Grading Rugs & Comparing Quality
Grading oriental rugs and comparing qualities among multiple pieces and be confusing and complicated. There are many different types and grades of oriental rugs and this will often play a major role in the price. The information here is a basic description of how rugs are graded by a dealer and factors that will affect pricing. For more detailed information, a trip to your local, reputable dealer may be in order. Don’t be afraid to ask your dealer to give you a “Rugs 101” course or for help in comparing multiple pieces.
A side note- Oriental rugs are works of art, and the beauty is usually in the eye of the beholder. If you love the work of art, and the price feels fair to you, buy it. Half of great art is in the experience of finding and obtaining it. Please do not let this buyer’s guide cause you to lose the enchantment of hunting beautiful works of art.
A second note- All hand-knotted oriental rugs have value. The true job of an oriental rug dealer is to educate you as you search for the perfect piece. Rugs of different prices are simply different. They are apples and oranges, animals of differing species. Take caution to judge each piece fairly according to what it should be within its own right. Too many dealers try to push clients in the direction of certain types of dyes, wools, or countries of origin.
So here are the basic factors that affect grades/qualities/pricing for oriental rugs:
1. Quality / Construction
- Warp and Weft
- Pile Quality
- Pile Spinning Technique
- Dye Quality
- Knot Count/ Density
3. Country of Origin
6. Decorative Demand
1. Quality & Construction
Most people quite literally "get tied up in knots" judging the quality of Oriental rugs. Let’s break it down and try to simplify the process.
Warp & Weft
As you read about in the beginning of this buyer’s guide, the warp and weft are the base of the rug, a skeleton on which the rug is built. These strings are usually made of cotton, due to the immense tensile strength. Cotton is both inexpensive and readily available. You can increase the intricacy of a rugs design by using smaller gauge warp and weft strings, allowing you to place more knots per square inch into the rug. (KPSI will be discussed soon, please note that this adds intricacy to the design, but also adds time and therefore cost. While this may add value, all is relative to the original design of the rug and may add cost while not adding value.)
You can further increase the intricacy and strength of the finished rug by making the warp and weft out of silk. The silk fiber is immensely finer and stronger relative to the finer gauge of the thread, but also adds considerable materials cost.
Hand-spun wool is a hallmark of antique rug construction and still exists today with tribal rug construction and the revival of hand-spun wool and vegetable dye construction. This technique is usually cost comparable to cotton warping and wefting, but adds value in its artistic merit. The technique also requires more skill and time to complete the same amount of material, but is the weakest material in terms of tensile strength.
The quality of the pile can play a role in the value of your oriental rug. There are only two materials acceptable for the pile material- wool and silk. The vast majority of rugs in the market today are a 100% wool pile, while there are also many wool pile rugs with silk highlight rugs, and fewer 100% silk rugs.
Wool pile exists in two basic forms- normal and blended. Normal wool is taken from one source, one type of sheep (usually Merino) and is spun into yarn. Blended wool is created by taking multiple type of wool, usually imported and blending the wools into one fiber before spinning. Blending wool allows you to create very fine grades of wool that are not usually naturally available.
Wool is graded based upon the fineness, length, and strength of the fiber. Graders will also account for natural oil content and softness. Fine wool is grown on Merino sheep at high altitudes. Sources for fine wool vary including places such as Argentina and New Zealand.
The finer grades of wool also allow the yarn to be spun into a finer gauge. The fibers must be stronger and longer in order to make the finished yarn thin yet durable.
Wool quality will affect the price and value of an oriental rug, but grading wool after it has already been spun into yarn and knotted onto a rug may be an impossible task. We find it best to go by the following rule- softer and shinier is better.
Pile Spinning Technique
Regardless of the wool quality, there are two ways in which the raw wool can be spun into yarn: by machine and by hand. Each has intrinsic advantages and creates a different look and feel for the finished rug.
Machine spinning wool is both fast and cost effective. A machine can minutely gauge the amount of twist and tension along the entire span of the yarn. This allows you to create very fine, thin yard very quickly. The yarn will be strong and uniform throughout the entire length of the strand. This process will yield a wool pile that will be completely uniform and will have a texture that is nearly perfect, somewhat similar to the texture of wall to wall carpet.
