Rugs of India: worth a second look

India rug tree of life
A new “tree of life” rug made in India.

The rugs of India have gotten leagues better in the past quarter century. Oriental rug lovers everywhere have started to notice.

In 2000, India exported $190 million worth of carpets to the United States. Yet rug collectors and even many rug dealers know almost nothing about the rug industry in India. My early education in Oriental rugs came at a time when Indian rugs were considered not quite authentic, and rug books barely gave them a mention. Like many other old-school rug collectors, I can draw a map of Iran, argue price in Farsi, and discuss the output of obscure Persian villages. But I was appallingly uninformed about Indian rug production.

Like Pakistan, India is not generally supposed to have a rugmaking tradition. No such misunderstanding should survive the superb exhibition of Mughal carpets of the late sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries mounted in 1998 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Though Mughal rug designers were certainly influenced by Persian court rugs, they also appear to have emulated the designs of textiles native to northwest India. Mughal carpets are not merely Persian rugs woven in India; they have their own discernibly Indian look.

Even after the Mughal Empire crumbled, weaving continued in India. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a large production of Indian rugs and carpets in Agra, Amritsar, and elsewhere. But most contemporary rug connoisseurs deemed them corrupted by Persian influence and by Western demand, and unworthy of study, so that these carpets were passed over in books. Like earlier Mughal rugs, they were clearly influenced by the rugs of Iran, but, again, they have their own look, in part due to an unusual color palette and not-quite-Persian designs. Because almost nothing was written about them, it is now nearly impossible to determine exactly where Indian carpets from the turn of the century were woven. As it happens, they are among the most desirable and expensive rugs in the decorative rug market today, but scholars, dealers, and owners have little hard information about them.

In the past, Indian rugs did not enjoy a good reputation in America. As long as Iran was the most important supplier to the U.S., India competed by manufacturing low-end rugs almost exclusively. Most such rugs made their way to department stores where they sold very inexpensively.

Certain grades of Indian wool were decidedly inferior, but the Indian government, to support the Indian wool industry, insisted that native wool be used in Indian products. Worse still, other fibers, such as hemp, made their way into the cheapest Indian rugs. The worst examples from that period have the texture of rope.

By about 1980, the government dropped the laws requiring the use of native wool in rug manufacturing, and rugmakers began to import lustrous, long-stapled wool from Australia and New Zealand. Often it is mixed with Indian wool, but sometimes it is used alone. I date this change as the beginning of India’s recovery from its poor reputation.

In India, quality is sometimes measured in terms of knots per square inch. A 9/9 Jaipur, for instance, has 81 knots per square inch. But more often it is quantified by a different system. One typical knot-count of the second kind is 7/52. To convert this to knots per square inch, multiply 7 by 52 and divide by 4. The result is 90 knots per square inch.

After Persian rugs became unavailable to Americans, India responded by producing increasingly better rugs. In 1980, the finest quality rugs produced in India were woven with 90 knots per square inch. Today Indian weavers make rugs with 240 knots per square inch and more.

During the ’80s and ’90s, India established its capacity to make first-rate rugs with excellent materials. Most are in Persian designs, with good synthetic dyes and machine-spun wool. They are so successful and in many cases such bargains that they have become the staple fare of rug stores and department stores throughout America. At one time, there were only a handful of designs in which Indian carpets were woven, but today there are hundreds — so many, in fact, that I can only survey a fraction of them.

Because so many businesses import mainstream Indian rugs, retailers rarely mention their names to customers. These importers are essentially anonymous except within the trade, and it is pointless for me to identify more than one or two, or illustrate more than several of the examples they import. The mainstream Indian rugs I am speaking of, with knot counts of from nearly 100 to 200 or more per square inch, are so consistent that, for the consumer, choosing from among them will come down to a matter of common sense and personal taste.

It is astonishing to me that the Indians can weave, let us say, an 8 by 10 foot carpet that is destined to give forty or fifty years of good, honest service underfoot, is really attractive, and can sell in America for such moderate prices — and without resort to child labor.

