As far as we know, rugs were first chronicled in Beni Hassan, ancient Egypt, two thousand six hundred years before Christ. In those days, Babylonia rivaled all ancient countries with her rich textiles, including pile carpets made of wool. After Cyrus the Great added Babylon to his empire, Persia inherited all of the arts of the Euphrates Valley and has since retained a foremost place in rugs, giving the world the most beautiful carpets ever made. Persian rugs have influenced rug-making throughout the world, primarily in the orient, including present day Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, Tibet and Mongolia which all had extensive two-way contact and influence with Persia. The Moors and Crusaders later carried their rugs into Europe where they soon became prized for their rare blend of beauty, utility and quality, with the royal palaces and cathedrals of England using them as wall and floor coverings since the thirteenth century. Today, antique Persian rugs, or antique Persian rugs as they are also commonly called, are admired and collected throughout the world with the largest number being found in American homes and museums.
Antique Persian Rug History
There is general agreement that an “antique Persian rug” is anything that was made a 100 years or longer ago but in a practical sense, since they are made of a relatively perishable material, these ‘antiques’ may include some that were made in the 1920s and 1930s. Many retail sources label fairly recent rugs and even those made outside of Peria (Iran) as antique “Persian design” rugs, meaning they are made to Persian designs but out of synthetic material. They are quite easy to spot, even by someone who is not a knowledgable buyer–there is an even, machine-spun look which does not appear in antiques. Which is not to say that these rugs are unworthy of a place in your home–they are far more practical and easy to look after than an authentic antique Persian rug, cost less and look just as beautiful. Rugs that were made before synthetic dyes and automatic spinning took over and that were made entirely by hand in the 1940-1950 time frame are now called “semi-antiques”. It is important to note however that price is not a function of age alone for an antique rug. Some of the most sought after rugs, and some of the most beautiful, were made in the mid-to-late 19th century.
Antique Persian Rug Manufacturing Methods
Practically the same method of weaving was employed for thousands of years—a loom made of two horizontal poles that were the width of the carpet worked colored threads into a pile, then the weaver cut the knot to the desired height with shears and each row was hammered down with a comb. Although simple in theory, the process required a lot of skill to stretch the warp and keep the spaces even, in tying the knots and in following the intricate designs. Most of these designs were carried in the mind of the weaver, handed down from generation to generation, and the same design would be given an individual touch and a unique interpretation by every weaver.
There are two main methods of knotting the pile—the Senna or Persian knot and the Ghordes or Turkish knot. The number of knots to the square inch determine the rug’s texture with some fine Kermans or Sennas having four to six hundred knots per square inch and some Turkish rugs having only thirty. It takes a good weaver one minute to tie three knots so he would take about ten years, working eight hours a day, to make a ten by twelve Kerman rug. As you can understand, he would make only a few rugs in his lifetime before his eyesight gave out.
Persian Rug Materials Used
The materials used to make antique Persian rugs varied from sheep’s wool and cotton to silk and camel hair. These materials were spun into yarn—a stong thread for the warp, a single for the woof and double for the pile—and the spinning was done entirely by hand. We might picture the people of a nomadic tribe spinning lumps of wool onto hand held sticks as they drove their flocks before them. The colors came from the use of animal and vegetable dyes, the blue obtained form indigo, yellow from turmeric, brown from walnut husks and a beautiful red from kermes, the dried bodies of an insect known in ancient Egypt and which are still used today. These colors were made in small portions from day to day, often running out during the making of a rug and it was impossible to get the exact shade again. This gave the rugs a special character which added to their value and which sometimes imparted the effect of a glimmering light over the whole due to the subtle changes in the shades of the wool.
Rugs Design Sources
The designs of these rugs are fascinating and unfold like a story. We first are struck by the colors, then the general design scheme and lastly the pattern and detail. The origins of these designs is a mystery though they almost certainly were influenced by the patterns of the rush mats that preceded them. But the popular hypothesis is that since the Near Eastern idea of Paradise was a garden, that is what is most likely depicted in the designs, with borders, fruits, flowers and birds. Persians loved their walled, orderly, sheltered gardens which have strikingly similar design elements to those found on their carpets.
It is important to recognize that each genuine antique rug is an expression of the joy, sorrow, love and religious feelings of one individual, be it an offering by a young girl to her future husband or a grave covering made for a beloved friend. And whereas the Western world uses rugs mainly as floor covering, they were often the only furniture that an oriental knew, using them to sit, sleep, eat and pray on, and often on the same rug throughout an entire lifetime. Though none of the rug makers were schooled in the arts, they seemed to have had an intuitive feel for the beautiful which showed through in their products.
