Old vs New Rugs, Oriental Rugs Today

New Oriental Rugs that Look Old

01.09.08 | 20 Comments
Woven Legends Rubia Carpet
This carpet is a Fine Rubia produced by Woven Legends, and is about 10 feet by 15 feet.

Oriental Rugs Today: Chapter 3 Part 5

Oriental rugs improve with use. Colors soften, the wool pile grows polished and lustrous. Even the nicks and stains old rugs accumulate add character. For at least a hundred years, rug sellers have devised ways to simulate an old-rug look in new rugs, with methods ranging from harmless to nearly fatal. Some shoppers (and rugmakers) are passionately opposed to the concept of making a new rug look old. Others, like Jack Simantob, the rugmaker/owner of Art Resources in Los Angeles, are more pragmatic. I had voiced concerns to him about what seemed to me to be the high degree of distressing at that time in one line of his rugs.

‘You know,’ he said, ‘it is very important to many people to get just the right look in their homes, especially people with good taste. Not everyone has $25,000 to spend on an antique rug, or sixty years to wait for a new rug to grow old. Even if you have the money to spend, it is not always possible to find the right antique rug. Yes, distressing a rug may take years of useful life out of it, but a new, distressed rug will last at least as long as a $25,000 antique and cost a third as much. As long as people know what they are buying, why not give them what they want, if we can?’

Burned Indian Rug
An Indian rug burned by excessive chemicals in the finishing process. Not only do harsh chemicals damage wool and cause premature wear, but often, as in the case of this rug, the chemicals are masking other problems, such as color-run.

The most widespread method of conferring an older look on new carpets involves washing them in a chemical solution (often involving chlorine) to tone down their colors and add luster. It is a nearly universal practice, and has been for decades. My estimate is that perhaps 90 percent of all rugs and carpets are so treated. Specialists carefully formulate the ‘wash’, as it is called, aiming at a solution that it is strong enough to impart the softness of age, but not so strong as to corrode wool and radically fade colors.

Despite dire warning I have heard and read for nearly thirty years, I have seen no evidence of harm caused by a judicious light wash, and, in fact, a light wash almost always makes carpets look better — better to most people, at least. But every method of making new rugs look old has its extreme. Some rug producers treat their rugs to such caustic chemical baths that the rugs are literally burned. Wool becomes lusterless, colors fade, the surface becomes hazy — rugs seem to die. The practice persists because some consumers demand carpets with a lifeless appearance, strange though that may seem; they are people who care about Oriental rugs only as backdrops for their furniture, and don’t wish the carpet to assert itself. But be assured that such radical treatment takes years of useful life away from a rug and ruins its appearance for most people.

Thirty years ago, rugs called Golden Afghans were favored in the American market for a brief while. Kabul merchants created them by pouring battery acid on red Afghan rugs, which instantly turned a ‘golden’ color. I have not seen any around lately.

Many different kinds of ‘washes’ are used today, though their formulas are often closely guarded secrets. In the ’20s and ’30s thousands of rugs were washed in coffee, a natural dye. Today some rugs are washed in tea, another natural dye. An ‘herbal’ wash is sometimes used; it is a combination of tea and henna, and I have liked the effect it produces. Sometimes madder, a natural dye, is used in the final wash of an entire rug to ’sadden’ it.

I am concerned about whether some of these substances are fast in water. We once had occasion to wash an Egyptian rug that had an attractive but rather dark and muddy look when new. After washing, the rug was still attractive, maybe more so than before, but it had changed radically to a bright, cheerful thing. Since then, in my store we wash the carpets whose appearance we believe may change with washing before, rather than after, selling them. They always look better for the washing — to us, at least — and no customer will have a nasty surprise the first time they have their rug washed themselves. Let me say clearly, though, that it is unusual for even radically antiqued rugs to change significantly in washing.

Egyptian Slurry Rug
An Egyptian carpet to which a slurry of who-knows-what has been added to soften and deepen its colors and impart an antique look.

Where the technology or materials are not available for ‘washing’ carpets, for instance in remote Afghan villages, the method of choice for aging them is simply to expose them to the sun. One hilarious ad, sent out by a rug producer some years ago, shows a photo of hundreds and possibly thousands of rugs spread out in the sun. The caption reads, ‘To insure quality, all our rugs are sun-tested after washing.’ (Tested for what?!) The whole aging process is even speedier when weavers spread rugs in the streets for man, beast, machine, and the elements to render them into semi-antiques in a few weeks. They emerge miraculously improved — with a few loose ends, perhaps, but (after washing, of course) with lustrous wool and a pleasant, soft look.

