Oriental Rugs

Written by Helen Glenn Court
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The mystique of Oriental rugs is perhaps best told in the story of the Pazyryk saddle cover. Discovered frozen in a burial chamber by a Russian archaeologist in 1949 in the Altai Mountains in Siberia, this earliest known surviving hand-knotted carpet dates to about 500 BC. It is square, exquisite, and remarkably well preserved. A center tile motif is edged by two rows of elk and horsemen, which are encircled by a border of small woven tiles.

Most telling about Oriental rugs is how well they integrate with so many interior design styles. Whether in a retro-style loft in Baltimore, a Rococo condominium in Manhattan, or a turn-of-the-century Victorian farmhouse in Ohio, they transform interior spaces into extraordinary ones. No minor consideration is that the finest of them--whether antique value, weaving detail, or motif design--are area rugs rather than carpets.

Vague references to carpets by ancient Greek and Arab writers are the closest things we have to documentation on the history of Oriental rugs. Because the sophisticated Pazyryk predates the writings, however, we are left with a certain amount of guesswork. It is clear enough, however, that they arose with the nomadic tribes of Central Asia. Certainly that is where the craft endured. It was in Persia--today's Iran--and Turkey that saw the best recorded golden age, from the 15th through the 17th centuries.

Classifying Oriental Rugs

There are several ways to categorize Oriental rugs. One is the fundamental groupings of floral/curvilinear versus geometric/rectilinear patterns. Another common classification is by geographic area, from Turkey to Iran (Persian) to Central Asia to China to India. Another grouping is by type, that is, carpet, rug, runner, prayer rug, juval, and donkey bag.

Persian and Indian rug patterns are primarily floral. Central Asian and Turkish rugs, however, are more generally geometric. Birds, dragons, and other animals characterize Chinese rugs. Caucasian and Turkman rugs almost always use geometric designs.

Carpets are the largest of Oriental rugs, generally larger than 9x12 feet. Rugs, the most common, are woven in any number of dimensions, but are smaller than carpets. Runners, being designed expressly for stairways and hallways, are generally from three to four feet or narrower, and are up to 20 feet long. Prayer rugs, typically small in area, are perhaps the most popular type. Juvals are rectangular bags, made in pairs. Donkey bags, extremely popular with collectors, are just what the name conveys--rectangular utilitarian bags designed to carry goods.

FAQs about Oriental Rugs

True hand knotted Oriental rugs will last a very long time indeed--as the Pazyryk saddle cover attests--if proper care is taken of them. The most common problems are water and moth damage. Although the pile of Orientals is generally wool, the warp and weft--that is, the foundation of the rug, the string network into which the wood (or silk) are woven--are cotton.

This can be weakened by exposure to water and dampness. As far as moths are concerned, it is not the moth but the moth larvae that eat the wool and silk fibers. Uneven wear is best dealt with by rotating the rug once a year.

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