Modern Iraq (ancient Babylon) and Iran (ancient Persia), along withTurkey, India and China, still have thriving rug trades but commercialism had taken over their manufacture by the middle of the nineteenth century. They use synthetic dyes and automated processes although rugs are still largely a hand-loomed product in these countries. To the educated eye, these modern rugs are easy to tell apart from genuine antique Persian rugs even if they have the same designs.
Antique Persian Runner
The need for rugs in ancient times was not just for covering a large general area like the entire floor of a room. Sometimes the need called for a narrow, long strip of carpet that would fit in a long corridor, an entryway or stairways. There was also a need to provide floor covering along the sides of a room while leaving the center for servants or entertainers. Likewise, they were put on benches or on the floor for several people to sit on in a line, as in formal gatherings. These type of rug, called an antique Persian runner today, lent itself to a form of manufacture that did not include a pile and were called “Kilims”, a Turko-Persian word. A lot of Kilims were and are still made in Turkey. Of course, not all Kilims are runners and vice versa. They are simply pile-less carpets, typically made by nomadic village folk.
In the West, the antique Persian runner is used mainly in hallways and entryways or to cover wood floors, providing a welcoming warmth that guides us into a home and offers protection from cold flooring. It can also be used to protect high-traffic areas in a house or building that already has wall-to-wall carpeting. When placing runners on a hard wooden or tiled floor or stairway, care should be taken to place them on a non-slip liner or underlay of some sort for safety reasons to prevent slipping.
Antique Persian Rug Types
The production of Persian rugs covers the whole range of sophistication in manufacture, style and design and is roughly divided into the coarsely woven village or nomadic types called Kilim and the more finely made and larger city types. Through the intermingling of clans and tribes, the designs and weaving characteristics underwent changes over time.
Produced by the Bakhtiyari nomads in the Zagros mountains of south west Iran, these types are made of thick wool on very sturdy cotton warp which makes them heavy and hardwearing. The predominant design elements are derived from the garden motifs with trees, flowers and animals though they can also include very sophisticated medallions that are classically Persian. The Bakhtiyaris have begun to give up their nomadic lives and settle in larger towns. This is why some of their carpets are quite large, which unusual for nomadic tribes because they are more difficult to transport and handle. But this is also why the Bakhtiyari rugs are considered to be unique in that they include elements of both the “nomadic” and “city” types.
The Baluch tribes of south eastern Iran that border Pakistan and Khorassan near Afghanistan have woven rugs for thousands of years mainly to express themselves while also providing an object of great practical utility to their families. The patterns are usually geometric, the most dominant being a stylized camel’s-foot-shaped medallion. Usually small, their main colors are rich burgundy and deep navy blue. The pile is usually sheep wool but can also be camel hair and goat hair. The warp is usually wool too except in Meshed-Baluh where it is likely to be cotton.
The Qashqai are migratory, Turkic-speaking sheep and goat herders. They were forced to settle down like the other nomads by the Shah in the 1940s but after his exile, they resumed their nomadic ways. Their rugs and runners vary in quality, the older ones being the better generally because the newer ones are made with synthetic rather than vegetable dyes. The older rugs got their blue from indigo and their red from madder. The designs are usually geometric with animal and bird drawings with the borders having floral designs. Warps are mostly cotton and the wefts either cotton or wool, the weave being finer with a tight ridged back construction. A drawback for these rugs is considered to be the fact that they use the looser Turkish knots.
This old Persian capital was a center for rug production and its ruler Shah Abbas had sent many carpets to the rulers of western countries. It is believed that this is perhaps why they might have been the first Persian carpets to be recognized in the west. These rugs are consistently of the finest quality and design and that is why the Isfahans are also among the most desired rugs in the west. They typically have an ivory background with blue, rose and indigo motifs in symmetrical designs and a single medallion surrounded with vines and palmettos. They are still among the best Iranian carpets in production and command a premium in the world market.
The second largest city in Iran, Tabriz is situated in the south. Its carpets come in many sizes and the patterns could be of trees, teardrop medallions, hunting and flowers in one of the most diverse displays of design. The pile is wool or silk-wool blend and the warp is cotton or silk. These are extremely high quality carpets and constitute the highest grade of antique Persian, being found mainly in elite collections and museums.
