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Facts About Oriental Rugs


Why is silk often used to make Oriental Rugs?


Silk is used to make Oriental Rugs because dyed silk is a fiber with rich, saturated colors, and a distinctive, almost translucent luster. Silk is extremely high in tensile strength, exceeding that of nylon! There are some exquisite all-silk Oriental Rugs, as well as some fine-textured wool rugs utilizing “shots” of silk in the motifs. The clarity and refinement given the work of art by the use is silk is unequalled.


What is a “washed and painted” Oriental Rug, and how did it come into being?


Due to their age, the older Oriental Rugs from Turkey and Persia were more muted in color. The softer colors were actually preferred by the Europeans. The newer rugs had a sharper and brighter appearance. There was a demand, but a limited supply, of the older, more muted rugs. In an industrious effort to fill the demand, the States of New York and New Jersey went to the rescue by setting up shops that chemically bleached new rugs so that the colors were softened. The problem was, that when the darker colors were sufficiently bleached, the lighter colors in the rug almost disappeared.

“Painting” was then necessary to restore the parts that faded too much. The rugs were then laid out and selectively re-dyed, using aniline dye in shades of purplish-red, sky blue, and navy. It was an expensive process, in that it was highly labor-intensive. The face of the rug was painted, but not the back. The rug was then given a glycerin or paraffin hot-wax treatment to restore the sheen. Voila! Instant “old rug”.

The washed and painted rugs were sold for more money than the new Orientals. However, the process was actually destructive in that it removed natural lanolin and oils from the wool, rendering the rug less durable, less resilient. Also, the original vat-dyed color is more colorfast.

To my mind, this is tampering with a work of art, and I find it very offensive. If left alone, the rug would age by itself, and the colors would mute naturally.

Note: You can tell a “washed and painted” Oriental Rug by looking at the back side. The back is usually lighter than the front, from the “washing” process. Also, one can also see, at times, the haphazard application of color on the surface; and the halo effects of color as it lightens near the edges of the motif.


Vegetable or Synthetic Dyes?


Many people are of the belief that vegetable or natural dyes are superior to synthetic dyes. The truth is that it is often difficult to tell the difference. Sometimes vegetable dyes can be damaging to the wool, or more fugitive in color. Synthetic dyes have been used as long ago as 1875, and the rug weavers in Turkey and Persia (Iran) use synthetic AZO dyes with as much integrity as vegetable dyes. However, since the 1960’s, there has been a trend toward vegetable dyeing.


If an Oriental carpet is signed by the weaver, does it increase the value of the carpet?


Probably not, but a signature is interesting, nonetheless. Rugs were and are often woven by individuals who are functionally illiterate. If this is the case, someone on location might be found to write the name, initials, or date on the rug.

Some weavers live and work in the villages, or the “country”. Others work in the “city”. Most signed rugs are “city” rugs, where someone can be found to write the name, or other markings. The inscription is usually included by the entrepreneur, not the weaver. It will be in Arabic or Farsi, and will represent the weaving family, not an individual. Dates can be confusing because they are often copied by a semi-literate weaver who sometimes gets the numbers mixed up or makes them upside-down. Then one has to transpose the dates from the Islamic Lunar Calendar to a Solar Calendar. A weaver may copy a date from an older rug, or intentionally pre-date a rug in order to create an “immediate” antique.

In short – finding a date is fun, but not reliable, at best.


How does one organize or divide general classes of Oriental Rugs?

The “personalities” of Oriental Rugs are clearly recognized by looking at rugs made in the country and those made in the cities. Classify them by “country rugs” and “city rugs”.

Country rugs are bolder, less tightly knotted, and have simpler designs. They have fewer colors (five or six), and many are still made with vegetable dyes such as madder and indigo. Country weavers tend to keep to traditional colors and patterns more than do city weavers.

City weavers are exposed to all kinds of different designs, patterns, and qualities, from many areas and cultures. City rugs tend to be tighter, more closely clipped, have more colors, more intricate design, and have clear, sharp images. They are much finer looking than a country rug.

The city rug weavers have more commercial considerations than their country counterparts. The city rugs are designed with a market in mind, and are made “to sell”. That does not in any way diminish their beauty and elegance.

Personally, I tend to prefer country rugs, but that is because as an artist my own approach is bold. I love the bold tribal look of the country weavers. However, I wouldn’t say “no” to a fine Isfahan from Iran!


What is meant by “knot density”?


Knot density refers to the number of knots per square inch. Knot density can be, but is not always, an important indicator of the rug’s quality. There are some extraordinarily fine Oriental Rugs, which are traditionally executed with a lower knot count.


Most knot counts are measured simply by counting the number of knots per linear inch along the warp (the length of the rug), and multiplying to get the number of knots per square inch (or per square centimeter). Unfortunately this can be very tricky. Rug structures vary. Individual knots can be difficult to discern from the warp and weft.

However, once you see a selection of rugs with varying knot counts, you will easily see the difference in the ultimate “look” of the rug. You will come to recognize that the “denser” rugs, those which have the most knots per square inch, are finer, tighter, and more formal in look and feel. The design motifs have more clarity and refinement, suggesting a “dressier” looking rug, perhaps more appropriate for a traditional, forrmal setting. It is among the higher knot count that you will find the silk rugs, and the wool rugs utilizing “shots” of pure silk to define motifs.


A rug with a lower knot count can be equally beautiful. The reason for the lower count can often be attributed to the style of the particular region, and/or the gauge of the wool used. Often less formal, more tribal-looking rugs have a lower knot count. They are no less beautiful. They tend to have an earthier, more casual look.


Note: It’s a good idea to do your rug search with a designer close by, or a trusted individual who recognizes the sometimes subtle differences in rug quality and design properties. Once you become familiar with the variations in look and quality, you will be able to continue your search on your own. This is of particular importance when you are looking to purchase an antique, which needs to be authenticated before investing.


Lastly, keep in mind that when you look at these rugs you are looking at astounding artistry, produced by human hands, knot by knot, in glorious color and design. Consider the fact that it took a craftsman (or two) anywhere from 12 to 16 months to create your 9’X12’ carpet. Then consider what you earn for a year of work. Then you will begin to understand the true value of these amazing works of art!

-Joan Saloomey


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