Oriental Rugs – An Eye for Quality

You are about to make the purchase of a lifetime. You are shown two diamonds of equal size and similar style, but they are priced very differently. The knowledgeable salesperson will educate you about the differences in clarity, color, and cut that makes a stone a higher quality, and thus more expensive than the other. Even if you choose the less expensive stone, you will be satisfied with the fact that you have made an informed decision about the purchase.

A good Oriental rug store will offer a sometimes bewildering selection of rugs. Like a diamond, a hand woven oriental rug can be a lifetime purchase. You will want to be well informed about the quality of your prospective purchase. The following factors should be taken into account.

1- Wool Quality

Although other materials are used for the pile (silk, for example), wool is the most commonly used. The quality of the wool is one of the most important factors in determining the overall quality of the rug; if the raw materials are poor, the finished product will be poor. The wool pile should be lustrous, with a natural sheen produced by the lanolin; it should not be dull. Some rugs, especially those from China and Pakistan are treated to give them a silky appearance. This does not last and the chemical treatment can damage the fibers contributing to fast wear. Wool should feel springy with lots of body, not limp and easily compressed. Coarse wool (from Middle-Eastern Fat Tailed sheep) is generally the choice of carpets. Merino wool from Australia is softer and finer. It is often found in rugs from generally acknowledged (with some exceptions) that Persian wool is often of the highest quality. It is more likely to be hand spun rather than machine spun. The gentler handling in hand-spinning contributes to its durability. Hand spun wool generally takes dyestuffs better. The pile may be clipped very short to define the pattern clearly or left fairly long.

In the store, look at several different types of rugs to see and feel the differences in wool. Ask about the wool quality of one rug in relation to another. Don’t ask whether the wool is good; ask whether the wool in this rug is as good quality as the wool in that one. Ask whether it is hand spun or machine spun. This is not obvious to the untrained eye. Silk rugs are wonderful to look at, but silk does not wear well. Treated (Mercerized) cotton sometimes masquerades as silk, especially in Turkish rugs under the names of Turkish silk and Art silk.

2 – Dyes

The second factor (some would argue the most important) is the quality of the dyestuffs used. Prior to the middle of the last century all dyes were “natural”; that is they were obtained from vegetable matter (and occasionally insects). The first synthetic aniline dyes to appear were of poor quality; they ran or faded or changed color when exposed to light over a period of time. Most of these problems have been eliminated in modern “chrome” dyes, if they are properly prepared. The advantage of modern dyes is also their primary disadvantage; being too color fast does not allow the dyes to mellow naturally with time and use. Natural dyes are still in use, especially in Turkey and Iran. They are sought after as they age well, producing glorious, jewel-like colors with use.

In the store, examine the rug carefully. Examine the roots and knots. Is there a deeper color at the root? This might indicate that the dye is fugitive to light. If the entire rug is lighter on the pile side than on the back, this normally indicates that the rug has been chemically washed (bleached). A light washing is normal and not detrimental, but harsher bleaching can damage the fibers and reduce the longevity of the rug. Look at the pattern where light and dark colors meet. Have the darker dyes run? If there is a solid field of a single color, surprisingly, a completely uniform field is a negative feature. Look for some “Abrash” or slight color variation. This adds depth, contributes to the “hand-woven” nature and usually indicates that the wool has been hand-spun and hand-dyed.

Some otherwise nice rugs are spoiled by the addition of garish or inharmonious colors; a “hot” synthetic orange is a principal offender, which unfortunately does not mellow with age.

3 – Construction

A hand-woven rug may be made up of millions of knots. The yarn is looped over to vertical wrap strings and secured in place by the horizontal wefts. The warps and wefts are generally cotton, although they may be wool. The number of knots per square inch (meter, etc.) is often misrepresented as an indicator of quality. It can be, but it depends on the type of rug, design, provenance, etc. The number of knot buds apparent on the back of the rug is also misleading. In Pakistani made rugs, for example, you will often see both loops of the knot. In finer Persian rugs, one warp is partially or fully depressed such that the loops are stacked on top of each other – hence greatly increasing the density of the pile.

In the store, look for a tightly packed pile. Stick your fingers into the pile. If you really feel the wefts, the rug will not wear as well. In some weaving areas, to save time, only the border knots are looped over two warps and the knots in the centre are “jufti” tied, which means they are tied over four warps. This halves the density pile.

Some irregularities in the construction to be tolerated. Though a rug that is noticeably wider at top than at the bottom, or is waisted at the middle, may be of lower value. The different tensions in the wefting causes this to also suggests a poorly made rug. Some irregularities of design are often appealing in tribal rugs and testify to its hand-woven character. A fine Persian, say an Isfahan or Kashan should have a well executed design, with evidence of fine detail, outlining of borders and excellent weaving technique.

In the store, examine the rug rolled out completely in an area which is free from distractions. Is the shape regular? Does it lie flat? Are the edges well finished? Avoid sewn on fringes. They add nothing to the value of a rug. Check for damage, although this is unlikely in a new rug; (small holes can be effectively repaired). Look at the execution of the design in rugs of different quality (compare, for example, and Indian made Kashan and a Persian made Kashan). fur area rug

Above all, go to a dealer you can trust, one that allows you to take a rug home on approval, one that can enhance your knowledge and therefore appreciation of these fine heirlooms.

It is misleading to suggest that the quality of an oriental rug is determined by knot count only. This is a myth perpetuated by uniformed salespeople who do not understand some of their complexities. It may also be used to justify a higher price for a rug which is actually of lower value. It is true that knot count can enter into the quality equation, but not in a straightforward way. Here are some facts.

• Knots are really loops of pile woven onto adjacent warp strings (the vertical part of the foundation) and held in place by the horizontal weft. In densely woven rugs, the wefts are drawn tightly to stack the knot. When you look at the back, you see only one “bud” and not two. Some rugs, notably Pakistani “Bokhara” design rugs, appear to have twice as many knots because they are not stacked and you see both buds of the knot. So it is important to understand how the rug is constructed.

• Knot count has more to do with the type of design than quality per se. A geometric design does not require as high a pattern resolution as a floral, curvilinear design. A floral design may not look right with 100 knots per square inch, while this may be perfect for a geometric rug of tribal village origins. Ask yourself whether the design looks right or clums