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Intrigue of the Oriental Rug

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

What would 30 centuries of mystery, history, and tradition look like? Imagine patterns and colors filled with symbolism, folklore, and tribal culture. Imagine exotic treasures passed down from family to family and village to village. Oriental rugs are such treasures, encapsulating the skill of weavers who have stories to tell. Even the skill of weaving, itself, is a valued heirloom.     


The appreciation of an oriental rug begins in knowing its origins. When not draped over Mongolian war horses, they were displays of art hung on walls, dressed over furnishings and stretched on non-treaded floors. Thought to have evolved in Egypt and Central Asia, rugs made their way to Europe in the 17th century via the Silk Route and became the prized possessions of aristocrats. The Industrial Revolution enabled them to reach the masses of Europe and the United States later.

Today, “Oriental rug” is a catch-all term referring to rugs knotted in Iran, Turkey, the Caucasus, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China and Nepal. Generally named after the area where the designs originated, they can be loosely divided into six categories:  

Persian: Historically considered the finest of all Oriental rugs, these are distinguished by intricate curvilinear designs and superior wool, silk and dyes.

Indian: They are less valuable than Persians in terms of investments because of their drier, thinner wool. Flatly woven cotton or wool rugs in pastel colors called “Dhurries” are also woven in India.

Pakistani: Many are impressive versions of Persian designs. However, others can be thinly woven with a knotting scheme that distorts the designs.

Turkish: These are some of the best rugs on the market today. This was not the case 15 years ago when they used coarser wool, primary colors, and simple geometric designs. Wool “Kilims,” distant cousins of Dhurries, are made in Turkey.   

Chinese: Recognized by deep piles, sculpted with center medallions, open backgrounds, large borders and soft colors.  

Tibetan: Simple yet sophisticated designs and color palettes, usually woven in Nepal. The secret behind their thick pile lies in the Himalayan sheep. Because of the altitude, they produce dense wool with an abundance of lanolin.

The quality of Oriental rugs has ebbed and flowed over the past 60 years. When considering a purchase, the authenticity of a label and the knowledge of the dealer are crucial. My trusted go-to expert, a fourth-generation exporter with roots in ancient Persia, has given me a few handy tips:

1) Look at a rug on the floor, not hanging from a wall.

2) Look from both directions and notice how the color palette changes.

3) Fringe, knots, and dimensions are clues to ensuring a rug is hand-knotted. Fringe should be an extension of the warp, not sewn onto the ends. Grey fringe may indicate recycled cotton.

4) Rows of knots should be irregular and it is virtually impossible to achieve an exact size such as 6 by 9 feet or 8 by 10. The price of a rug is based on its country of origin, quality of fiber, intricacy and tradition of design, size, age and knot-count.   

5) When furnishing an empty room,  start with the rug as it will outlast other furnishing trends. A rug defines the space in which it is placed whether this is a conversation area, an entry or a direction down a hallway.

6) A large rug makes a room appear more formal. It’s better to have an over-sized rug that looks grand than an under-sized one that looks insufficient.

7) Lighter colors make a room seem bigger and darker colors make it cozy. Unless making a carefully designed statement, the predominant color in the rug should not be the same predominant color in the room. A neutral room can handle a bold rug.

8) Note whether a center medallion will be lost under a coffee or dining table.

9) Rugs are like art and, therefore, no two should be the same.

To care for a rug, vacuum at least once a week and have it professionally cleaned every few years. Use a pad to lengthen the lifespan of the fibers and elevate the rug so that dirt drops out of it and into the pad. Blot liquid spills using a white towel (never rub) and use a dull knife to remove solid materials. Lanolin in wool is nature’s own “Stainmaster” so avoid chemical protectants and stain removers. If the main content is silk, do not place it in high-traffic areas. Proper care of a well-chosen rug is an investment that can increase in value over time.    

Photo: Claremont Rug Company, Antique Art Carpets, Oakland

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