The more you know about oriental rugs, the more you'll appreciate the artistry and workmanship that goes into every carpet. You'll also be better equipped to get the most value for your money.
The following tips will guide you, but unless you are an expert, the most important decision you’ll make is where to buy your rugs. Go to a long-established, reputable store that is willing to patiently teach you, answer your questions and show you all the rugs you want to see before you make a purchase. Don't be pressured into buying immediately, especially at going-out-of-business sales and auctions, which often have poor quality rugs and dramatically inflated prices.
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1. Know How Rugs Are Made
Oriental rugs are woven on a loom, with strands of wool or cotton called warps stretched from beam to beam (top to bottom). The weaver makes horizontal rows called wefts, weaving in and out between the warps. Tying the warps together with a piece of wool then creates the pile. Knot by knot, row by row, the weaver works, taking about six months to produce a 6 x 9 carpet.
You’ll notice that each rug has a “direction” due to its being woven on a vertical loom and the ends of each knot being pulled down while cutting the yarn. If you are standing at the top end, the rug will look markedly lighter than looking at it from the “bottom” end.
After weaving the bottom rows of kilim (flat weave), the weaver cuts the warps from the loom, making the fringe.
2. Learn the Lingo
Before you begin your search, it helps to know some terms identifying the parts of a rug so you can describe what you seek. The main background of the carpet is called the field.
When you go shopping, have an idea of your preferred field and borders colors, or bring fabric samples or pillows with you.
Many rugs have a diamond-shaped or round motif in the middle called a central medallion. If your furniture will be placed asymmetrically on the rug, you may prefer a rug that has an all-over design.
3. Shop 'til you Drop
Before you go shopping, measure your space and bring a diagram of the room with you. From the exact dimensions of the room, determine the rug size by subtracting two to three feet of floor to show on each side.
After you've seen many rugs, your favorite types will become apparent. See as many of them as you can and get to know their price range.
For the most part, new rugs are sold by the square foot; antique rugs are sold by the piece. Rugs of the same type will vary in price due to their differences in color balance and quality of design, but prices for the same type of rug should not vary more than 20%. If it's not obvious why one rug is more expensive than another, ask!
4. Fall in Love
Don't buy a rug until you find one you love. Examine it carefully, keeping in mind that hand-made items inherently have inconsistencies. Has it been sheared evenly? (Are the cut pile ends smooth?) Are the colors balanced? Do they blend harmoniously? That bright color that stands out now may not seem as appealing after a while, and may detract from its value should you want to sell the rug in the future.
5. Buy for Decorative Value
Buy a new rug because you love the way it looks. Its decorative appeal and usefulness will last for many years. A new rug, as opposed to an antique, should not be considered a money-making investment because a new one of the same type will probably be available in the future.
6. Antiques are Investments
A substantial number of the Persian rugs currently in this country are antiques (over 70 years old). As time passes, they become more rare and valuable due to the graceful aging process and to the fact that antiques were almost always one-of-a-type. Therefore, antiques can be considered “investments".
But before you buy, know what you're getting. Many new rugs today are made to look like antiques, and it can be difficult to tell the difference. Be certain you can trust your dealer.
Check for signs of repairs such as patches, usually more visible on the back of the rug. Repairs that have been expertly done are barely visible and do not affect the value nearly as much as those which are obviously a "defect". Missing borders and any other needed restoration should be reflected in the price.
7. Healthy Wool Feels Good
Cool moist climates with good grazing help sheep to produce superior, long staple, lustrous wool. So it follows that New Zealand and Tibetan carpet wools are some of the best in the world. Ask where the wool came from, and feel it. It should be soft and smooth (not dry and brittle). But beware! If a new rug is too soft and shiny, suspect inferior wool that was chemically treated (as sometimes found in inexpensive Chinese carpets).
8. Evaluate the Fineness and Density of the Knots
Knot density (for strength) and fineness (for clear design definition) are important indicators of quality for which some countries use different terms. To test knot density, push your fingers down to the base of the pile; if the knots feel tightly packed, as in Bidjars, the rug will be extremely durable. To determine fineness, compare the backs of different carpets. Each "bump" is a knot. Small knots allow for well-defined curves and fine lines in the pattern, but you'll also pay a premium for them.
Pakistani rugs are referred to in knot count per square inch horizontally by vertically. (16/18 quality is a fine quality, 12/12 a lower quality). New Chinese rugs are measured in lines (warps) per 10 cm. of wefts. Indian rugs are measured in terms of warps per inch by wefts per 10 cm.: 5/40, 9/54, 12/60, 14/70. Most others are described in terms of knots per square inch.
You’ll find Persian rugs from Tabrizes at 400 knots (very fine) to Herizes at 50 knots (coarse) and Tibetans from 60 to 120 knots per square inch. Keep in mind that in bold geometric designs knot count is less important than in detailed florals.
9. Try the Rug at Home First
The lighting and character of your room will affect the look of the rug. Reputable dealers will allow you to take the rug home for a day or two. Make sure you like the result in daylight as well as at night before you make a final decision.
10. Choose Your Source Wisely
Choose a store that has been in business in your area for many years. Trustworthy, well-run businesses endure. The best dealers will show you a sampling of everything available today, and will recommend the best type of rug for your purpose and budget. Be wary of stores that go out of business and pop up years later in a different location. They may not be around later when you need them.
And don't be fooled by huge markdowns at customs auctions and going-out-of-business sales. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.