Blow-torched Oriental Rug
A finisher blowtorches a carpet to ‘age’ it. Very often, the backs of rugs are singed to burn off the new-rug fuzz. It is quite another thing to torch the front. As radical as it sounds, however, the carpets thus treated are often quite attractive after being washed.

The achievements of rugmakers in the past several years go far beyond techniques merely to soften colors and add a little luster, however. Now some are able to make a new carpet nearly indistinguishable from an old one. Some of the techniques involved sound like torture, but, I must admit, even radical treatments to which I object sometimes make a rug look great. One such treatment involves blow-torching the front and back of a new rug. After it is thus distressed, then cleaned, the result often is a really stunning carpet that appears to be about ninety years old, shows a bit of wear, and needs minor repairs. That description almost perfectly fits antique carpets worth $30,000 — and that is just what our distressed new rug is intended to resemble. The new rug, though, sells for $6,000 to $12,000. It is hard to fault the practice when the results are so attractive. Still, you must know, a rug finished in this manner will not live to become an old rug. How long will it last? That depends on how it was aged, the kind of use it takes on the floor, and how it is maintained — but we can guess twenty to thirty-five years (as opposed to sixty-five to one hundred for the same rug not distressed).

A few methods of making rugs look older are unequivocally benign. The most miraculous achievement of modern rug finishing, as far as I am concerned, is the new rug made indistinguishable from a semi-antique rug (in other words, one around fifty years old) without the use of any distressing at all, except, perhaps, a light wash. Instead of making new rugs look like worn antiques, a few manufacturers are content to let them resemble older rugs in good condition. They accomplish this by making a number of good choices. For instance, they choose colors that look like colors found in old rugs, and they weave their rugs in old designs. Using handspun wool and natural dyes helps, and so does an intelligently chosen wash.

A very few rug makers use no aging techniques at all. Woven Legends, a pioneering company in the renaissance, refused to use aging of any kind in its Azeri carpets. Woven Legends’ preference is for rugs to age naturally, in use on the floor. George Jevremovic of Woven Legends, stubbornly insisted on his no-wash approach until recently, when the decorative rug market swung sharply and decisively toward light, soft colors. He began to ‘mess around’, as he says, with ‘aggressive clipping and so on’, and managed to make a new Kentwilly (a rug of his own production) look genuinely old. A friend saw it, approved, and bought the carpet, dropping it into an auction gallery. A group of professional rug dealers, mistaking the rug for an antique, formed a cabal to buy the carpet at auction, which they succeeded in doing — for $27,000. They then held a private auction among themselves, the winner paying some unknown amount greater than that. Not ‘aged’, the carpet would have sold for around $8,000. It is hard to fault a rug maker for doing ‘a little aggressive clipping and so on’ when that is what the market wants and the rewards are so great.

One of the ways rugmakers suggest age in new rugs without distressing them is deliberately to introduce abrash into them. Abrash (which I hear pronounced many ways - I pronounce the ‘A’s’ as in apple, and accent the first syllable) occurs naturally when wool is dyed in small batches. The color of each batch differs from the others — sometimes radically. When weavers use up one batch of dyed wool in a rug and begin using the next, bands of different color are created. Abrash suggests age in rugs because abrash was more common before modern large-batch dyeing methods were invented. The effect can be pleasing and can add character to a rug. If too pronounced or if introduced into a rug in which abrash is not appropriate, it can be distracting and mar a rug’s looks. Abrash is a matter of personal taste. I often like it, even when it has been introduced deliberately for effect, but I am irritated by it if it seems contrived. You may wish to look for abrash in the rug photos on our site and develop a sense of how you feel about it.

One Indian producer promotes character and a look of age in his rugs by spinning three strands of differing wool into one yarn. The result, after the wool is dyed, is an interesting carpet whose variegated color and texture suggests age. The procedure is time-consuming and reminds us that creating rugs with character requires real craftsmanship and commitment.

Frankly, I wish rug makers would lighten up on the kinds of antiquing that shorten the life of rugs, even though distressing them may make Oriental rugs look better in the short term. It is not realistic to expect all rug dealers to dissuade people from buying what is attractive to them, and heavily antiqued carpets often are beautiful. Customers buy them without fully understanding that they simply won’t last as long as carpets in full pile. It is possible to make rugs look old without damaging them; many producers do just that. But some manufacturers will stop heavily distressing their rugs only when consumers stop buying them.

You, rug shoppers, whether you realize it or not, ultimately determine which rugs come to market and how they will be made. Which of the finishes we have spoken of is right for you: no wash, light wash, antique finish, or near-death experience? That is for you to say, of course, but certainly it is worth something to understand your options.

20 Comments

  • On 12.11.08 Worried consumer wrote:

    How do I know if the”luster” and color changes in the rug are results of the normal dying process, vs damanaged goods, by using a too harsh chemical, or something that damaged the fibers ?

