Persian Rugs: The Rugs and Carpets of Iran

Persian rug Tabriz
A Persian Tabriz rug by Miri Iranian Rugs. To feel its texture is to love it. Luscious Persian wool!

The last several years have seen an influx of true Persian rugs – those made in Iran – into the U.S. as trade barriers have fallen. Emmett examines the current crop of Persian rug production.

When we wrote the first edition of Oriental Rugs Today, we had to place the mother of all rug-weaving countries — Iran — in a chapter on miscellaneous rugs! In 2000, the U.S. boycott that kept Americans from buying Persian rugs (as rugs from Iran are, by convention, usually known) ended, at least for now. Persian rugs are back!

Should trumpets sound? The answer is yes, but before we celebrate, let me confess that when we broke into our first bales of Persian rugs after the boycott ended, eager to see what Persian weavers had cooked up during the past twenty years, we were disappointed. It was if we had opened a time capsule from 1982. The rugs inside were the same as those in the market two decades earlier, before the renaissance of rug-weaving in the rest of Asia!

The worst of them were dyed a lurid red familiar to us from the dark ages before the ‘renaissance.’ Honestly, many of the Persian rugs coming in from Iran today are very poor things, their lack of quality evident especially in their colors. The best that can be said for some of them is that in design they belong to old Persian traditions — and they’re cheap. Really cheap! We do not propose to make an extensive report on these rugs and carpets. The best thing that potential rug buyers can do is train your eyes by studying the really good stuff.

Persian Mahal Rug
A modern Persian Mahal rug, from Iran. In design, materials and workmanship it is indistinguishable from 75-year-old Mahals.

Soon enough, however, we took heart. As we looked deeper into our first bales from Iran, we remembered just how engaging many Persian rugs are, including some with modern synthetic dyes. I have my favorites, of course, among which are Yalameh rugs, woven in villages north of Shiraz, in southern Iran. I also admire Bijar rugs, woven by Kurds in the northwest and known for their extremely heavy body, and Baktiari rugs, which are often woven in ‘garden designs.’ Though quite different from each other in appearance, they have in common a refreshing lack of visual stiffness. We have spoken of that quality in relation to certain rugs of other countries, but the rugs of Iran excel in that delightful X-quality that I call movement.

Others of you will prefer the finely knotted Persian rugs of Iranian city manufacture such as those from Qum, Nain, Tabriz, Kashan, Kirman, and Isfahan. They are impressively fine and, for some folks, they represent what Oriental rugs are, or at least should be. In many of these fine city rugs (as they are often called in the rug world) a small amount of silk has been interwoven with the wool pile.

For centuries, Persian weavers have produced an enormous diversity of rugs. There are Persian rugs for every taste — rugs that are refined and formal; others that are charming in their tribal character; flat-woven and pile-woven rugs; bags, tent bands, and other tribal trappings — a huge production of all manner of things. Americans are fortunate to have them back in the U.S. market!

Persian Rug Bijar
A new Persian Rug (Kurdish, probably a Bijar) from Iran with all the beauty of 125-year-old Kurdish rugs. Natural dyes.

But here is the best news. Though only a small percentage of new Persian rugs are woven with natural dyes and handspun wool, the best of them are probably the most desirable rugs in the world today. They’re wonderful!

Among them are the rugs known as gabbehs (usually pronounced gah BAY). Check back soon for a post dedicated to these wonderful south Persian rugs with a refreshing tribal look. The Zollanvari family, along with natural dye expert Abbas Sayahi, pioneered the use of natural dyes in Persian rugs, particulary Persian Gabbehs.

Two other Persian families took an early interest in weaving rugs with natural dyes, and today are among the several leaders of Iran’s own rug renaissance. Miri Iranian Rugs is a Tehran-based company that is respected by virtually everyone I have spoken with about new Persian rugs. Their carpets are of un-compromised quality.

The Miri family has been in the rug business since 1820, mostly as exporters. In 1988 Razi Miri, the oldest brother of his generation, began an intensive study of the old carpet-making techniques, eventually learning to weave rugs himself, and by the early ’90s the family was engaged in producing rugs. The excellence of their production has been recognized and rewarded by such institutions as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which requested five pieces from the Miri family for display. Unlike the fanciful and abstract gabbehs of southern Persia, Miri Brothers rugs are in traditional designs, from south Persian tribal rugs to city rugs from Tabriz and Kashan, and from Hamadans to Bijars.

Persian Bijar Rug
A work of art in this Persian Bijar rug.

It interests me that the Miris describe their production as part of a renaissance. “The Miri renaissance has taken place during a declining period in the art of Iranian carpet weaving and it is at just this point that it is giving new life to a dying art form.” One has to agree.

Bayat-Nomad is the business name of one other family that is weaving works of art on their looms. Alireza, Mohammad and Habib Bayat, descendents of Persian nomads, carry on a family carpet business founded in 1900. Alireza Bayat called upon us in Berkeley just as the American trade embargo lapsed, and I can hardly tell you how exciting it was for an old rug man like me to see new Persian rugs as good as the great Persian rugs of the late 19th century. The best of the Bayat and Miri rugs are finely knotted, beautifully drawn, full of character, in touch with age-old Persian tradition and, of course, naturally dyed from hand-spun Iranian wool. They are among the most expensive oriental rugs in the world. My reaction: They should be — they’re that good.

Persian Tabriz rug
A fine Tabriz rug from northern Iran, with about 360 knots in each square inch. No weavers in the world can beat the Persians for crafting exquisite, fine carpets like this.

There is a distinct trend toward natural dyeing in Iran. I have seen photographs and prototypes of small new productions from around Heriz, for instance, and some of them are very promising. Haynes Robinson, who produced naturally-dyed carpets in India for around five years (he walked away from his production, he says, when his supplier became unable or unwilling to “advance the product”), is now working with a Persian source to weave naturally dyed, one-of-a-kind rugs in designs of his own making. Distributed by Rugs by Robinson, they are in contemporary designs with minimal patterns, woven by the famed Qashqais of southern Iran. They’re called Sahar, the Persian word for dawn.

Other delightful Persian rugs trickle out of Iran, some with natural dyes and some without. Let me call your attention to two kinds of flat-woven textiles I find especially charming. One is made by the Baktiaris near Isfahan in various sizes not over about 4 by 7 feet. I’ve seen only a handful of them and hope to see many more. The other is a kind of kilim called sofreh in Iran, and the particular sofrehs I have in mind are woven in the village of Kamo, northeast of Meymeh, in the foothills of the Karkas mountains. These mixed-technique pieces (that is, constructed of a mix of flat-weave techniques) are used by Persian villagers at various stages in the process of making bread. With them, Kamo breadmakers cover dough as it rises and cover the bread after it is baked. This suggests the vital role that textiles play in the daily life of the Iranian people.

Qashqai Country
Qashqai Country, southern Iran.
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    ray November 12, 2008

    What a great article. I really enjoyed it and it explained a lot about what’s happening with the poorer quality rugs.

    Keep up the great work!

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    Visadiaries August 3, 2010

    No one exactly knows about the origin of carpets however Nomads are considered to be the pioneers in carpets making. They started making rugs and carpets to cover the floor of their tents. According to some researches the origin of carpet making dates back to the fifth century.

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    caravan June 6, 2011

    when you look with your eyes what do you see im heading to shiraz in a couple of weeks…

  4. generic user icon
    Abolfazl February 7, 2012

    The presented rugs were really fascinating and I really enjoyed looking at them

  5. generic user icon
    Willi December 18, 2015

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