Classic Oriental Rugs:
A Salute to a Time-honored Tradition of Elegance and Beauty
Not only are Oriental rugs my passion, as a painter, they are also my inspiration and “Muse” for a body of my ongoing work.
I thank the dedicated artisans throughout the ages, from Turkey, Iran, India, Pakistan, and the Caucasus, for giving the world the beauty and joy of their art form… and for inspiring me to take it many steps in the direction of my own personal expression.
What is an Oriental Rug?
An authentic “Oriental Rug” is a piled or flat-woven fabric. The pile rugs are hand-knotted onto a warp and weft grid. The traditional weaving areas of the Middle or Far East are Afghanistan, China, India, Iran, Nepal, Pakistan, Tibet, Turkey, and some of the southern territories of the old Soviet Union, Balkan countries like Romania and Albania, and some North African countries like Morocco and Egypt.
Genuine Oriental Rugs are not made in Belgium, or anywhere in Western Europe, or in the United States.
Companies such as Karastan and Couristan produce high quality machine-made area rugs of patterns imitating classic Oriental Rug motifs. They are known for long-lasting quality, but genuine Oriental Rugs are made by hand, and are each works of art and love.
When I was growing up there was an enormous Karastan rug in our livingroom. Fashioned after a blonde Kirman design, the rug reached almost wall to wall in a very large room. It was very typical of the time, the ‘50’s and 60’s, to use one large rug in the room, and to place the furniture around the edges (our concept of space these days has matured and improved, thankfully – it is far preferable to use a smaller area rug to define a conversational area, and to add another, if the space allows, to create “zones” of functionality in the room). This huge rug was intended to protect the floor, warm the room, and withstand untold traffic of kids, family, friends, dogs, and cats through many years of living: Sarah’s teenage parties, Karen’s ballet, and my clowning around. This Karastan was a 100% wool, machine-made “Oriental”. It withstood decades of use and abuse, never showing soil and wear; it looked almost new when we “retired” it just a few years ago. So although the “modern” machine-made rugs are not authentic works of art, they can look great and give remarkable service.
Authentic Oriental Rugs are tough and durable, maybe even more so than our venerable old machine-made Karastan.
Visit a reliable rug emporium and take a good look at the hand-knotted, authentic Orientals. Flip over the corner of one and examine the back side. You will see a clean pattern, as clean and clear as the image on the top of the rug. Ask to be shown a machine-made “oriental”, and do the same. You will easily come to recognize the difference. The back of the machine-made rug looks quite different, more “grid-like” in appearance, as the rug was constructed by machine, not by hand.
Today, there are weaving centers in Iran, China, India, and Pakistan, where rugs are hand-woven for the world’s market.
In addition to the Oriental Rugs, European designs such as Aubusson, and Savonnerie Rugs, and the flat-woven tapestry-like Dhurries are woven in India, as are many Persian and Chinese designs. It should be noted that while a “Persian Rug” design can be made in India, Pakistan, China, or elsewhere, a genuine Persian Rug comes only from Iran.
America’s Love Affair With Oriental Rugs
Oriental Rugs became popular in the United States during the 1920’s. The newly industrialized America, with no income tax at the time, resulted in more disposable income for a new class of wealthy Americans, making it possible to travel to Europe via steamship. During the “Grand Tour”, people stayed abroad for months at a time, acquiring furnishings of all descriptions. Oriental Rugs were the rage.
Until recently most of the Oriental Rugs sold in the United States were from Persia (Iran). People generally assumed that Persian Rugs were the finest in the world. If one owned an Oriental Rug that was woven in Iran, it was considered to be of superlative quality. The truth is that while there are Iranian rugs of superb quality, there are also others which range from mediocre to poor. It is of extreme importance to know what you are doing when purchasing. Consulting with a trusted advisor will eliminate surprises later!
Some typical classic Persian Rug designs are “Kashan”, “Tabriz”, “Herez”, and “Mahal”.
With the exile of the Dalai Lama from Tibet in 1959, many of the Tibetans followed their spiritual leader and established communities in Nepal, where Tibetan Rug-making traditions continued.
Nepal has been producing many modern designs for the European market, specifically Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Alas, like many others, Tibetans have been pressured to produce rugs to sell for lower and lower prices. The best of the Tibetan Rugs are still made the old-fashioned way, with totally handspun Tibetan yarn and vegetable dyes. And they are beautiful! A traditional Tibetan Rug is thick and dense, with heavy lustrous pile and deep, rich color.
Three typical Tibetan designs are “Flower”, “Flayed Tiger”, and “Khotan”.
Caucasian Rugs have an interesting history. They represent many ethnic cultures and originate from the area of the Caucasus Mountains bound by the Black and Caspian Seas, Russia, Turkey, and Iran.
The rugs are characterized by bold design in primary colors (which must be why I like them so much).
By the late 1920’s the Soviet Union was in control of the Caucasus. The Soviets, desperate for foreign currency, tried, without success, to collectivize rug weaving in the same way they collectivized farming (which resulted in the same failure).
The 1930’s “Five Year Plan Rugs” were inferior in every way to the weavings they replaced. Another attempt was made in the 1950’s to resuscitate rug weaving in the Caucasus. It was unsuccessful.
Today, the original old Caucasian Rugs that are in reasonably good condition are prized, and are highly collectible.
Pakistan is today making rugs in Caucasian designs such as “Kazak”, “Gendje”, “Kuba”, and “Shirvan”.
Turkey has been famous for its handwoven rugs since the 17th Century when Venetian traders introduced Turkish carpets to wealthy Europeans.
Some of the finest wool, and even silk, rugs were woven in Turkey.
Modern-day Turkey has become very Westernized, and rug prices have risen dramatically. Hence, many “Turkish Design” rugs are now being produced in other countries such as Pakistan.
Well-known Turkish Rug designs are “Silk Hereke”, “Bergamo”, “Shirvan”, “Yahyali”, and “Malatya”.
A very popular rug today is the “Bokhara”, commonly known in America as the “Elephant Foot”. Originally woven by the Turkomans, many of the Turkoman designs are now being produced in Pakistan.
The most common “Bokhara” designs are the “Tekke Gul Medallion”, and the “Yomud” design, named after the Turkoman tribal group. These rugs have geometric patterns, clean and clear in color and design. The background field colors are red, rust, ivory, navy, green, slate, teal, peach, rose, or orange.
The history and art of Oriental Rugs is much too vast a topic to cover in this small space. There are tomes filled with the lore and romance of this remarkable category of art. Oriental Rugs enrich our lives, making our homes warm by their insulating properties, while wrapping us with elegance and timeless beauty.
This has been a sampling of but a few of the amazing works of art which are available to the enthusiastic collector of Oriental Rugs. Not only excellent as investments, these works of art give joy to generations, becoming priceless heirlooms.
Consider purchasing one or more for your home. The investment level can range from a highly collectible museum-quality rug, to a lovely, but far more affordable hand-knotted “program” rug, which is available in a range of sizes and shapes.
Always purchase from a reputable store or dealer . And get ready to fall in love.
- Joan Saloomey
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