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.