The main effect of machine spinning is that with the finer gauge yarn, weavers are able to tie many more knots per square inch into the rug. This in turn allows for much more intricate patterns and designs. Without this construction, many of the delicate curvilinear designs we see would not exist. So while you may gain a cost advantage due to the speed and efficiency of machine spinning wool, you will often lose the cost advantage by adding time and labor into high density knotting.
Hand-spinning is much slower and costs considerably more than machine spinning to create the same amount of finished yarn. While time and cost are considered, hand-spinning wool is an artisan craft aged over 3000 years that yields an imperfect, nubby texture that drives collectors crazy. One look at a hand-spun wool rug, and you immediately recognize that the rug is completely handmade.
Another attribute of hand-spun wool is that due to the nature of the spinning process, the gauge of the yarn is considerably heavier than that of machine-spun wool. This means that very high knot count rugs are generally knot found with hand-spun wool.
Essentially, you can have fast, cheap, nearly perfect texture that allows for very fine knotting, or you can have an artisan, nubby textured rug that is recognizably handmade and has the look of an antique even when it is new.
Dye type can have an effect on the cost of making oriental rugs. There are two basic dye types used in modern oriental rug construction: chemical and vegetable.
For either dye type, the wool must first be mordanted, a chemical reaction process that allows the dye to adhere to the wool. If not properly mordanted, the dye will not “stick” to the wool and when washed, the color will bleed. A reputable oriental rug dealer will have checked all rugs before placing them for sale in the showroom. A simple test is to dampen a white handkerchief and to wipe it across the back of the rug. Absence of color bleed symbolizes no color problems in the future.
Modern chemical dyeing utilizes chromium dyes. These stable dyes replaced the aniline dyes that existed in the early 1900’s that were acidic and caused the wool to degrade over time. The new chromium dyes allow for essentially any color and will not harm the wool at all. These dyes are both cheap and allow for color to be reproduced at near exact specifications.
Vegetable dyeing is a little more complicated. . 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.
Natural ingredients such as plant roots, fermented leaves, natural indigo, tree bark, and nut husks are used to create these dyes. Because of the nature of the dye stuffs, the materials can only be harvested at certain times of the year, and even then in limited quantity.
Natural dyes require time and dedicated skill and therefore will add considerable cost in the production of an oriental rug. Vegetable dyes are often paired with hand-spun wool in an attempt to replicate antique rug production.
Knots per Square Inch Density
This grading variable requires a little bit of study before it can be applied. Before rugs can be compared by knot count, they must first be the same type of construction. It is not possible to compare knot counts between machine spun wool and hand-spun wool rugs for example. The construction type itself calls for different knot counts.
The weave should be fine enough to clearly express the motifs of the design. A bold geometric design may have less than 100 knots per square inch while a detailed floral pattern may require 300 or more. You could simply add more knots to a simple design and you would only be adding cost, not adding value.
Once you have determined the range that the knot count should be in regards to the construction type, then you can use knot count to compare the value of rugs.
We do not have ample time to discuss how many knots should be in each type of rug, that is a book in itself. To keep things simple, remember the following points:
- Machine spun wool allows for fine gauge yarn, allowing for more knots.
- Hand-spun wool is by nature thicker, allowing fewer knots.
- Proper knot density should be determined by the desired pattern.
- More knots require more time and cost, not necessarily more value.
- Different knotting techniques can be used in different parts of the rug, so if you are going to count knots, do multiple counts in different parts of the rug.
- Pay attention to warp and weft thickness, the thicker the gauge, the fewer knots you should expect.
- There are often 2-4 weft strings per every row of knots, more weft strings between each row of knots takes up space and allows for fewer knots. This is often a way to speed up the production process and lowers rug quality.
Finishing techniques involve shearing and cleaning the rug before it is ready for the showroom floor. Finishing techniques do not normally noticeably affect the cost of an oriental rug, but there are certain situations were the finishing can affect the value of the piece.