  • On 12.11.08 Richard wrote:

    I’m sorry to say there is no simple test for that. One can usually tell a carpet that has been over washed with chemicals by the dry feel of the wool. The dry damaged wool can sometimes be improved by the addition of lanolin. The bottom line is that it takes years to really be able to tell good wool from bad or damaged wool.

  • On 03.21.09 Dustin Aliff wrote:

    What is the best and safest way to turn my new looking rug into a old looking rug quickly. If you can help me it would be much appreciated. I was going to wash it in a strong tea solution but do not think that will be permanent you said something from above about Henna. what is that. and where can i get some again if you could help me i would be very grateful. Dustin

  • On 11.20.09 Lauralee wrote:

    I have the very same question that was asked on your site by Dustin. I do not see a response to him. Please send me the answer you gave him. Thanks so much for your help! -Lauralee Christensen

  • On 11.20.09 Richard wrote:

    Lauralee,
    The simple answer is that a layperson cannot safely antique a carpet. Henna and tea are too unpredictable and really should not be tried. There is a company in Poughkeepsie, New York that I have had luck with in stripping old paint out of carpets and they may be able to help. The company is Kouri’s Inc. 914-845-4968. I know they do antiquing.
    Good luck!.
    Maybe post your experience and the outcome?

  • On 12.16.09 Ethos wrote:

    One reason an ethical person might condemn the antiquing of rugs, Emmit, is the tendency for such objects (antiqued rugs) to go from one owner to another over many years (via estate sales and antique stores), until the true origins of the objects are entirely forgotten. Then some unfortunate customer buys the “antique”, not knowing that he or she has been robbed. The fact that said robbery is second or third hand, doesn’t make it any less wrong, does it? Do we really need such items floating around the carpet buying community, confusing and confounding the market? I think not. This seems like the proverbial no brainer to me.

  • On 12.16.09 Emmett wrote:

    Ethos, yours is a good and an interesting point, but I am skeptical. I believe we can agree that it would be unethical for someone to purposely hoodwink a buyer by antiquing a rug. But by far the most common reason that Oriental rugs are “antiqued” is that, in the eyes of some, the process enhances their beauty. If that is unethical, so is anyone who wears makeup or who dyes his or her hair. Or paints a house.

    Is it really unethical inadvertently to mislead someone two or three generations down the road? I don’t think so. In the real world, don’t buyers have to take reasonable precautions? A reasonable precaution would be to consult experts who appraise Oriental rugs. With a thoughtful examination of a rug they can determine its true age.

  • On 12.16.09 Ethos wrote:

    “A friend saw it, approved, and bought the carpet, dropping it into an auction gallery. A group of professional rug dealers, mistaking the rug for an antique, formed a cabal to buy the carpet at auction, which they succeeded in doing, for $27,000.”……”Not ‘aged’ the carpet would have sold for around $8,000.”

    Emmett, if a “group of professional rug dealers” couldn’t tell the difference between a real antique and a phony, then who can? And who really wants to (or more to the point should HAVE to) go to the time and expense of consulting professionals who, evidently, have not just a little trouble themselves discerning the difference?

  • On 12.17.09 Emmett wrote:

    Ethos, again you’ve raised good points and made a good case against “antiquing” new Oriental rugs. But still I disagree. First, though, a little background.

    In the 1980’s, George Jevremovic, co-founder of Woven Legends, revolutionized the Oriental rug industry by pioneering the use of natural dyes and hand spun wool, producing new carpets that were without doubt the most beautiful new rugs in the world. When he addressed a group of carpet lovers in my showroom in the mid 1990’s, one of my customers begged him to make new carpets that were as beautiful as antiques but that were not as expensive. At that time he resisted. I don’t remember what his reasons were, but they may well have included the fact that trying to make new rugs as beautiful as antiques was extremely daunting. No one had ever done it.

    For whatever reason he finally gave it a try, and he came up with what must have been a stunning carpet. (I’ve never seen it.) A friend of his saw it and bought the carpet and then dropped it into auction, where it was mistaken for an antique and sold for a high price.

    That’s the background. Ethos, as I understand it, your contention is that it was unethical for George to have made that carpet. I disagree. In fact I think that making that first carpet was inventive, creative and artistic. Now all those adjectives might well be used to describe the work of a gifted forger of hundred dollar bills. But there is an important difference. It was not George’s intention to hoodwink. I have known and done business with him for at least twenty years and his ethics have been impeccable. His reputation in the industry is without blemish. His word is gold.

