Connoisseurs spend lifetimes weighing which Oriental rugs are worthy of their collections. In the end it all comes down to taste, and for you too, your own taste is finally what matters. Still, there are criteria by which Oriental rugs are often judged that are commonly agreed on.
Some are elementary and nearly self-evident:
- Good rugs lie flat on their backs, without wrinkles or ripples along their edges. Rugs with wrinkles, curled edges and so on, besides disturbing the eye, wear prematurely. Still, don’t ask for perfection, especially from tribal rugs made under difficult conditions.
- Some rugs are out-of-shape. They came off the loom wider on one end than the other, or with bowing edges or an hour glass figure. All else being equal, a reasonably regular, geometrically correct shape is preferable to a visibly distorted one.
- Some folks love rugs that have faded into a low key, innocuous absence of color, but, again, they should not be surprised when their beloved rug is spurned by others. Good rugs have colors that resist fading in normal light and bleeding when exposed to water.
- Rugs in good condition are prized above those in bad condition. Moth damage, holes, rips, spots and stains and missing ends and edges are tolerable to most people only when rugs are really old.
- Some wool is better than other wool. Good wool has a noticeable glow. It feels fleecy, perhaps a little oily, soft. It absorbs dye well and it takes heavy use. Inferior wool is full of kemp and hair and is scratchy, dry, lusterless and incapable of properly absorbing dye. Obviously, good wool is preferable to bad wool.
Besides the considerations above, there are others that are more controversial, more subjective or more difficult to describe.
Are Finely Knotted Rugs Better than Others?
Most often, finely knotted or finely woven rugs are more desirable than those that are less fine. There are several reasons why that is so. For one, curved lines in a rug’s design can be “drawn” more smoothly and gracefully in a rug with many knots per square inch, just as a lot of pixels in a television screen allow for more natural looking lines. And too, rugs that are very finely knotted have such dense surfaces that light is reflected from them in an attractive way. But it must be said that fine knotting alone does not make a rug good. A case may even be made that a fine weave simply is not appropriate in certain kinds of tribal rugs. By and large though, if all else is equal, a finely knotted rug is more attractive than a less finely knotted rug.
What is a Rug’s “Drawing”?
Connoisseurs of Oriental rugs often refer to the “drawing” of a rug. My guess is that drawing means something a little different to each of them- but all would agree that it is important. I believe that drawing refers not to a rug’s design per se, but to how well the design is executed: whether it is fluid and nimble or clumsy and static. Drawing includes the matter of whether there is harmony among a rug’s various components such as its border and field, though to a large extent that has to do with color choices as well as drawing. Undeniably, some rugs are beautifully drawn and others are not. But do connoisseurs agree as to which is which? Well yes, often.
The value of Natural vs. Synthetic Dyes
There is agreement among nearly all old-rug collectors that natural dyes in a rug are better than synthetic. But the issue is clouded by the fact that often it is impossible without expensive laboratory analysis to be certain whether a given dye in an old rug is natural or synthetic. So much has been written about natural dyes vs. synthetic (see Oriental Rugs Today, Emmett Eiland, Berkeley Hills Books) that I will not tackle the subject here. But I believe it is safe to say that no rug buyer will ever regret acquiring a rug or carpet with well applied natural dyes. Natural dyes definitely add to the cost of a rug, but they also add to its value.
Hand Spun vs Machine Spun Wool
For thousands of years, weavers spun wool by hand to create the yarn that makes up the pile of Oriental rugs. By about World War Two, nearly all wool was spun by machines. Now, since about 1985, a small but appreciable number of weavers are again spinning wool by hand. Though a few people prefer the uniformity and formal appearance that machine spun wool imparts to carpets, most collectors and connoisseurs value the effect produced by hand spun wool. When spun by hand, yarn absorbs more dye where it is loosely spun and less dye where it is spun tightly, thus producing pleasant variegation in the colors of a rug. Though there is room for disagreement, I believe that the best Oriental rugs are woven with hand spun wool.
Old Rugs vs New Rugs
Are old rugs better than new rugs? In good condition, old rugs certainly are worth more than new rugs, all else being equal. Why? Age, or rather use, seems to add character to rugs- at least in many people’s eyes. Colors mellow; wool pile acquires a patina. But I believe that most people’s preference for old rugs over new was formed during the period from about 1930 to 1990 when new rugs were clearly inferior to those woven earlier, mostly because rugs fashioned during those 60 years were almost invariably made with synthetic dyes. Now, though, a renaissance has taken place in rug weaving, and natural dyes and hand spun wool are back in use in some rugs, and old designs have been restored to the repertoire of modern weavers. Today there is far less reason to prefer old rugs to new. Perhaps there is none. So the answer is: You can not judge whether a carpet is a good one or not by its age.
Can You Judge Quality by Height of the Pile?
Inexperienced rug buyers sometimes mistake a thick pile for quality. In fact, the finest rugs often are the thinnest. Still, if a rug is going to take significant traffic, it should have plenty of body.
Is the Finishing Process Important?
Yes. Good Oriental rugs have a natural glow. They have been either left to age naturally or, at the very end of the rug-making process, are sensitively washed in substances that subtly tone down the relatively bright colors of a new rug. They are not bleached to death nor muddied up with gunk. Neither are they washed to make them unnaturally shiny.
Summarizing Quality in Oriental Rugs
So the profile of a good rug is something like this: It lies flat and straight on the floor and is reasonably regular in its shape. It is in good condition and has lively, lustrous wool. Its colors have neither faded nor bled. In fact its colors probably have been dyed from natural plant substances and its wool spun by hand. Consequently there is a pleasant variegation in its colors and a feeling that the rug has personality or character. It has been intelligently “finished” so that it is not washed out, unnaturally shiny nor unpleasantly bright and harsh. The elements of the carpet’s design seem to fit together nicely and its colors are harmonious. Above all, the rug has an X quality, a hook that grabs you personally, a character that you like.