PART TWO OF TWO PARTS
By Jan David Winitz,
President & founder of Claremont Rug Company
A circa 1850 High-Collectible Ferahan Sarouk awash with softly glowing colors achieves a masterful balance between the central medallion and field.
In Part 1, we discussed how to visually enter into an Oriental rug’s artistic statement by bringing attention to its field design, secondary motifs, and borders. As well as being a visual delight, getting to know an Oriental rug is a tactile experience. Be sure to touch the rug and feel the quality of the wool.
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.
Its absolute balance of color and design amid exhilarating asymmetry indicate that this elemental Bakshaish (circa 1865) was woven by an extremely accomplished weaver.
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.”
Left: A 160-year-old Persian Serapi uses red, blue, and yellow hues, skillfully creating midnight indigo and corn silk yellow to heighten contrast as well. Upper right: The 12 tonalities of color wheel born of primary red, blue and yellow. Lower right: A tribal Karakul herd with full coats of fleece.
The two antique Bakshaish carpets shown here are made with mountain oily wool that will quietly glisten in the generous lighting of its location.
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.”
Whether an antique rug is geometric or floral, such as this circa 1875 Tabriz, its weavers’ overarching aesthetic was to express Nature as profoundly vital and harmonious. (Forest in neighboring Gilan province to Tabriz.)
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.
Look at antique rugs as genuine works of art that, as you become familiar with them, reveal endless surprises and delight. Overall, you will find that the closer you examine a fine carpet, the more your mind will become captivated and your spirits inspired.
This 160-year-old Caucasian Karachov Kazak tribal rug offers a deeply personal statement through its weaver’s choice of color and her individual rendition of age-old tribal motifs.
If you missed Part One: How to Look at an Antique Rug, please go here.