Guide to Oriental Rugs & Carpets
What Is an Oriental Rug?
When they hear Oriental rug, most people think of Persian or Turkish carpets. These types of rugs are thought to be soft, thick, and rich with rectangular borders and elaborate floral patterns in genteel, faded hues. In truth, Oriental carpet is a broad term that can describe any hand-knotted rug constructed in Asia, from Afghan to Uzbek and from formal to tribal. Major exporters include Iran, Turkey, China, India, Russia, Pakistan, Tibet, and Nepal, though they come from a variety of other Eastern countries. As a result, Oriental rugs may reflect many different weaving traditions with individual styles and cultural significance.
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History of Oriental Rugs
No one knows exactly where or when Oriental rugs originated, but it's clear that the art has ancient roots. The oldest surviving example is the Pazyryk carpet, a rug found in Iran that dates back to the 4th or 5th century B.C. Many believe the technique started with nomadic tribes in Central Asia, who used thick, knotted carpets both for decoration and warmth, spreading the art of rug-making as they traveled. Long an indicator of wealth and luxury, Oriental carpets continue to be sought-after across the globe.
Useful Terms for Rug Beginners
Knowing a few common terms will make finding the right new or antique carpet easier for first-time buyers. An Oriental rug is created from interlocking threads, called the warp and weft. The vertical fibers of the warp are held tight in the loom when an Oriental rug is made. The weft is the yarn drawn horizontally through these tense strands. The threads of the pile are knotted onto the warp and held in place by the weft. These loops or strands give carpets their depth and soft texture. Firm rather than fluffy, rugs that have no pile are referred to as flat woven, tapestry woven, or kilim carpets.
The Four Categories of Oriental Rugs
In general, Oriental rugs, especially antiques, are divided into four major groups to reflect their style, design, and how they are made.
City: The most elegant of all Oriental rugs, these carpets may be woven by hand or on factory looms by skilled weavers supervised by a master designer. City rugs tend to have the finest weaves, as well as precise, intricate formal or floral designs with low pile. Traditionally, specific city workshops had signature color palettes and designs. Pile-knotted works are most common, and carpets may be made of silk as well as wool or cotton.
Town: Also primarily woven in a workshop setting, town rugs have a semi-formal style that is a little less precise than city designs. Weavers usually work from elaborate sketches, though there is a little more room for the artisan to inject their own ideas into the pattern. These pieces are typically pile- knotted from silk, wool, and/or cotton.
Village: These Oriental rugs are even more casual in style, with looser construction and angular patterns. Weavers typically work from home, balancing their artistic production with daily family life and household tasks. Carpets can be pile or flat woven, and the use of silk is less common.
Tribal: Tribal rugs are smaller, loosely woven carpets with striking geometric designs and bold colors. Patterns are often handed down through the generations, meant to symbolize specific ideas, impart good luck, or recount specific moments in the tribe's cultural heritage. Weavers often know designs by heart, but, like the best storytellers, make variations and changes. Tribal rugs are typically crafted entirely from animal wool and are often in the flatweave or kilim style.
Determining Oriental Carpet Quality
Just like a sheet's thread count, a rug's knot density helps to determine its quality. In general, the more knots per square inch, the thicker and richer the pile. 500 to 1,000 is a typical count for luxury carpets. However, make sure to also consider material as well. Silk rugs have thin fibers and need high knot density to appear full. Thick wool rugs, such as an antique Heriz, can have much lower knot density while still being valued at a high price. When judging an Oriental rug, the entire carpet, including design, dyes, materials, and sentimental value, is ultimately most important. Shop with a reputable dealer to ensure that finding the right carpet for your budget and style can be your top priority.