What You Should Know Before Buying Oriental Rugs

By Anne Gilbert  

Have you ever gone shopping for an Oriental rug and felt intimidated by your lack of knowledge? Is it old or new? Does it look like it was made in Iran, but was really made in India? Here are some tips, but they are just the tip of the Oriental rug iceberg.

CLUES: Begin by understanding that the name Oriental rug covers many countries. For centuries, the main production centers include Turkey, Iran, Russia, Romania and China as well as India. To add to the confusion, all of these countries have changed names and geographical borders over the centuries. The result is that the rugs are known by the names of their regions, such as Turkish rugs are labeled Anatolian (the old name used by the Greeks and Turks) and then by their province, such as Oushak and Ladik. A rug made in India might be labeled West Pakistan and Karachi.

Medallion Oriental runner. (Photo, James Julia Auctions, Fairfield, ME.)

Since Oriental rugs and carpets were made to be utilitarian, they are also named for their purpose. Each has distinguishing characteristics. For example, the prayer rug, used for daily prayers, has an arch at one end, indicating the direction to Mecca. Sometimes, these have "footmarks," designs showing where the worshiper's feet should be placed. A pillar rug was made to surround a pillar or post, usually in Mongolia or Tibet, and serve as a decoration.

Saddle rugs were used under or on top of a saddle. A kilim is a flat, woven rug, usually a long rectangle with geometric designs. A pictorial rug depicts stylized people and animals. If Chinese, the motifs would be symbols and vases.
Don't pass up a rug if it shows an unevenness of color. This is known as abrash and is due to the weaver taking wool from different dye lots. Some experienced collectors consider this a plus.

You hear a lot about "how many knots does the rug have?" The compactness, durability and price can depend on the number of knots. However, if the yarn is coarse, the rug may still be tight with fewer knots.

There are two kinds of knots that help you identify the country of origin. They are known as Sehna and Ghiordes. How they are tied also offers clues to origin.

Familiarize yourself with some of the design pattern names found in auction catalog descriptions. They include:

  • Arabesques: Islamic ornaments based on leafy vines which form arches that may also meld into buds and blossoms.
  • Medallion rug: a prominent star or other shape centered in a rug.
  • Lotus flower: roses and tree of life symbols are all West Iranian symbols.

Border patterns can also identify the region where the rugs were made.

These are only a few of the many clues. Books and auction catalogs are great sources for learning more.

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