What is an oriental rug?

So what is the big deal about oriental rugs anyway?  How is it that people can get so enthusiastic about something we walk on with our dirty feet?  Part of the fascination lies in the history of the product.  Rug weaving is one of the oldest industries in the world, dating back over 3000 years.  What makes it even more interesting is that there are actual rug remnants and nearly complete artifacts dating back over 2500 years!  You can find rugs in ancient paintings, stories, and poetry.  And rugs have been the source of artistic idolatry for kings and peasants alike.  Lotto painted rugs into his best works of art.  Shah Safavid risked parts of his army to protect his “Court” weavers from invading Turks.  Shah Abbas forced artists to use his signature flowering palmette design or risk death.  Even today commissions are placed for larger, finer and more unique rugs in an attempt to make a mark on oriental rug history.

The other major part about the fascination has to do with oriental rug construction.  The way that oriental rugs are made allows for extreme durability, simple repairs, and for the development of “patina” as the rug ages.  This means that a fine hand-knotted rug will not only last for generations, but will also increase in value as it is used and passed down!

Definition

Defining an oriental rug can be as easy or as hard as you like.  Each person has a unique picture in their mind of what an oriental rug is, but describing that image to another person accurately can be difficult.  For our purposes, we will use this simple definition.  A true oriental rug is a rug or carpet that is hand-knotted in the near, middle, or far east.  While this is still a very broad definition, it contains two very key factors.

First, and most important, all true oriental rugs are hand-knotted.  Hand-knotting is a skilled process in which individual knots are hand-tied onto a framework of interwoven threads.  The variation of these knots, in coordination with their color and location, create both the pile and the pattern of the rug.


The second key factor in the definition is that all oriental rugs are made in the eastern hemisphere of the globe.  The name oriental rug is itself a misnomer.  Here in the U.S., most people consider the orient to be southern Asia (China, Japan, Koreas, etc.)  The majority of oriental rugs are manufactured in Persia (Iran), India, China, Pakistan, Tibet, Afghanistan, Turkey, and Russia.

Type

Oriental Rugs may be either flat woven or hand-knotted.

Flat woven rugs are not as prominent as piled carpets.  Flat woven rugs are pile-less, created through a system of crossing vertical and horizontal threads to create the fabric of the rug.  This process is very similar to other weaving processes, where threads are interlaced to create material.  The difference is that flatweaves change colors and threads intermittently to create designs, and the threads are woven upon a cotton warp base.  There are multiple types of flat woven rugs made up of different materials, dyes, and designs.  These types of rugs may be called kilims, soumacs, dhurries, or flat weaves depending upon the specific way in which they are constructed.  These flat woven rugs will be discussed further later on this website.

Pile carpets are the most prominent form of oriental rug.  A pile carpet is formed when strands of material are tied (knotted) onto a foundation of warps and wefts, with the cut ends of these knot strings creating the pile of the rug.  Each individual knot is pre-dyed in mass wool quantities, and the placement and colors of these individual knots creates the pattern and quality of the rug.  Again, these rugs vary greatly in the materials, design, and dyes that may be used.

Rugs versus carpets

Many people become confused by the use of the terms rugs and carpets.  For most practical use in the western world, it makes no difference which verbage you choose to use.  The true difference between carpets and rugs is the size.  If a person was to ask for carpets in certain areas of the middle east, the vendor would bring you smaller area rugs ranging from 6X9 and smaller.  To ask for rugs would be to ask to see larger sized pieces, 6x9 or larger.

History

The history of oriental rugs is as old and debated as the religions that we base our beliefs upon.  Rug weaving is one of the world’s oldest and most untouched art forms.  While many of the designs and production techniques have changed, the underlying basics of oriental rugs and the amazing art form behind them remains virtually unchanged for nearly the last 3000 years.  The history behind oriental rugs is intriguing and long and also confusing.  Many references to oriental rugs are made in famous historical documents such as the Bible, and Homer’s Illiad, but most of the information that is gathered on oriental rugs must be taken from existing rugs and antique rug fragments.  This lack of information is due to changing languages in the middle-east and the lack of existing written texts documenting oriental rug production and advances.

