Judging Quality in Oriental Rugs

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.

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34 Comments

  1. generic user icon
    Mary June 5, 2008

    I have a 1920’s persian, probably sarouk rug. It has a signature plate. It is said to be in “good” condition and is 11’X15′ which makes it too large for my home and accordingly has wear patterns on each end. I have received an offer to buy at $1700. What do you think?

    mrb1114@msn.com

  2. generic user icon
    Richard June 7, 2008

    Mary,
    I’m pretty sure the piece is a Persian Mashed. (after seeing the picture) The wear looks pretty signifigant in the photos. I’d say the if you could get $4500-$5000 you’d be doing pretty well. Sorry to say that I don’t know anyone close by you. You’d have to take it into the city to get the best prices. If it were mine and I wanted to get rid of it, I would put it on Craigslist or E-bay. Hope this helps.
    Richard

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    Ziad August 5, 2008

    Is variegation always present in naturally died wool? Should we assume that a nice deep uniform red in a Kazak is chemical?
    Does color bleeding occur in rugs made with natural dyes?
    Thank you.

  4. generic user icon
    Richard August 7, 2008

    Ziad,
    That’s a really good question. Abrash does not have to be present in naturally dyed wool. It’s my feeling that the abrash you see in many new naturally dyed carpets is overdone and sloppy. If you look antique carpets from Iran from the 19th century you find very little abrash, and when you do it’s subtle. It’s very possible your Kazak is naturally dyed even without abrash. I’ve not heard of color run in naturally dyed carpets but sometimes you do get color transfer from carpets that haven’t been washed well or thouroughly in the finishing process.

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    penelope February 8, 2009

    I just discovered your very useful website–wonderful to read!. I recently bought in Damascus a largish (6′ by 9′) Qashqai, indicated by its certificate to be about 80 years old. It seems in very good shape, and has some interesting (to me charming) assymetries in the weaving. I paid 2500$ for it, but I wonder if these design oddities lower its value.
    Thank you for any information–I will try to send a photo to your main website.

  6. generic user icon
    Richard February 11, 2009

    From the pictures you sent me, I think $2500 was a great price for the piece. The asymmetry shouldn’t affect the value at all. In fact in some cases it may add to the value.

  7. generic user icon
    ronni June 17, 2009

    what does Mashed mean when describing a rug?

  8. generic user icon
    Richard June 24, 2009

    It’s the name of the city that it was woven in.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mashad

  9. generic user icon
    mike June 25, 2009

    What are the pros. and cons. of a silk oriental style rug?

  10. generic user icon
    Dave July 1, 2009

    Mike, silk rugs have a softer feel, a beautiful sheen, and often have a finer weave than wool rugs. On the other hand, they don’t wear as well and are usually more expensive all else equal.

  11. generic user icon
    Jill September 12, 2009

    Hi,
    I have recently bought 9 persian rugs from various towns/villages/tribes at auction in the UK, with the intention of selling them. I would like to be to apply a circa date to them, any suggestions as to how I could do that?

  12. generic user icon
    Rita Thompson September 29, 2009

    Greetings, Admittedly this is not a question about a current rug. My husband is currently stationed in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan. We would like to purchase a rug or two while he is there; have you any special recommendations for judging the rugs he is presented with? The rug mercahnt nearest him has Afghan and Pakistan rugs. As you may know the same major tribe lives in western Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. he has been shown wool and silk/wool rugs.

    Thank you for any insight you can offer.
    Rita

  13. generic user icon
    Richard October 2, 2009

    Rita,
    This is copied from “Buying carpets in Turkey” Same advice applies.
    1.Buy what you like because you like it, not because of what someone is telling you it is.
    2. Spend no more than you can afford. If the carpet is too much money walk away. It is our job as carpet dealers to show rugs. Don’t be made to feel guilty for the amount of work it takes to do that.
    3.There is no way for a layman to distinguish a natural dye from a synthetic one. We can all be fooled.
    4. Carpets DO NOT make good investments in general.

  14. generic user icon
    Deborah October 17, 2009

    We recently purchased a beautiful wool rug from Costco for a remarkably fair price around $550 dollars. I’ve noticed tons of wool coming out as I vacuum and around the edges. Is that normal for a wool rug?

  15. generic user icon
    cristina January 16, 2010

    I just spilled a little water on an antique rug and it began to bleed as I tried to blot the water out with a paper towel. I was surprised to see so much color. Does this mean the rug is not good quality?

  16. generic user icon
    mike April 25, 2010

    i have a pure silk 3×5 oriental rug probably prayer. need the value. the rug is over 30 years old

  17. generic user icon
    mike April 25, 2010

    dont know how to email photo

  18. generic user icon
    mike April 25, 2010

    please email me at mike.loosier@gmail.com

  19. generic user icon
    mike April 25, 2010

    red border with light green and orange interior of flowers and leaves name on inside HEBEKE

  20. generic user icon
    Jennifer July 6, 2010

    I’ve just found a rug in an unexpected shop that appears to be a Mashed, signed by a purported known designer and tho acquired from a well-known hotel, in excellent condition. It seems well priced for 11×16. I love it but am unsure if it’s a good value…important since I wasn’t planning on such a purchase this soon. What price range would be reasonable? Also how could I determine approx age? Your thoughts?

