Tied Up in Knots

The foreground shows the back side of Persian kilim and its knots.

“More than meets the eye.” This short, simple phrase holds much truth with regard to the splendor of an antique Oriental rug. While its color, pattern and texture can create a warm and inviting setting, its history, craftsmanship and symbolism offer beauty beyond the aesthetic. Much like the hieroglyphics and ancient artifacts found in the exotic Eastern lands from which these rugs can be traced, true antique Oriental rugs tell a story that reflects the culture, religion and caste of their creators.

Fred Bokaei with the rugs in his store, Bokaei Rug Gallery.

Art historians have attempted to pin-point the exact origins of Oriental rugs, but since they’re made from natural fibers and other perishable materials, evidence of the earliest examples have not always been available for study. What is known, however, is that the first loom was found in Egypt around 3,000 B.C. and that the first floor-textiles were found centuries later in Persia (present-day Iran). It was here that rug-making began to flourish in the 15th century, followed by India early in the 16th century and China in the 17th century.

“Rug-making is an art much like painting,” says Fred Bokaei of Bokaei Rug Gallery in Metairie. “This kind of art is created on a loom rather than on a canvas, but many of the same principles apply. The artist chooses his colors, his subject and creates harmony between them to create beauty.”

the process

Oriental rug-making begins with the dyeing process. In many cultures, dyeing the materials is not only considered an art, but a ritual. While a village may have several weavers, often there is only one person who performs the dyeing process. Antique rugs (those created more than a century ago) were colored from natural dyes as opposed to many of the chrome and aniline dyes used today. These natural dyes derived their color from roots, plants, fruit, insects and sea shells. Each color is significant, although their meanings can vary from region to region. Red is widely used as a symbol of joy and prosperity; blue, nobility; and yellow, protection. Green is symbolic of heaven and hope, but rarely found in older rugs as they are considered holy and reserved primarily for prayer rugs. Antique rugs are typically in deep shades
of red and blue, while more modern rugs include softer hues of green, blue, and brown.

Detail of a Persian Tabniz rug—hand-knotted Iran wool and silk, tight-woven at 500 knots per inch.

Once the materials are dyed, dried and sorted, the weaving commences. Weaving can take months, even years to complete depending on the technique and type of rug. Kilim rugs and pile rugs are among the most popular. Kilim rugs are created from a pileless technique of flat-weaving that allows for their reversible style. They are also made from coarser materials such as wool or goat hair—hence their designs tend to be larger in scale and less detailed than those of pile rugs. Pile rugs are created through an intricate technique of weaving and knotting on a loom. Rows of silk or wool knots are tied onto a cotton, silk or animal hide foundation to create the pile of the carpet. There are two major types of knots that are used, the Persian knot or “sennah” and the Turkish knot or “ghiordes.” The Persian knot is used widely throughout India, Pakistan and China, whereas the Turkish knot is used predominately throughout Turkey and the Caucasus. A rug’s density (calculated in the number of knots per square inch) is said to be indicative of its fineness and durability. A common theory is “the more knots the better” with the finest Oriental rug having as many as 1,000 knots per square inch. But according to Bokaei, knot count is not a factor in determining the value of antique
rugs, only new ones.

“The condition of an antique rug is more important the knot count,” says Bokaei, who has been dealing antique and reproduction Oriental rugs for more than decade. “There is the obvious wear and tear that comes with age, but for an antique rug to keep its value and further appreciate, it should be well-maintained and free from tears, patches and stains.”

While the color and composition of these rugs can drastically differ, the same basic design formats dominate Oriental rug weaving, both in years passed and the present day. The most common of these formats is the “border and field” consisting of a main border that includes a central motif as well as several smaller borders. The field often features a center medallion surrounded by a floral or geometric design indigenous to the region in which the rug was created. Gardens, fountains, hunting scenes and other depictions of local terrain are also illustrated in the field. These illustrations—steeped in thousands of years of artistic tradition—are just one of the many artful expressions that transform these woven textiles into postcards from the past.

All photos taken at Bokaei Rug Gallery.

the real deal

In the late 1800s, new materials and dye processes were used meet an increased demand for Oriental rugs in the Western market. However, authentic Oriental rugs are still being woven today in traditional places of rug making. Greg Dombourian, of Dombourian Rugs on Magazine Street, offers tips on what to look for when purchasing an authentic Oriental rug, whether antique or reproduction.

1. Beware of imitations. Oriental-looking rugs are a dime a dozen. An authentic Oriental rug is hand-woven, hand-knotted and easy to clean. It should be made from wool, silk or other natural fibers, not from a synthetic material like rayon.

2. Scrutinize the rug from front to back. Rub your hand across the rug’s surface. If the pile sheds, then the wool is of inferior quality and will not withstand heavy foot traffic. Then, flip the rug over to see if the pattern is visible. If it is, then it is an authentic hand-woven rug. If it’s backed with an opaque fabric such as canvas, it means that the piles are glued, and therefore not authentic.
 
3. Be informed and buy what you like, not what your friend or salesperson tells you to. Ask questions and shop around until you find the rug that’s right for you. An authentic Oriental rug is an investment and could last you a lifetime, so make sure you are 100 percent satisfied
with your purchase.