Why do rugs exist

Let’s begin with why rugs exist at all.  There are two prevailing theories as to why rugs were created and have developed into the art form we know, and each of these theories is debated heavily.  These debates represent the never-ending struggle between form and function.

The first theory gives credit to the nomadic and village peoples of the ancient middle-east.  This theory contends that such ancient peoples created piled carpets using crude and available materials in order to provide protection against the harsh elements.  This means that rugs were originally made for completely utilitarian use and had no artistic value whatsoever.  These piled textiles could be used for anything from floor coverings, to saddle blankets or tent coverings, etc. This theory would also contend that the origins of oriental rug making began on horizontal, portable looms that would have been better suited for a nomadic lifestyle.



The second theory for the beginnings of oriental rugs contends that rugs were created for use as decoration.  This theory credits a more civilized and centralized group of people with the creation of one of the world’s greatest art forms. This theory also depicts such people weaving the world’s first oriental rugs on vertical, permanent looms, using fine grade materials and intricate processes to create aesthetic art.



The author would contend that neither theory is correct, but that the reality behind the creation of oriental rugs is a combination of the two.  Taking into account the lifestyles of some of the people that still exist in harsh conditions in rug weaving areas today, it is safe to say that rugs were partially created for utilitarian use.  But the fact also remains that when making this art, it takes just as long to make an artful rug as it does to create a basic rug.  If a person is to place so much effort into creating such an object, it might as well serve two functions.  Even today, evidence exists in some semi-nomadic cultures where intricate art is used for utilitarian purpose. The Bakhtiari tribe uses very intricate, beautiful pile textile as saddle blankets and salt bags, but much effort is placed in having these objects reflect the culture and art that these people live with.  Inevitably, some rug creations would be finer than others, and some weavers would have more skill in designing and creating these beautiful works, prompting some weavers to use finer materials and processes.

Using ancient rugs to tell us a story

Because of the different and contrasting references to oriental rugs in ancient literature, it is nearly impossible to determine the geographical region or time period in which the first oriental rugs appeared.  Because the primary materials that are used in the creation of oriental rugs are natural fibers such as wool, cotton, and silk, rugs are constantly subject to eventual deterioration.  When well maintained, rugs can last many decades if not centuries.  But inevitably, all natural fibers succumb to time, and in the case of wool fibers, eventually crystallize and turn into dust.

Consequently, examples of extremely old and rare oriental rugs are hard to find, and are therefore also extremely valuable. Because of this, historians and rug enthusiasts are required to rely upon just a few examples of ancient textile to determine what little we know about this timeless art form.  With major discoveries taking place as little as just 50 years ago, scientist and historians have recreated histories for the processes and cultures behind oriental rugs based upon existing antique carpets and carpet fragments.

The most famous existing ancient rug is known as the Pazyryk, or Altai carpet.  This is the world’s oldest known existing carpet that is nearly intact and is in good condition.  In the summer of 1949, a team of Russian archaeologists, led by Sergei I. Rudenko, uncovered an ancient burial tomb in the Highland Valleys of the Altai Mountains in Siberia.  This area is known as the Pazyryk, or the Valley of the Dead.  This area is aptly named due to the number of tombs that have been found there, a total of 21 since the first was found in 1929.  Each tomb is called a “kurgan”, and five of the 21 tombs found were those of a tsar.  The tomb in which the Pazyryk carpet was found was believed to have been created in the 4th or 5th centuries B.C.  The builders of these tombs were early nomadic people that have been termed as Scythians.  The Pazyryk Carpet was found in the kurgan of a Scythian warrior prince.  This tomb had been disturbed centuries before by grave robbers, with the intruder taking only metals and precious stones, leaving behind a rug and a few other imported objects.  The robbers left the tomb open and damaged.  By leaving the tomb open, the thieves inadvertently preserved the Pazyryk carpet nearly perfectly.  When the seasonal rains came, the tomb flooded and eventually froze the entire tomb in a block of ice, including the carpet.  When the Russian team found the tomb in 1949, the artifacts were still wonderfully preserved within the ice, providing the rug community with the oldest, nearly intact rug in the world.

