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?’
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.
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.
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.