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Art Underfoot

A Carefully Chosen Oriental Rug Can Give a Lifetime of Pleasure
Linda Lynton
From the Print Edition:
Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97

(continued from page 4)

Whether old or new, most Turkomen rugs are usually very well made. They are sometimes called Bokhara rugs, after the Turkestan city that used to be an export center for these weavings in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Each tribe originally had distinctive designs and weaves, but now, as most are made in cottage and urban factories for commercial sale, the traditional patterns have merged and are no longer tribe-specific.

Turkomen rugs usually have a strong, deep-red foundation upon which geometric patterning in black or indigo and white is laid. A distinctive repeat motif known as a gul, or tribal emblem, is commonly found in the field. The Yomut have a lozenge-, or diamond-shaped gul, while the Bashir incorporate many intricate geometric patterns between the lines of gul in the field.

Because of India's more comfortable climate, most Indians had little need for pile rugs, so there is no tribal rug-weaving heritage there. But when the Mughal emperors took over northern India in the sixteenth century, they introduced Persian rug weaving, and in time these fine rugs developed a distinctive Mughal style with a color palette that differed greatly from the classical Persian designs.

The seventeenth century carpet industry of Agra produced high-quality rugs with bright Indian colors that often had unusual designs; they are now much-desired collectibles. With the rise in rug weaving in the 1870s, the towns of Agra and Amritsar produced fine Persian-style rugs into this century. Today, these towns, in addition to the regions of Kashmir, the Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, continue the tradition. The best of the modern Kashmiri rugs are rated as some of the top-quality rugs being produced today.

India's weaving style has always borrowed heavily from sixteenth century classical Persian designs, but the coloring--strong dark reds with light, pale contrasting patterning--usually gives it away. To our Western eyes, the designs sometimes have a William Morris look, as the legendary English designer borrowed heavily from this genre.

One of the biggest secrets in the Oriental rug world is that the origins of most old rugs are unknown. In the nineteenth century, some dealers lied about the origins of antique rugs in an effort to hide their sources from competitors. This was true of the fabulous Ardebil rug, an intricate 40-foot-by-30-foot carpet woven in the sixteenth century in Ardebil, an Iranian town that never sustained a court rug-making industry. Much, if not most, antique rug identification is (albeit educated) guesswork.

However, there are ways of discovering a rug's origins. One source is the foundation materials that make up the warp and weft, which are sets of interwoven threads that run at 90 degrees to each other upon which the pile is added. The warp and weft may be made of wool, cotton, silk or goat hair. Goat hair wefts are primarily found in tribal rugs, whereas silk is used in top-quality urban rugs. Wool was probably the most common material until the last century, when cotton became popular, for it keeps its shape well and is durable. These rugs are also distinguished by the type of weft threads used and the manner in which they are woven onto the warp.

Another important means of identifying a rug is by noting how the pile is knotted. Although the commonly used terms--Turkish knots and Persian knots--are misnomers, there is a general geographic divide that marks where these two types of knots are usually found--Turkish being symmetrical and Persian asymmetrical.

All Oriental rugs have a particular design structure within which a certain patterning vocabulary is expressed. Designs and colors also help to identify a rug's origins. First, all rugs have borders, which range from narrow to wide, depending on the tradition. Many borders consist of multiple bands in which very different, distinct patterns are woven. Some patterns are generally found only in the borders, including scrolling vines, meanders and cartouches. The inner section, or field, of the rug usually contains a set of different patterns. In urban rugs the field may consist of an intricate central medallion; in tribal and village rugs, it is often a series of repetitive motifs that bear local significance.

Volumes have been written about rug designs and motifs, but here are a few of the major patterns to look for and where they are primarily found. Curvilinear patterns, including scrolling vines and meanders, are signs of a fine-quality rug with a high knot count that was made for a wealthier, urban clientele. The finest of these rugs are created in silk, as the material allows for much smaller knots.

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