Carbon dating provided in 1994 by the State Hermitage Museum and the Institute of Technology in St. Petersburg confirmed that the Pazyryk carpet is as old as 440-360 B.C.   That’s approximately 2500 years old!  Not to mention that beyond its age, the design and quality of the weave is absolutely amazing.  The carpet is composed of approximately 240 symmetrical knots per square inch, which was previously thought to be beyond the methods and technology of the time.  Construction of this nature changed what the world knew about textile construction of ancient times.  The size of the rug is 6x6.5 ft (1.83x1.98 m.)  The color palette is composed of a terra cotta colored central field, with the design composed of blues, yellows, and beiges.  The design itself is relatively simple.  The field design contains repeating cross-like symbols which resemble roof and floor tiles produced by ancient Armenians and Persians.  This would lead some people to attribute the workmanship of the rug to the Armenians, but the same tiled cross pattern is displayed in multiple areas among Europe, often symbolizing divine light, or even “God the Creator.”

Discoveries such as this show how the history of oriental rugs is constructed.  To truly pinpoint the who, where, when, and how of oriental rugs may very well be impossible, but the history of oriental carpets is an outstanding and constantly unfolding story.  It is also one that is too large and uncharted to be immediately researched and explained.

Weaving / Construction

The weaving of pile rugs is a difficult and tedious process which, depending on the quality and size of the rug, may take anywhere from a few months to several years to complete.

To begin making a rug, you need a foundation consisting of (warps) strong, thick threads of cotton, wool or silk which run the length of the rug and (wefts) similar threads which pass under and over the warps from one side to the other.  The warps on either side of the rug are normally combined into one or more cables of varying thickness that are overcast to form the selvedge.

Weaving normally begins by passing a number of wefts through the bottom warp to form a base to start from.  Loosely piled knots of dyed wool or silk are then tied around consecutive sets of adjacent warps to create the intricate patterns in the rug.  As more rows are tied to the foundation, these knots become the pile of the rug.  Between each row of knots, one or more shots of weft are passed to tightly pack down and secure the rows.

Depending on the fineness of the weave, the quality of the materials and the expertise of the weavers, the knot count of a handmade rug can vary anywhere from 16 to 550 knots per square inch.

When the rug is completed, the warp ends form the fringes that may be weft-faced, braided, tasseled, or secured in some other manner.

Looms do not vary greatly in essential details, but they do vary in size and sophistication.  The main technical requirement of the loom is to provide the correct tension and the means of dividing the warps into alternate sets of leaves.  A shedding device allows the weaver to pass wefts through crossed and uncrossed warps, instead of laboriously threading the weft in and out of the warps.

Horizontal Looms

The simplest form of loom is a horizontal; one that can be staked to the ground or supported by sidepieces on the ground.  The necessary tension can be obtained through the use of wedges.  This style of loom is ideal for nomadic people as it can be assembled or dismantled and is easily transportable. Rugs produced on horizontal looms are generally fairly small and the weave quality is inferior to those rugs made on a professional standing loom.

Vertical Looms

Vertical looms are undoubtedly more comfortable to operate.  These are found more in city weavers and sedentary peoples because they are hard to dismantle and transport.  There is no limit to the length of the carpet that can be woven on a vertical loom and there is no restriction to its width.

There are three broad groups of vertical looms, all of which can be modified in a number of ways: the fixed village loom, the Tabriz or Bunyan loom, and the roller beam loom.

The fixed village loom is used mainly in Iran and consists of a fixed upper beam and a moveable lower or cloth beam which slots into two sidepieces.  The correct tension is created by driving wedges into the slots.  The weavers work on an adjustable plank which is raised as the work progresses.