    On the other hand, the “friend” who bought the carpet and dropped it into auction, I suspect, did intend to hoodwink. He counted on the carpet being mistaken for an antique and, of course, he was right. If I am right about all that, he was being unethical. I believe it would be unfair to blame George. Is it unethical to manufacture a hammer if it later becomes a weapon in the hands of a jealous lover? I don’t think so.

    But you make another point, and that is that even experts cannot tell the difference between an old rug and a newly woven version of an old rug. That is no longer the case. You can bet that, after that first cartel of rug dealers was fooled, the rug world quickly learned to tell the difference.

    And finally you object to having to go to the trouble and expense of consulting an expert. Well, that’s life. When I buy a used car I take it to an expert for his or her examination. As far as the expense is concerned, not a day goes by at Emmett Eiland’s Oriental Rug Company when we don’t give people our best advice about Oriental rugs without charge. Check out this blog. We give a lot of our time to helping people make good choices.

    And, finally, one personal note. As someone who loves Oriental rugs, I would be heartbroken if the world had to do without the gorgeous “antiqued” Oriental rugs of George’s and others, rugs that cost a fraction as much as their ancestors. In my personal opinion, the world is better for them.

  • On 10.03.10 michel desbard wrote:

    Could provide me with a company which makes new persian looks like a mix of old and modern, in the region of san francisco
    Thank you

  • On 10.04.10 Richard wrote:

    How about Emmett Eiland’s Oriental Rug Company. I hear they are the best

  • On 11.16.10 rugfan wrote:

    Could someone enlighten me as to why people pay so much for new rugs that are made to look old and worn out? It’s as if they have no personal history and are trying to buy some. Would you buy a worn-out car and display it with all its dents, tattered upholstery & faded paint? I have some inherited rugs that are nothing special, similar ones on internet go for pocket change. But they did come by their age honestly, and my husband (who wants new rugs on his new floor) tolerates them because I think they’re worth using.

  • On 11.16.10 rugfan wrote:

    Hair dye and makeup are not healthy for the skin. But house paint is necessary to keep the wood from rotting and the property values from declining. I guess people would pay a lot of money ($30,000) for an old rug if it was a type representation of its era, in best possible condition and one of only a few remaining.

  • On 11.19.10 Richard wrote:

    I like Caucasian Kazaks from the early to mid 19th century. A really good piece in 4X6 can run as much as $60,000. I, alas can’t afford one. I do know of a company called Woven Legends that makes reproductions that are as close to the originals as I have seen. The cost is around $2000. I have one. I love it. It’s new and antiqued, cut very low but brings me joy. Rugfan, I think that’s why people buy new rugs that look old. Ever buy a pair of jeans that were soft and slightly faded?

  • On 11.21.10 Janet wrote:

    I have a beautiful carpet but the colours are just way to bright for my taste, is there a way I can fade the colours without harming the carpet? I have seen carpets in the Restoration Hardware brochure that have been sun faded, they are beautiful, perhaps this is something I could try, but not sure. I would appreciate your advice

  • On 11.22.10 Richard wrote:

    Janet, Sometimes a carpet can be washed with tea or henna to subdue the colors. In the past I have used a company in New York to do this. I have been happy with the results. Their info is Kouri’s Inc.
    95 North Clinton Street
    Poughkeepsie NY 12601
    One should do this only with the knowledge that once it’s done it can’t be undone.

  • On 03.16.11 Marina wrote:

    I have the similar problem - i could not afford antique carpet, but would like to age new carpet that I own to soften the colors and create that “aged” effect. Is there any way I can do it myself?

  • On 09.17.11 swed wrote:

    Strange no one reflects on present chemical madness! All this unrestrained use of chemicals in the handmade rug & carpet industry is a health hazard to the poor people doing the wash and a true disaster to the environment.

  • On 01.08.12 Sam wrote:

    I am totally against the ‘antiquing’ of rugs in any way.
    What is it with life now that we have so little patience? We have to have everything now! now! now!

    We cannot enjoy a beautiful new rug with its fresh wool and bright colours any more, it isn’t good enough, because it dosen’t look like something it isn’t.
    We have go ahead and ruin it with chemicals or some other substance, rob it of its rightful life span, just because someone someone said ‘old is gold’ and we all started to bleat it like sheep.

    New rugs can be beautiful. Old rugs can be beautiful.
    But why can we not enjoy each for what it is?

  • On 05.18.13 Janet wrote:

    I’m new to oriental rugs, but falling in love with them quickly. I wanted an odd size - 9 x 13. Hard to find! So when I saw one on the Internet that was affordable and looked pretty good in photos, I took a chance. I must say I’m disappointed. The main reason is because it feels dry and looks kind of dull. After reading the above article and sending Richard a photo, it’s because of a bad chemical wash job. It’s a shame because it could have been great. Perfect size! The feel and colors are just not right.

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