. As with an original painting that has been signed by the artist, a one of a kind carpet, which is signed by its maker, is highly sought after.
Buying Oriental and Persian Rugs
Finding the “right” Oriental rug for your décor can be a challenge at best. 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 the following:
- Country of Origin. Is the rug made in Iran or in another country?
- The Age of the Rug—whether it is an antique or a reproduction
- Is the rug hand-made and hand-knotted or machine made?
- How many knots 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 hand-made 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 well and are the standard by which all other rug fibers are measured.
Something for Every Budget
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 an “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 U.S.A. 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 also replicate many of the exotic colors of the original hand-made, hand-knotted rugs. It is important to note though that hand-knotted rugs will last longer and hold up better to traffic than even the best machine made rugs.
Do shop around though, as there are many reputable Persian rug dealers selling the real thing at prices you never thought you could afford. Be sure to purchase your Persian rug from a reputable dealer. They will be happy to take their time with you and help you with choices that fall in your price range and décor needs. When purchasing an original Persian rug, be certain to also obtain a certificate of authenticity. This is important for insurance reasons and to establish the value of your new or old rug.
Choosing a Persian or Oriental rug
Size and Shape
Rectangular and square shapes are always popular and safe choices. Measure your room so that you know the exact area you will need to cover. As a general rule you will want to leave a foot or two between the edges of your rug and walls or boundaries. You may opt for more than one rug in a space depending on the size of your room.
Quick tip: If you have trouble visualizing what size rug(s) you need, use sheets or blankets that mimic the sizes of the rug(s) you are considering.
Rugs with medallions in the center of the rug work well if they can be placed in the center of the room, without covering up the medallion. If you are lining up the medallion with a chandelier or suspended light fixture, be sure to choose the right sized rug for the space that will not result in the medallion being off center from
If the center of your rug will be covered up by furniture, such as a dining room table or bed, opt for an overall pattern that has an exquisite border.
Simpler geometric designs such as tribal rugs work best in contemporary and more relaxed interiors.
Do use Oriental and Persian rugs generously throughout your home. They look wonderful in your kitchen or keeping room. Nothing spruces up a large bathroom, laundry room, or bedroom like the use of smaller oriental rugs. Prayer rugs are ideal for use in powder rooms and small spaces. Virtually anywhere you can place an area rug, you may wish to use an Oriental instead for the shear impact of design and color. Also, use a good quality rug pad under your oriental, if it is to be placed on a hard surface floor.
There are many local and regional sources for fine Oriental rugs. A well chosen hand-made 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 a many people, myself included, 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 the ages past and ages to come.