The Tabriz loom is named after the city of Tabriz, in North Western Iran.  The warps are continuous and pass around behind the loom.  Tension is obtained with wedges.  The weavers sit on a fixed seat and when a portion of the carpet has been completed, the tension is released and the carpet is pulled down and rolled around the back of the loom.  This process continues until the rug is completed, when the warps are severed and the carpet is taken off the loom.

The roller beam loom is a traditional Turkish village loom, but is also found in most major rug production areas.  It consists of two movable beams to which the warps are attached.  Both beams are fitted with ratchets or similar locking devices and completed work is rolled on to the lower beam.  It is possible to weave very large rugs by these means.

The Knots

Two basic knots are used in most Persian and Oriental rugs: the symmetrical Turkish or Ghiordes knot (used in Turkey, the Caucasus,East Turkmenistan, and some Turkish and Kurdish areas of Iran), and the asymmetrical Persian or Senneh knot (Iran, India, Turkey, Pakistan, China, and Egypt).

To make a Turkish knot, the yarn is passed between two adjacent warps, brought back under one, wrapped around both forming a collar, then pulled through the center so that both ends emerge between the warps.

The Persian knot is used for finer rugs.  The yarn is wrapped around only one warp, then passed behind the adjacent warp so that it divides the two ends of the yarn.  The Persian knot may open on the left or the right, and rugs woven with this knot are generally more accurate and symmetrical.

Other knots include the Spanish knot looped around single alternate warps so the ends are brought out on either side and the Jufti knot which is tied around four warps instead.

The Materials

While the materials used to construct an oriental rug may vary, there are only a few general materials used which account for 99% of all hand- knotted rugs.  Because of this, generalizations can be made which allow one to learn much about their rug solely through knowledge of what composes their rug.

Most hand-knotted rugs have a woolen pile, but this woolen pile can consist of any number of combinations of animal and hair fibers.  Aside from basic sheep’s wool, goat hair, camel hair, mohair, silk, and metal fibers are commonly found in many oriental rugs.  Silk rugs also have another subcategory because of the use of synthetic false silk fibers and mercerized cottons as substitutes.  Blending of different materials to create finer grades of wools, cottons, and silks, is also common, but sometimes reserved for finer pieces.  Wool, for example, can be blended in order to create softer, more lustrous pile materials.

The reason for the use of wool as the pile of the carpet has to do with its excellent physical properties.  It is exceptionally durable.  The fiber lends well to being drawn and spun into yarn.  The structure and natural oils of the fiber make it easy to clean and care for.  The fibers are able to be dyed.  Wool has the desired amount of tensile strength. (Imagine pulling a cotton string and a wool piece of yarn.  The cotton string is very strong, but eventually snaps.  The wool tends to stretch before breaking.) Wool does not shrink when washed. And finally wool is breathable.

Silk may also be used in the pile of the carpet.  The advantage of using silk is that silk is the most durable of the three fibers, does not require a mordant to be dyed, and allows you to place a very high knot count into the carpet.  The disadvantages often outweigh the benefits.  Silk is very difficult to clean and easy to stain, and the biggest downfall… silk is expensive.  Because of this expense, some manufacturers often use artificial silk (art silk) which looks and feels like the real thing, but is actually mercerized cotton.

The warps and wefts of oriental rugs are almost always cotton, with finer pieces using a silk foundation, and many antique pieces using a wool or silk foundation.  Again, how the foundation is constructed and what material is used will give many clues as to the age, origin, and value of the rug.  Cotton is arguably the best base fiber for the average rug because of the low cost and durability of the fiber.

The Dyes

One of the most skilled arts that are employed throughout the creation of an oriental rug is that of the master dyer.  These skills are as important to the quality, durability, and beauty of the rug as are the materials, design, and the weave. If a rug is dyed properly it will age wonderfully and look better as long as it is maintained properly.  When a rug is dyed masterfully, it will increase in beauty and value every day of its life as the colors gradually change and develop a patina that finely handmade products do.