The shearing of the rug is an often overlooked art form. Shearing is mostly done by hand because machine shearing tends to leave lines and divots across the pile. A master shearer will roll the rug backward, using a steadied hand and trained eye to trim the rug using a simple yet large pair of shears. If the pile is trimmed too long, the pattern will appear “fuzzy” or almost out of focus. If the pile is trimmed too short, you will be able to see the gaps and warps between the rows of knots. This not only ruins the pattern, but also decreases the life of the rug.
What you should look for is a pile length that allows the pattern to be accurately represented, but not so short that the rug can be easily damaged. One trend that you will find is that the machine spun wool rugs will many time be sheared with a thicker pile. Due to the density of the knots, you simply cannot shear the pile very low. The hand-spun wool rugs tend to be sheared with a shorter pile, again adding to the antique reproduction look.
One other finishing technique that effect value is tea-staining. With this technique a finished rug is essentially immersed in a bath of tea leaves or walnut husks. This will give the rug a gold overcast of color that can add to the antique effect. This technique adds little cost, but if applied correctly can add value with the overall look of the rug.
There are also finishing techniques that can damage the value and quality of an oriental rug. The most common techniques that you will find are bleaching, painting, and pre-wearing.
Bleaching a rug involves chemically washing a rug to dull the original colors in an attempt to make the rug look older. This technique damages the original design concept of the art and can strip the natural oils out of the wool, shortening the life of the rug. These rugs are easy to recognize by an obvious difference in the brightness of color from the front and the back of the rug.
Painting a rug is a technique to restore color to rugs that have been chemically washed or have been bleached by the sun. While some of these rugs have become collectors items, the vast majority of the pieces were damaged beyond repair and the painting technique was used merely to conceal that damage.
Pre-wearing a rug involves placing a rug in an area where it will receive massive amounts of wear and traffic in a short period of time in an attempt to make the rug look like an antique. It is not uncommon to even have these rug placed in the middle of a busy intersection to be run over by vehicles. This unfortunately places undo wear on the rugs, while not allowing for the natural patina to develop that only comes with time. These rugs are recognizable because while the may have even wear, the colors will not represent a lifetime of oxidation and will have too much contrast.
2. Size of the Rug
Size of the rug will obviously affect the cost; more square footage at a particular amount per foot equates into more cost. There are also a few more factors to take into account regarding size when it comes to the price of a rug.
Oversize rugs tend to cost more per foot than smaller pieces. There is a legitimate reason for this trend. Larger rugs require larger looms. Larger looms require different construction and must be anchored heavily. In many cases, the looms must be complete with roller beams to avoid huge space requirements and worker injury. To keep production time to a minimum, extra workers are hired and extra shifts are usually called in, adding to the human cost of the product.
While the large size of a rug can add cost, the difference should not be exorbitant, usually only adding a couple of dollars per square foot.
Odd shapes also tend to cost more per square foot. Rounds, octagons, or star shapes require special looms and warping techniques. This requires skilled laborers dedicated to the size and shape, and production is usually slower.
3. Country of Origin
Country of origin will affect the cost of the rug in two ways: exchange rate and shipping.
Due to the ever changing value of the dollar against other currencies, buying prices are also constantly changing. Without the strength of our American dollar against these currencies, hand-knotted oriental rugs would not be affordable. Imagine how much a hand-knotted 9x12 (taking approximately 13 months to complete, woven by a skilled artist making $15 per hour, working 12 hours per day) would cost if it were produced in the United States.
Shipping from each country can also add cost to an oriental rug. Most rugs will be shipped in bales, loaded into containers. These containers are then shipped by boat. This shipping method is very cost effective, usually only accounting for a maximum 5% of a dealers cost.
For custom made items, items that have been shipped individually, or air-shipped rugs, the cost of shipping can account for nearly 50% of the items total cost.