11 Comments

  1. generic user icon
    GinaR May 28, 2008

    Thank you for the history lesson. I don’t know much about oriental rugs, just that I like them. We just acquired one so I am trying to find out as much as I can.

  2. generic user icon
    Andrea August 2, 2008

    I just purchased a 9 x 12 oriental/Mughal rug from Agra, India and it is 100% silk on silk. Supposedly it is 1.5Million knots/sq meter and is double knotted. What does this equate to in measurements we commonly refer to in the US? I understood the value of silk on silk to be greatest, is that correct? Where can I go to have it valued in the US?

    Thank you.

  3. generic user icon
    Rosanne September 27, 2008

    I recently purchased an 8 x 11 area rug which was made in India through JCPenney. I love the rug, but when vacuuming it, my vacuum cleaner gets clogged because of the shedding, which was told in the description of the rug. Will this shedding and clogging continue, or will it subside in weeks to come? If it will continue always, will I eventually not have any fibers or rug remaining? Thank you.

  4. generic user icon
    Richard October 1, 2008

    Rosanne,
    Can you send photos of what the shedding looks like? I’d be happy to take a look. Seems strange it would last so long.

  5. generic user icon
    stephanie November 13, 2009

    Can you tell me how i can find what a 100% wool rug from india that i have is worth it has a rug number on the back,just curious to see if it’s worth more than i paid for it have kids that’s why i need help on figuring it out thanks.

  6. generic user icon
    rebecca bryant August 21, 2011

    well i have a rug that is 3ft long and 2ft 2in high its blue has a tiger in the middle with some designs on the outside ive had it since i was 16 havent any place to put it and it seems really nice i would love to find out how much its worth so i can get ride of it …. its in very very good condition it how ever doesnt have any markings on it so was wondering if that makes a difference

  7. generic user icon
    rose September 19, 2011

    I am currently looking for a fine rug and was only looking at hand knotted from Pakistan however I came accross some from India at a better price point however I do have concerns. Also what should I expect to pay for a 8 x 10 or 9 x 10 made in India. And for made in Pakistan.
    Thanks so much!

  8. generic user icon
    Marti Masters July 2, 2012

    Pakistan makes fabulous rugs by the Muslim population that fled India. There are very very few traditional rug weavers in India. Most of what they export are fake Persian rugs with a very coarse wool. The dyes used in Indian rugs are not colorfast. Do NOT put on your hardwood floor unless you have a waterproof barrier betwee the floor and the rug or you will find your hardwood new colors after a month. Finally, Indian rugs just don’t wear nicely. They get shaggy, the design loses its precision, and after a year or two, you have what looks like the price you paid. By contrast, a genuine Persian rug will not stain your floor, it will outlive you and still look new, and the best part is that you don’t have to speak Farsi to get a good deal these days.

    Makes me wonder just what this blogger, who claims to be a “collector” really knows about India rugs – or geniune Persian rugs for that matter.

  9. generic user icon
    admin July 3, 2012

    Marti, you are of course entitled to your opinion. We feel that in today’s market, judging a rug based on its country of origin is much like judging a book by its cover. The fact is, there are beautiful, well-crafted pieces being made today in Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt and China, among others. There are also terrible rugs being made in each of those countries. For a nice summary of our viewpoint I’d recommend Emmett’s post Which country makes the best rugs.

  10. generic user icon
    Mary October 6, 2014

    I have inherited a rug made in India expressley for my mother in the early 1980s from the Woodward and lothrup store in Washington, D.C. It is woven in a french design and the wooll is of good quality. The rug is 12 by 15 and does not shed and is in excellent condition. Does the rug have value?

  11. generic user icon
    Barbara Totten January 29, 2016

    I have India made rug purchased in 1999 & am wondering at value. Markings on back are
    100% wool, Roll #3166, Rug #3282, Quality #9159, Color rust & blue, Design # 159, Size 9 1/2 x 7 1/2, no child labor. It has not shed at all & beautiful.