The more I learn about hand-knotted rugs, the type we grew up calling “Oriental rugs,” the more complex they become. In my experience, choosing one is the single most difficult home design decision one can make. So many factors need to click: material, pattern, scale, quality, motif, colors and wiliest of all, cost.
A hand-knotted rug can be the soul of a room, which is why many designers suggest when decorating a room, you start with the rug. I have several which I’ve collected over the years, but recently I learned they’re not from where I thought they were.
Doubts surfaced while I was in an Uber. Discovering the driver was from Iran, where he had worked in the rug trade,I showed him a picture of a runner in my entryway.
“Made in India,” he said, “in the Mamluk tradition, very common.”
“The guy who sold it to me was from Turkey and implied it was from Turkey.”
“Well, it might have come from Turkey, but it was made in India.”
For clarification, I called Robert Mann, owner of Denver’s Robert Mann Rugs, one of the foremost rug authorities in the country. “The industry is not transparent,” he said.
Yes, he explained, Turkey was once a major producer of rugs. But as the country got richer around 1990, fewer women wanted to spend their days weaving. (Can you blame them?) Production plummeted. “Around that time, the country lifted its ban on importing foreign hand-woven rugs, he said. As a result, Turkey became full of rugs that weren’t Turkish.”
I sent him pictures of four rugs I thought were Turkish. Two are what he called “Af-Pak refugee rugs.” Likely made in Afghanistan, they harken back to the days after Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979, driving its citizens to Pakistan, where they plied their craft. The other two rugs, Mann said, were made in India, including the entryway rug the Uber driver had said was in the Mamluk tradition.
None of that changes my feelings toward them. What I care about is that these are beautifully handcrafted pieces of a dwindling art form that dates back to 400 BC and they add warmth, color and, yes, soul, to my home.
“You don’t buy an Oriental rug as an investment,” Mann said. “You do it to make yourself happy. That’s the only logical reason. The value comes from your appreciation and enjoyment of it.”
While we average consumers can’t always know a rug’s provenance, here’s what we should consider when assessing a rug:
Knot count: The more knots a rug has per inch, the finer the rug, the more time it takes to weave and the higher the value. “In the Middle East, there’s a saying,” Mann said. “You can tell how rich a person is by how thin their rugs are.” Put a ruler on the backside of a hand-knotted rug and count the number of stitches per inch each way. If you get 10 knots up and 10 across, the rug has100 knots per square inch (kpi), and 14,400 per square foot (100 x 144 square inches).
Labor: The average weaver working at a loom might tie 6,000 knots in a day. Three weavers working side by side on a 9- by 12-foot rug could collectively tie 18,000 knots in a day. At that rate, it would take them four months, working five days a week, to finish a 12-foot rug. That doesn’t include the time it takes to harvest, spin and dye the wool.
Cost per square foot: That is how the industry calculates cost, and you should too. Say a producer’s cost — for labor, materials and shipping to a U.S. warehouse — comes out to $15 a square foot. He will generally sell rugs to a buyer for twice that: $30. That buyer then tags the item for retail sale at three times that or $90 a square foot — but he’d be happy to get $60. Keep this supply chain in mind when negotiating.
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Fact check: Years ago, the occasional unscrupulous merchant gave the industry a bad name, Mann said. “Fortunately, today the Internet can vet a lot of lies.” Go into a store and ask questions. What type of rug is this? Where was it made? What’s it made of? (Look for 100% wool on cotton.) How many knots per inch? Take notes and pictures. When you find out it’s, say, a 16/18 Pakistan, search Google images to find out what it should cost.
Gut check: Rug dealers know you can’t buy a rug without seeing it in your home, and they will happily load it in your car. Put it down, see if it works and, most important, make sure you love it.
Marni Jameson is the author of six home and lifestyle books, including “Downsizing the Blended Home – When Two Households Become One.” Reach her at www.marnijameson.com.