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Oriental Rugs - A buyer’s Guide


What is an Oriental rug?

The term “oriental rug” can be a source of some confusion to those unfamiliar with the subject. It literally means a rug manufactured in the Orient, and could legitimately be applied to any rug of oriental origin, regardless of its appearance or how it was made.  In practice, however, the term is normally used only to describe hand-made rugs produced by traditional methods in the ancient weaving regions of Persia (Iran), Anatolia (Turkey), Afghanistan, the Caucasus, Baluchistan, Turkistan, China, India, Pakistan, the Balkans, and parts of North Africa.

An oriental rugs, in order to be truly authentic within the generally accepted meaning of the term, must be either hand-knotted or hand-woven, originate from one of the traditional weaving regions and also follow certain ancestral patterns of composition and design.

  • How rugs get their names?
    Place of origin or tribe. Most oriental rugs derive their names either from their place of origin or, in the case of nomadic items, the weving tribe.  A rug made in the Persian town of Kashan is therefore known as a Kashan, and a rug woven by the belouch nomads is called a Belouch.  With Nomadic rugs, it is not uncommon for a rug to be known by both the name of the specific weaving tribe, or sub-tribe, and overall tribal grouping. It is also quite normal for the the rugs of small villages to be marked under the name of the nearest large rug producing town, providing of course that there are strong similarities between their rugs.
    Design. Some of the more famous names in oriental rugs, in particular Herati and Mir (Seraband) refer to the design, rather than the place where they were made.  There are also a tendency in the carpet and rug trade to market rugs from certain parts of world under the name of the weaving group whose design has been used, rather than that of the group who actually made the rug. This is particularly true of the rugs from China, India, and Pakistan, which are often sold under the names of famous Persian or Turkoman weaving groups, and it is sometimes a matter of confusion whether the name Isphahan, for example, refers to a rug made in Persian town of Isphahan or whether it is an Chinese, Indian, and Pakistani rug composed in  a traditional Isphahan scheme.  It is extremely important, because of the price and resale differences between rug from various countries,  to ask specifically whether the name  used refers to the rug’s place of origin or its design.
  • Classifying oriental rugs
    Oriental rugs can be classified according to a number of criteria; design, colors, materials, price, etc.; but arguably the most useful, and certainly the most widely employed, methods of classification are by country of origin, weaving group and general weving category.
    Country of Origin.   Classifying rugs according to their country of origin is both logical and necessary, particularly as discrepancies in exchange rates, important tariffs and production costs can make a considerable difference to the prices asked in the retail stores for very similar rugs from different countries; but this method has its limitations.  National boundaries have changed, sometimes dramatically, over the last hundred years, and some traditional rug producing countries have since been absorbed into modern states
    Weaving Group. The term “weaving group” can be applied to any town, village  or tribe within the oriental weaving region, which produces its own hand-made rugs, but it is normally only used in the context of the older, more traditional weaving centers in which rugs possess their own distinctive characteristics. Consequently, very few weaving centers in China, India, or Pakistan can be said to constitute individual weaving groups.
    Weaving Category. Oriental rugs can also be split into four broad categories which relate to their overall characteristics and appearance, rather than to where or by whom they were made. Each of these categories; nomadic, village, workshop, and masterworkshop; has its own special qualities and appeal.  A basic knowledegeof the specific characteristics of each category is crucial first step in the understanding and appreciation of oriental rugs.
    Nomadic rugs. Produced by nomadic and semi-nomadic tribesmen (semi-nomads spend part of the year in villages or settled camps) whose life has traditionally revolved around breeding sheep, weaving rugs.  The rug they make today remain faithful to their ancestors’ methods of weaving and repertoire of designs. In nomadic cultures, rug weaving is a female preserve, and prowess at weaving is a major factor in determining personal status, as well as being an expression of the artistic, religious and cultural heritage of the tribe.  Young girls are taught the skills from an early age, and it is customary in most tribes for them to display their first solo works as proof of their eligibility for marriage and elevation to the status of womanhood. Authentic nomadic weaving is confined to Persia, Afghanistan, and Turkey, although its influence can be found in the rug workshops of other regions.
    Nomadic designs are woven from memory and usually characterized by their overall compositional boldness, simplicity of coloring (sometimes employing only 3 or 4 hues to create a dramatic yet dignified effect) and the use of mainly geometric motifs and forms.  Curved lines are rare, and even in the most intricate and subtle of patterning an essence of angularity usually underpins the scheme.
    When Assessing a nomadic rug, do not be too concerned with technical perfection, variations in coloring (abrashes) or a lack of symmetry in the overall composition.  Occasional discordancies in the form of individual motifs are relatively commonplace and often help to give the rug its particular charm. The pile wool, however, is usually of extremely good quality.
