Because the eye can, in a moment, see the entire surface of a carpet, we make the assumption that it can be seen at a glance. No worthy piece gives up its meaning so lightly. The inner beauty of a carpet is revealed only to the considerate and careful beholder. The finer examples are often as elaborate as the composition of a symphony. The elements of design are like the notes of the melody. Each must be clear in itself as well as blended in the harmony of the whole piece. In order to really see a carpet, it is necessary to sense the quality of each part of the design, to feel the relationship of the elements to each other and to comprehend them all in harmonious unity.
Oriental Rugs are identified by designs and colors, but also by material, texture, and finish. By carefully considering these features it should be possible to identify almost any type of rug. As with any art form though, there are always exceptions. Because there are so many variations over years and between weaving centers, your best source for identifying a carpet is a knowledgeable and reputable dealer who will take some time to help you understand what you are seeing.
Before the 20th century, designs in Oriental rugs reflected an uninterrupted cultural tradition going back thousands of years. Even though the language of these designs remained faithful to its origins, there was tremendous range in the creation of motifs and color harmonies that made each carpet unique. Around the turn of the century European dealers began to order specific carpet designs and colors. Indigenous patterns were discarded or arbitrarily combined to fit western tastes. The overall quality began to suffer due to the need to speed up production. The truly great and unique carpets became more and more rare.
One of the most classic examples of this is the Sarouk carpet. Up until around 1920 many of the carpets from this region were incredibly artistic. The range of color and the types of designs were so varied that identification had to be made by weave and material. These carpets were very finely and carefully woven of the softest and most luxuriant wool. When the commercial era arrived, it became more profitable to weave everything in the same basic patterns and colors. The quality of the dyes and colors changed from a majority of vegetable dyes to mostly chemical dyes. It also became a rather standard procedure to strip out the original red color and re-dye it to a deeper, richer red so that it was perceived as an older carpet. At this time there was also a major downgrading in the quality of the weave. The Sarouks woven in the twenties and thirties are still beautiful and very well woven, but very different from those of the earlier period. Understanding some of these changes in the nature of the rug business may help you to discuss some of the questions about how the age of a carpet is being determined.
Once you have had a chance to fall in love with a carpet and understand its age and origins as well as possible, there are some very practical questions that should be answered about the condition of the carpet. If you have real restrictions in size, budget, colors or style, it is best to look at things that fit with in your needs, but try to keep an open mind whenever possible. Don't limit yourself any more than is absolutely necessary. There is always more than one correct way to use a rug or to put a room together. The best way to avoid restrictions of course, is to acquire the carpet first and work around it,
First look to see if there are any major repairs. The easiest way to find repairs is to look at the back of the carpet. Patches are usually quite visible from the back. Rewoven areas may be more subtle, but still visible. Watch for areas where the texture of the back is different from the area around it. It is also important to see if the rug has been cut down from a larger carpet. This is often one of the hardest repairs to find. Look for the appearance of a line all the way across the back of the carpet. If you see a line across the field of the carpet that seems to end at the border, look carefully. Go a few inches up or down the border and see if the line then continues. There were some real masters in the thirties and forties and this was a common way of using rugs as people downsized their homes. The monetary value of a cut rug is considerably less than a rug that is in its original condition. Buying a rug that has had its size adjusted is one way to gain a great look more affordably. You should also look to see if the edge and end borders are all there. Often through use, or by intent, borders are missing from a rug. This is a very significant factor in determining the value.
Holes in a carpet are usually obvious and need to be attended to. Moth damage is another unfortunate fact in the life of a carpet. This usually appears in the form of indentations on the surface of the rug or a total loss of wool in areas where the rug is in otherwise good condition. It is also a good idea to look at the back of the carpet. Sometimes moths will stay under the rug and just eat the backs off of all the knots. In some types of rug this can be a real problem because the front of the knots simply lift out with any normal wear.
Once you have determined the "wholeness" of the carpet, look at the face of it. Is the pile in good condition? Are there worn areas? This is the time to see if the rug has been "painted". This is a process that some dealers use to make the rug appear to be in better condition than it actually is. Look for areas where the pile is very thin. If the rug has been painted, you will see a shiny surface in these areas. In very old rugs, the black may have rotted down and been repainted. If a very worn rug has been painted, you will be able to see the appearance of vertical lines. This means that the foundation itself has been painted because there is no wool left.
Having examined these points of the rug, you have determined the basic unchangeable condition of the piece. If the rug is still of interest to you it is time to move on to the issues of basic maintenance. It is very important, and very easy to keep the edges and ends of a carpet in good solid condition, and to keep it clean- look for areas where the wool wrapping has worn. If you see the wool or cotton foundation along the edge, be sure to have that repaired before you start to use the carpet. At the ends of the rug, look for an overcasting stitch to be sure that you will not start to lose the body of the rug. Edges, ends and cleaning are considered maintenance and as long as they can be preserved, do not affect the value of the carpet.
When determining who will be working on your carpet, it is important to be sure that the work is all done by hand. It would be counterproductive to subject a beautiful handmade rug to washing or repairs done by machine. Well done repairs can do a lot to help retain the value of a carpet.
When you feel ready to start your search, the safest approach is to find a reputable dealer who will spend some time with you and answer your questions. If you don't really know what you are doing, it is very easy to make a major mistake at auction. I think that it is helpful to deal with a dealer who has the prices marked on the rugs and sticks to them. You should not be forced into a negotiating situation. Reputable dealers have fixed, marked prices and a defined policy about discounts. I find it is very hard to trust someone who offers you a piece for half of the first price quoted. How will you know what the fair price is?
Oriental carpets are objects of great and mysterious beauty. There are many ways to look at rugs. You may be considering a rug for its durability, condition color, size or ability to blend with your environment. Hopefully though, you will be looking at the character, beauty and uniqueness. How you feel when you look at the carpet should be the most important factor. Does the piece somehow capture your imagination? When you look away do you feel compelled to look back once again? Oriental carpets are a joy to look at, to feel, and to live with. You will find that the addition of a beautiful rug will change the character of your home; make it somehow more inviting and comfortable. Remember-- the process of shopping should be fun.
Reference BooksORIENTAL RUGS: A New comprehensive Guide by Murry Eiland; Little, Brown and Co.
ORIENTAL CARPETS From the Tents, Cottages and Workshops of Asia by Jon Thompson E.P. Dutton New York
ORIENTAL RUG PRIMER by Aram K. Jerrehian, Jr. Running Press