How to Look at an Antique Rug
By Jan David Winitz, President & Founder
One chooses to furnish their home with antique Oriental rugs for several reasons. They serve as durable, long-lasting floor coverings, adding comfort and warmth to the environment. Most importantly, they are handcrafted works of art, which provide unmatched beauty and grace. As with any art form, to truly appreciate antique carpets, one must learn how to look at them properly. “Educated viewing” is a valuable aid in choosing the rug that is certain to provide years of enjoyment.
In looking at antique rugs, one should strive to initially view them in the light of appreciation rather than of criticism. Each rug is unique, the product of highly skilled artisans who developed their physical dexterity and sense of artistic balance over many years.
An almost incomprehensible amount of creative effort goes into the making of each art-level antique rug.
An almost incomprehensible amount of creative effort goes into the making of each art-level antique rug. A finely-woven room-size carpet may have taken a group of weavers over a year to complete. Some oversize and palace-size carpets are the result of three or more years of effort by a team of up to 10 weavers working at a vertical loom while sitting on a scaffold many feet above the ground.
When looking at an antique rug, as when viewing a landscape, position yourself so that you can see the entire piece at a single glance. Notice what it is about the carpet that catches your attention first. What in its overall design and combination of colors engages you first? What are your eyes drawn to next?
Be sure to view the rug from two or more vantage points. As the carpet absorbs or reflects light differently from each new angle, you will be surprised to see that the colors take on strikingly varied hues and the design has a somewhat new appearance. The most striking differences emerge when the rug is compared from one end or the other, as the knots on an Oriental rug are cut at a consistent angle, so that light reflects off the surface from one end and is absorbed at the other.
After getting a general impression of the rug, now examine the field. Does it have the strong focal point of a dominant medallion on an open or sparsely patterned field or a diffuse medallion surrounded by dense ornamentation? Does the rug have a series of repeating or individually rendered medallions? Conversely, is the field filled with a spacious allover pattern of free-floating motifs, or a repeating, connected design?
The magic of the master weaver’s art lies in the ability to create unity in the rug as a whole, as well as in the relationship between individual details. Step forward to focus on its various patterns. Perhaps you see a tiny animal, the delicately drawn details in a series of flowers or triangular forms resembling mountains. Look at each detail in relation to the larger pattern of which it is a part. For instance, you can see that even a tiny cross in one corner of the field is harmonious in terms of shape, size, and location with the entire rug.
Virtually every Persian and tribal pile rug is composed of a series of borders that serve as a frame to its field. In the East, it is said that a rug’s borders simulate a window to the mysteries of the universe and that what we view in the field actually extends infinitely in each direction.
Take note of the rug’s main border and its narrower secondary borders and guard stripes. The inner and outer secondary borders may have the same design or be entirely dissimilar, yet in either case the weaver’s aim is to create a perfectly unified artistic balance of a panoply of elements.
The highest quality rug-making fibers are from Karakul sheep, a breed known to have existed in Mesopotamia as early as 1400 BC. Interestingly, the Karakul’s tail acts as sack holding more than ten pounds of fat (oil), giving the animal the renowned ability to thrive under extremely harsh conditions, produce the richest of sheep’s milk, and yield a high lanolin content for its fleece.
As well as being a visual delight, getting to know an antique Oriental rug is a tactile experience.
Lanolin-rich wool in a rug is remarkably glossy and stain-resistant. Lanolin enters more deeply into the wool’s fibers when walked on and being subjected to light for many decades, creating the legendary patina of 19th century rugs. It also acts as a crystal, capturing light in the dyed yarn strands, giving extra illumination to the colors. The more lanolin in the wool, the more beautiful and long-lasting a hand-woven carpet will be.
Wool quality also differs dramatically in terms of durability and resiliency depending upon the conditions under which the sheep were raised and from what part of the animal it was taken. Nomads were particularly astute in producing the finest fleece. The wool from their flocks grazing at high elevations in Persia such as Kurdistan and the Caucasus Mountains was highly regarded. There, Karakul grazed the rocky slopes in cool mountain temperatures, growing particularly plush fleeces. Traditionally, this is known as “mountain oily wool.”
After touching a rug’s surface, stand back and note how all the colors interact. Is the overall effect harmonious? Or do one of more colors disturb the artistic balance? Unlike contemporary art, traditional Persian and tribal rugs are created from a palette that invariably represents the three basic areas on the color wheel— red, blue, and yellow. The most profound rugs, be they Bakshaish or Mohtasham Kashan, Kazak or Tabriz, present an incredibly awe-inspiring range of tonalities that sit together in utmost harmony.
Unlike the color theory in Western art, for the Near Eastern weaver color was not a science but the result of epiphanies at the loom and the dye pot of over thousands of years. Revering Nature as representative of the divine, they recognized their most successful work came from capturing their experience of it, sometimes symbolically, sometimes evocatively. Western artists are enamored with the chromatic wisdom held in antique carpets. Gauguin once wrote: “…study carpets and there you will find all knowledge.”
Finally, view at least one corner of the rug from the back. Look closely at the rug structure, consisting of rows of knots woven onto a framework of vertical and horizontal warp and weft foundation threads. A world-class tribal Kazak will always be much more loosely woven than even a decorative-level floral Kashan. Comparing the fineness of knotting is only applicable in rugs from the same region.
By studying and comparing the back of different types of rugs, one can learn a tremendous amount. Information such as size of knots, color of the horizontal weft threads, and whether the surface is flat or ridged can be clues to the exact origin of a rug.