Historically, many of us think of them in terms of the imagery of medieval Europe: They were considered great status symbols in the 1500s and, some 200 years beyond, were too precious to put on floors; instead, they adorned tables, chests and walls.
But the story of Oriental rugs goes back so much farther: try 3000 B.C., when Nomadic tribes in Mongolia and Turkey used hair from their camels and sheep to weave carpets to keep their earthen floors warm, and 1000 B.C., when rugs with an impressive 300 knots per square inch were already in existence.
In Persia, especially, the artistry of the carpet developed so much that, today, a dizzying variety of distinctive patterns and styles is linked to at least 40 rug-making Iranian cities or villages.
A true Oriental rug is “hand-knotted,” woven one knot at a time, a tribute to the patience and craftsmanship of the weavers.
The terms “hand-tufted” and “handmade” are misleading. Those can still be machine made. It is said that the average weaver ties as many as 10,000 knots per day, and a 9-by-12-foot Persian rug that has 500 knots per square inch takes four or five artisans, working six hours a day and six days a week, about 14 months to complete.
“Rugs are like paintings,” said Ben Shabahang, owner of Shabahang Empire Rugs in Southlake, Texas. “It's art. But that doesn't mean you tuck it away and ignore it. These types of carpets are meant to be used. Used and worn and enjoyed forever.”
In Iran and other corners of rug-making countries such as China, Nepal, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, some merchants use urban roadways to age rugs prematurely because the “antique” rugs command higher prices.
Meanwhile, industry insiders say it's almost impossible for a layperson to tell the difference between an antique rug and a newer one that's been antiqued.
“A lot of good antiquers are just that good,” Shabahang said. “They can make a new rug fresh off the loom look very, very old, and no one can tell the difference. That's why you've got to deal with people who are reputable and who you trust.”
Mistakes or artistic deviations, so-called “flaws,” are a hallmark of Oriental rugs: Two women from a nomadic tribe might start weaving a rug from opposite sides, adding their own touches as they work, while weavers of Persian prayer rugs are known to purposefully weave irregularities into their creations — a little speck of bright orange in a rug full of browns, for instance — as a reminder that humans cannot duplicate the perfection of Allah.
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