Unfortunately, dyeing processes are probably the most complex process in the entire rug creation. For centuries up until 1856, the only sources of dye were natural plant and animal substances.  These types of dyes were relatively expensive, hard to make, and required masterful skills to use.  Then in 1856, a chemical breakthrough took place that created easy to use and inexpensive synthetic dyes.  Of course, as is the case with everything in oriental rugs, both types of dyes had their strengths and weaknesses.

There are basically two different kinds of dyes.  Natural dyes are those that are taken from nature and are not man-made.  These dyes are essentially created through extraction from plant and animal sources.  Synthetic dyes are man made. These dyes are created in a laboratory using chemical processes.  In many cases, the structure and properties of these dyes are exactly the same.  But in other cases it is readily apparent that the properties of one dye outweigh the lower expense of another.  It is also very important to understand that there are a huge number of misconceptions about the different types of dyes.  Some people have gone as far as to say that certain types of dyes have no value whatsoever.  The fact remains that with the speed of change that goes on in the dye industry, it is nearly impossible to compare the different types of dyes on a fair and neutral basis.

Natural Dyes (Vegetable Dyes)

For many centuries, the only available materials to be used for dyes were natural.  These dyes required intensive skills and training to be correctly measured, formulated, and applied.  For these reasons, trade in natural dyes became a major economic boost for many rug-producing areas.  Many colors were so hard to produce with local ingredients that they had to be imported and were sold worth their weight in gold.  Other natural dyes were so essential and commonplace that their production became complete local industries within themselves.

There are many beliefs about natural dyes that exist even today.  Using natural dyes is a very labor-intensive process.  It involves careful and exact recipes, and requires the knowledge and patience of a skilled dyer.  Because each batch of vegetable dye produces a color that is nearly impossible to replicate, many of these color combinations are kept in family recipe books that are passed down through generations.

Primary colors (red, blue, yellow) are the most often used and produced dyes in oriental rugs.  With vegetable dyes, these primary colors are also necessary for the creation of the secondary colors (orange, green, purple, brown, black.)

Chemical Dyes (Synthetic Dyes)

With advances that came in the way of chemical production throughout the 19th century, it was inevitable that synthetic dyes would eventually find their place in the oriental rug industry.  Because of the skill required for use, and the expense involved in attaining natural dyestuffs, many chemists made special efforts to create dye processes solely for the purpose of use in oriental rugs.

Synthetic dyes may be described by two general terms- aniline, which refers to compounds based upon the benzene ring, and chromes, which require the use of potassium chromate as a mordant.  Each of these has different strengths and weaknesses dependent upon the properties being described.

In 1856 Sir William Henry Perkin became the first to develop a useful dye that was available for commercial use in rugs.  The financial success of this dye process and the demand that was apparent from oriental rugs prompted many other European companies to follow suit and begin development of synthetic dyes. These dyes offered properties that most natural dyestuffs could not; brighter, more vivid colors that were not affected by natural light.  Many colors that were previously impossible to produce with natural dyes quickly came into the market, becoming the main color palettes for many oriental rugs.  These new dyes were both cheaper and easier to use than their natural counterparts, but because of the speed with which they entered the marketplace, many faults were later found which prompted criticism.

As synthetic dyes improved, the market was slow to adjust to the changes.  For a long time, consumers demanded natural dyes, and many dealers resorted to lying to their clients about the type of dyes in their rugs. Today, synthetic dyes are used in the majority of all rugs produced.  These are still easier and less expensive to use, and this has caused the master dyer to slowly move away from natural dye and concentrate on the synthetic dyes.  For the rug industry itself, this may be a good change- preserving the customer base that demands a more modern product.  Sadly, this is killing the original art form of the master dyer.  The art of the natural dyes are slowly vanishing due to the mis-education of the consumer.