An indurstrial city in North Central Iran, it was one of the centers of silk rug manufacture and the location of the Royal carpet workshops in the 17th and 18th centuries which ceased production after the Afghan invasion. Silk rugs, being the most expensive and least durable, were the rarest and therefore often displayed on walls like tapestries rather than being used as floor coverings. Kashan was also the source of many high quality wool carpets because it started out as a fine wool garment center and converted its industry to fine wool carpets in the late 19th century.
Antique Persian Rugs Care
Rugs will not last as long as most antiques because they are made of perishable materials and undergo wear and tear as they are among the few antiques that are actually still put to practical daily use. However, with a few precautions, they will last a long time. Some of the most common problems are damage caused by vacuum cleaners, water, sunlight, chemicals, uneven wear and household pets.
Vacuum Cleaner Damage
It is always a good idea to lightly vacuum a rug, even an antique, because dirt damages the pile over time if left to accumulate. However, using the rotating brushes that help to loosen dirt before being sucked up by a vacuum cleaner can also hurt rugs by raking the pile, specially on the fringes which can get caught and ripped off if not frayed. It is best to use a vacuum with the brush turned off.
One of the silent killers of carpets and rugs is moisture that can rot cotton pile, warp and weft. Many times, we may let a rug sit directly on a cement floor, not realizing that even though the cement may not look or feel wet, it may be moist enough to let rot set in and degrade the carpet very quickly. Antique carpets are especially susceptible to damage because of their age and should be placed with extreme care. You can lay plastic sheeting under the rug if you have to place it directly on cement.
Another form of water damage takes place from indoor plant pots or holders that may be placed directly on the rugs and which may leak water without it being obvious until it is too late. It is best to place plants on elevated planters and pots and, ideally, not directly on the rugs themselves. If you do see spills, clean them up right away with club soda and a towel or blotting paper.
The vegetable dyes in genuine antique Persian rugs are not as resistant to the ultraviolet rays in sunlight as some of the modern synthetic dyes and may fade over time if not protected. It is best to place them away from direct sunlight and if that is not possible, to provide some type of protection, like sheer drapes. Still, it makes sense to change their position once in a while so that even if they do fade, they do so evenly.
Be very careful when you send your rug for cleaning—some cleaners will use bleach on the cotton fringe to give the impression that the whole rug is cleaner. This will hurt cotton and degrade it over time. Best not to use bleach at all and you should say so to the cleaner before you hand him your rug.
It an antique rug is placed where it gets walked on often, even on a small portion, it is a good idea to turn the rug end for end at least once in a while, perhaps annually. Wear can also come from damaged floor boards under one part of the rug.
Cats have a habit of sharpening their claws and if not declared, they will scratch on a rug. Dogs, specially puppies, will chew on rugs. The best way to prevent damage from pets is to condition them to keep away or spray a repellent around the edges of the rug.
Other Care & Repair Tips
If you need to have your rug cleaned, take it to a professional antique Persian rug specialist who will also know how to make repairs if needed. Never try to clean an antique rug yourself, specially with steam cleaners. You should stroke the rug with a soft hairbrush and lift any loose fibers with your fingers. You should also hang your rug outside and shake or beat it lightly a few times a year using a special beater.
A particular problem for antique rugs are moths and beetles and an infestation can destroy a rug quickly. Check the edges of the rug under furniture for infestations and act immediately if you see any bugs or eggs.
The modern Persian carpet combines Persian designs with modern methods and materials. Most modern carpets today are made mechanically but a very large portion of genuine Persian carpets, ie. those that that are made in Iran, are still handmade and therefore command higher prices. In spite of fierce competition from other countries that sell fake ‘Persian carpets’, the Iranian carpet industry is thriving mainly because of the ancient expertise that is passed down in carpet weaving families. Almost 5 million people are engaged in the Iranian carpet industry and carpets account for a major portion of Iranian exports after oil.
Even though wool is the most common material used in Iranian carpet manufacturing, new types of wool and cotton for pile are adding years to wear and longevity. Uniquely Persian materials like Kurk and camel hair wool are still used, as is silk. The original designs have undergone improvements and slight changes over the decades but are still distinctly Persian and follow the original themes based on Islamic building design, spiral, paisley, tree, geometric and tribal patterns that set Persian carpets aside from other ‘Oriental’ carpets.