    Village rugs. The term is not used in its literal sense to describe rugs produced in villages as opposed to cities or towns, but is applied more specifically to broad category of rugs sharing common features of construction, character and design.
    When assessing a village rug, first take into account the nature and complexity of the design.  As a general rule, rugs employing bolder, more overtly geometric compositions should be judged be the same criteria as nomadic rugs, particularly if they are also dyed in a limited palette of austere or primary shades. In contrast, the finest and most prestigious village rugs should be judged but the same standards as workshop rugs.
    Workshop rugs. Rugs made in workshops of varying sizes and degrees of sophistication throughout the entire weaving area. They are distinguished from village and nomadic rugs in both their overall character and appearance, and in the way they are made. This normally involves working either from a design laid out on squared paper or under the direction of an overseer (or Salim in Persian), who systematically calls out the color of each knot as it is required. This process of manufacture is inevitably leads to a certain loss of spontaneity in the design but, as compensation, makes it possible for far more technically exacting compositions to be achieved. Unlike village and nomadic weaving, which is normally the sole preserve of woman and carries with it no personal prestige outside the village or tribe, workshops employ both men and woman, and exceptionally talented weavers can earn more widespread acclaim and far greater financial rewards. There is generally a more systematic and business like approach to making and selling rugs in the rug workshops.  This does not mean that the rugs are in any way less authentic than those produced by village or nomadic groups.  Many of the rugs produced during last 50 - 70 years, particularly those from the major weaving centers of Persia and Turkey, rank among the finest ever made.
    Workshop designs are generally more finely knotted and elaborate than those found on village of nomadic rugs, and can be roughly divided into two overall types: those that are geometric in character and those that employ more flowing, curvilinear forms. The geometric compositions are derived from traditional village and nomadic designs. Curvilinear designs are found in rugs produced throughout the entire oriental rug weaving area and usually employ naturalistic floral elements, which range from the essentially floral Shah Abbas, garden or vases compositions, to the incorporation of flower, leaf or stem motifs into the infill decorations or border arrangements of allover and medallion designs.
    In Persia and Turkey each workshop group (Isphahan, Kashan, Hereke, etc.) has evolved its own characteristics style and with little experience, people relatively new to the subject should be able to distinguish the most typical examples of on e group from those of another. In contrast, rugs made in Pakistan and India are often extremely difficult to distinguish from one another because they are usually based on the same range of traditional Persian, Turkoman, or Caucasian designs; often the only difference in their appearance is the fineness of the knotting and the skill with which the composition has been achieved.  The same is true of Chinese rugs, which are made in both Persian and traditional Chinese designs.
    When assessing a workshop rug judge each rug on its individual merit; more so than with any other category, because of the extremes in quality found in this range. At the lower end of the scale the rugs may be far shoddier than even the cheapest village or nomadic rug; at the higher end, one can find work of the most outstanding caliber and sophistication.  Therefore, the main criterion is value for money. A coarsely knotted Mori Bokhara or Indo Mir, for example can be perfectly acceptable provided that its inferior quality is reflected in the price. More expensive rugs in the same range should be finely knotted and possess cleanly articulated and symmetrically arranged decorative forms. A useful guide is to apply the following criteria:
    (A)  Fineness of knotting
    (B)  Quality of materials
    (C)  Intricacy and symmetrical balance of designs.
    Masterworkshop rugs. The most prestigious and expensive of all contemporary examples of oriental textile art.  The term is often loosely applied to any workshop rug of outstanding caliber, but more specifically refers to rugs produced in a handful of exceptional workshops in one of the major weaving centers of Persia and Turkey.
    Consequently, there will always be some debate amongst rug scholars as to the number and location of rug masterworkshops at any given time.  It is, however , generally accepted that Isphahan, Nain, Hereke, Kashan, Tabriz, Meshad, Kerman, and Ghoum possess workshops worthy of inclusion in this category.  Despite the fact that there are a number of top quality workshops in other countries, none can as yet be considered worthy of a place in the masterworkshop class.
    Masterworkshop designs are extremely elaborate and sophisticated interpretations of classical Persian schemes.  In addition to opulent versions of the designs associated with their weaving group, most master workshops also produce rugs in a number of universal designs, particularly pictorial and garden schemes.
    When assessing a masterworkshop rug, look primarily for technical and aesthetic perfection.  The knotting should be extremely fine and even throughout; patterns and motifs should be even and consistent in tone.  Flaws are unacceptable, and only the very finest materials should have been used.

The range of oriental rugs on offer in a dealer’s showroom, department stores, or online stores is overwhelming, and you may feel yourself to be at the mercy of the salesman.  This buyer guide has systematically organized to answer all your immediate questions, as well as to provide the one source of long term reference you will ever need.

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