The Definitive Oriental Rug       by Tracy Davis

The Carpet Merchants First, let's define what we mean when we say "oriental rug". Most retail rug dealers, and some collectors, make a distinction between "rug" and "carpet" based on a somewhat arbitrary size, roughly anything over 6' x 9'.  For purposes of definition I use the term to describe a hand-woven item produced primarily in the Near East to Central Asia. Machine-made rugs of any sort are not "oriental rugs" in the established sense, but are more accurately referred to as "oriental-design" rugs (and, for retail purposes,  there's a U.S. law stating that this must be so). So that's distinction number one.
Within the definition of handmade oriental rugs, there is also a distinction between decorative rugs and collectible rugs, though there can be some overlap depending on whom you talk to. Decorative rugs are what you'll find most of in any department store or retail rug shop, and they are what most people today mean by the term "oriental rug." Modern decorative rugs are, in the main, produced in commercial workshops (though they are made by hand and hence "genuine" orientals) in Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, India, and China. The labels on many of these rugs are a study in confusion— at least in an ethnographic sense— and are often described according to the Persian (Iranian) city which the rug's design attempts to typify. For example, a rug labeled "Sino-Kashan" would describe a Chinese-made copy of a Persian floral medallion carpet as popularized by the city workshops of Kashan, Iran.

On the plus side, these mainstream decorative rugs can be beautiful and wear well--certainly much better than machine-made carpeting. However, these rugs aren't likely to appreciate in value, no matter what some enterprising young salesperson tells you. Collectibility and value have much to do with quality of materials (machine- vs.  hand-spun wool), dyes (natural vs. synthetic), and the ethnographic authenticity of the rug and its weaver(s); most rugs in upscale department stores or interior design shops are made in commercial factories using chemically-dyed wool in non-traditional colors reflecting modern Western tastes. In many cases, the designs and techniques that developed over time and have given oriental rugs their historic value and mystique have been compromised for the sake of mass appeal.
The commercial workshops of India, Pakistan, et al arose in part to help fill the U.S. market demand for handmade orientals when a twenty-year embargo made Persian (Iranian) rugs almost unobtainable.  The embargo turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the carpet industry, because concerns about quality and the degeneration of the art resulted in a renaissance in new rug production: Alongside the rigid and mechanical production of Persian copies which is still unfortunately the majority, there exists a small but growing percentage of authentically beautiful and innovative pieces which will please the most discriminating aesthete or rug enthusiast. (Note to diehards: If the new, vegetable-dyed Persian village carpets introduced by Miri Iranian Rugs fail to move you, please check your pulse, because I think you're dead.)
The best new carpets are cottage-industry pieces colored with natural dyes, in designs and colors associated with the weavers' ancestry and heritage. This quality is not easy to find, but the rediscovery-of-heritage ethnographic-authenticity movement has been steadily gaining ground for the past twenty years, thanks in large part to pioneers like George Jevremovic, Chris Walters, and Harald Boehmer. Granted, if your Sino-Kashan lasts 100 years in good condition it may be worth something then, because it is handmade... but it's not likely to have appreciated as an objet d'art. However, for about the same $3000 you'd pay for a Chinese factory product, you could buy a well-drawn, truly artistic rug made with natural dyes and hand-spun wool— if you know where to look and what to ask for. I think that's a much better way to spend your money. But I'll bet it won't match your sofa.

There are probably as many ways of categorizing rugs as there are people who do it. Rugs are often categorized by their village of origin, but this can be bewildering since so many different styles and types of manufacture can be found in a given area, and some villages don't do any weaving at all but merely serve as a commercial outlet for neighboring regions.  Rugs can also be categorized by design, as illustrated by P.R.J. Ford and others, but this is often more confusing than enlightening since there was so much design migration and artistic cross-pollination throughout the Rug Belt.
KurdistanHistorically, oriental rugs have been divided into five basic ethnic/geographic categories: Turkish, Caucasian, Persian, Turkmen, and Chinese (from Turkey, the Caucasus, Iran,  Central Asia, and China respectively). I personally lobby for the addition of the rugs of Kurdistan as a sixth category. Within these broad categories, rugs are often identified by the names of the city or town of origin (Kerman, Kuba, Daghestan), by broad ethnic or tribal weaving groups (Qashqa'i, Kurd, Baluch), and sometimes by very specific tribal groups (Shahsevan, Afshar). Rugs can also be named according to their function, such as the asmalyk ("hanging") or yastik ("pillow"), or by their design motif such as hatchli ("with a cross"). Thoroughly confused yet?
One of the more helpful methods of categorizing rugs is by their type of manufacture, as promoted by Dr. Jon Thompson and others. These categories include:

  • Weavings of nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples, made in traditional designs for traditional uses, primarily for the individual and her family. Designs are executed from memory, often consisting of repeated motifs. These rugs are constructed on horizontal looms (see my Structure and Design page) and thus are limited in size.
  • Village or "cottage industry" weavings of settled peoples, made in traditional designs which may be done from memory or from a prescribed design. Cottage industry weavings often show a degree of innovation and creativity not found in tribal weavings. The ability to use a larger vertical loom also increases the range of sizes found in village pieces.
  • Workshop carpets, made in both traditional and commercially appealing designs using a written pattern or "cartoon", designed for maximum marketability in the West.

Next: "Dahling, you don't look a day over 2000!"   A history lesson.


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