A side-note about country of origin:
Many oriental rug dealers will claim that rugs of a particular origin are better than rugs of other nationality. This is simply false. Each country makes exceptionally fine rugs. Each country will also produce very poor rugs. Among modern rugs (those woven in the past few decades), one should look at the "personality" rather than "nationality" of the rug. Traditionally, Iran (Persia) was the source for the finest rugs—the benchmark against which all others were compared. However, the quality of rugs from India, Pakistan, China, Turkey, Tibet and Nepal has improved in the past 80 years to the extent that many Persian-design carpets from these countries are finer than the Iranian originals.
4. Age of the Rug
The age of the rug does play an important role in the price of an oriental rug. By ORRA (Oriental Rug Retailer Association) standards there are four basic rug age categories: New, Used, Semi- Antique, and Antique.
New rugs have not been placed in a home for use. This does not necessarily mean that the rug has just come off of the loom, though. Used rugs have been placed in a home at least once, and are less than 50 years old.
Semi-Antique rugs are aged 50-80 years old.
Antique Rugs are aged 80 years and older. For most certified appraisals antiques must be at least 100 years old.
Rugs will increase in value with use and age as long as the rug is properly maintained. Here is why. Just like any other natural material, wool can be broken down. The beauty of wool is that it takes a very long time to break down, and that it actually looks better and feels better as it is used. Imagine that you are buffing the outer layers of the wool fiber with your feet, bringing the natural oils to the surface.
Another reason they increase in value is that as you wear down the pile, you get closer to the original knot base. As you do this, the pattern gets sharper and more focused.
Vegetable dye rugs will change colors slightly as the dyes oxidize over years of use. This change will not even be apparent for most rugs for at least 40-50 years, but the difference at 100 year is amazing.
And finally, rugs are unique works of art. For the most part, no two pieces are the same. So as time goes on, designs change, colors change, construction changes. So your Hand-knotted oriental will not be the same as a new one produced just a few years from now, making your type of rug a limited supply, and your individual rug a one-of-a-kind.
For the most part, age will not add value or price to a rug until they are at least Semi-Antique. Even then, depending upon the type of rug, you should be able to find plenty of rugs in this age group, keeping prices low.
Once a rug is antique, they become very hard to find in good condition. A dealer cannot sell a rug unless the condition is excellent, making the selection even smaller. This adds value to the rug simply because of supply and demand. It’s not that the dealer is making higher margins, he paid more for the rug too.
As we mentioned, finding an antique rug in excellent condition is difficult, if not impossible. Many repairs usually take place to restore antique rugs to their original condition, adding overhead and therefore price.
Here is a list of common damages that can affect the value of an antique rug:
Rug pile condition:
Does the rug have even wear? We prefer to have even wear throughout the rug. Make sure that the rug has been cleaned. Dirt can hide wear areas and other problems with a rug. Also, if the rug has been repaired, make sure that the rug has been re-woven and not touched up with a marker to cover a worn area.
We prefer that a rug is re-fringed rather then adding cotton fringe. If the fringe has worn into the rug, it is important that the rug is reinforced with a blind stitch. To protect the value of the rug, we prefer a cashmere stitch to continue the design from the sides of the rug. If the rug is severely reduced, it may have to be re-woven to improve the value of the rug.
We like both sides to be over-cast. Depending on the rug's condition, a good repair person can fill in areas that need to be over-cast, if applicable. Otherwise a total over-cast will be necessary to improve the rug.
Over all condition:
Be sure to check the rug for moth damage, dryness, splits, old repairs. A professional rug weaver can protect the value of an Antique rug by using correct restoration methods.
Simply stated, age and condition affect the value of used rugs. All other factors being equal, age will increase the value, and adverse condition (i.e. stains and wear) will decrease the value.
6. Decorative Demand
In addition to the factors above, the demand and price for Oriental rugs is highly dependent on design and color trends. Many of us remember the popular colors of the 1960s—orange, brown and green. Rugs woven in those "hot" colors flew out of the store. Today, even the finest of them are selling for a fraction of their original price. Classic designs tend to retain their value reliably.
A well-chosen Oriental rug can become the soul of any room. Above all, enjoy the shopping experience. Learn what you can, but don't get tied in knots.