  21. generic user icon
    Betty August 26, 2010

    Hi…I was wondering what’s a reasonable price for a synthetic 5×8? The rug I liked was called Sphinx Arian 95N. The store asked for $299, the same as online stores. I was told these synthetics 5x8s worth no more than $120. Is it true?

  22. generic user icon
    NANCY September 3, 2010

    How can I tell if the Turkish Karatay Rug I just purchased is a good quality rug. I originally thought it was, but after reading, am not sure. My Cat is really attracted to it, which makes me wonder if it has Kemp in it. If it does, is this bad?

  23. generic user icon
    Richard September 5, 2010

    Can you send a picture to the above e-mail? If so I’d be happy to take a look.

  24. generic user icon
    Steve S September 22, 2010

    Hi I just bought an antique Persian bidjar. I notice one side is 62″ long and the other 64″ long so it is a bit distorted. Otherwise it’s a beauty with about 350kpi…Is this common with these rugs??will this bring down the value..I still have 7 days left to return it…

  25. generic user icon
    Richard September 23, 2010

    Steve,
    It’s very common for these Bidjars to be a little “Wonky” Doesn’t impact value at all and gives the piece a real handmade look. It’s a real beauty!

  26. generic user icon
    E September 28, 2010

    Hi,

    Okay, I’m really confused about which rug to buy. I keep getting quotes for a 9×11 in the $4,500 to $5,500 range. One place has them handmade in India and says silk will not be moth eaten (I had a problem with my last Afghani rug and moths). But I know silk can be difficult and I have two dogs and two cats. I would like to know if Persian, Afghani, Karastan or Couristan rugs are best. I don’t even know waht Sarouk rugs are! Or rugs made in India (I don’t believe so). Sorry that I’m just learning! Aren’t some rugs treated to prevent moths from wearing them down?

    Thanks!

  27. generic user icon
    Anonymous March 9, 2011

    Hi! I recently purchased a second hand Lavar rug. We fell in love with it at an estate auction and bought it without noticing it had ripples on one end. Do you know if this typical for this type of rug and what we can do to repair it? Any information would be great. Thanks in advance!

  28. generic user icon
    Richard March 10, 2011

    Email answer after seeing pic…..
    Sometimes carpets that have been rolled up for a while can get ripples like this. I don’t think a pad will help, but time may. Sometimes in extreme circumstances we will turn a carpet over apply a wet towel to the area and iron. My guess is that it will go away with time. Looks like an Indian carpet in a Lavar Kerman design to me. if you have follow up questions please let me know.
    Regards,
    Richard

  29. generic user icon
    Gordon July 12, 2011

    Hi, Richard. I’m working in Kandahar, Afghanistan, looked at rugs today, came home and found your site. I appreciate the information and will take it back to the store when I go shopping. I want to puchase a 10×13 or 9×11 and they range in price from $7800 with 300kpi down to around $3000. These are Afghan rugs the Indian rugs were much cheaper, $1500-$1800. The shop keeper said the same purchase at a store in the states would be at least double the price. Is that an accurate or at least in the ball park statement? Thank you.

  30. generic user icon
    Corey August 25, 2012

    I’m intrigued by the comment you made in response to a question above: “The asymmetry shouldn’t affect the value at all. In fact in some cases it may add to the value.”

    Can you please tell us why this is so, and what factors affect whether assymetry is considered a flaw or something that adds value? Thanks.

  31. generic user icon
    Denise September 20, 2012

    I have a ‘Rash’ or ‘Kash’ Saruk rug that was purchased at government auction in 1992. Can you explain what the Rash or Kash means? It’s 19’x12′ and I need to sell it as we’re moving. We live in Yakima, WA & I’ve had no signs of interest here. I’ve also contacted dealers in Seattle & Spokane (both about 3 hours away) without success. Can you suggest my best resource for finding a buyer? Also I’m wondering about price. It was purchased for $5000. It has some wear on the edges & pile. Please help! I’ll email pictures. Thanks!

  32. generic user icon
    peg December 14, 2012

    I am thinking seriously of purchasing a rug that’s 10×14, the owner/salesman said it’s vegetable dyed and the knot count seems high. I went to an antique dealer in the same city, and he advised me not to buy a new rug made in India. I showed him a photo of the rug on my phone. I told him the price I’ve been quoted is $6,000. He said he would not buy that rug because it looks new, fake, and he doesn’t trust the dealer. I thought it was gorgeous, and now I’m not sure what to do.

  33. generic user icon
    John October 27, 2014

    I’m looking to find a nice rug and saw one that would be great except for the Pop-ups which I don’t know how to evaluate. Do pop-ups (for example 20- to 30 per square-foot area) in a new rug (~8’x 10′) infer questionable quality and long-term durability? Is this an indication the rug might be unraveling for lack of a better term.

  34. generic user icon
    Susan Olsen October 5, 2016

    I have a 9×22 Kandahar from an auction in 1932.
    Tag sale lady labeled it as Karastan.
    Which is better, Kandahar or Karastan? She also says it is not hand-knotted. If older than 1932, wouldn’t they all be hand made vs machine?
    Please advise and thanks!

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