May 3, 2014
Persian carpets and other “rugs of the East” are firmly established as elegant design elements — subtle and often-unheralded — that loudly whisper refinement and good taste. Historically, many of us think of them in terms of the imagery of medieval Europe: They were considered great status symbols in the 1500s and, some 200 years beyond, were too precious to put on floors; instead, they adorned tables, chests and walls.
In Persia, especially, the artistry of the carpet developed so much that, today, a dizzying variety of distinctive patterns and styles is linked to at least 40 rug-making Iranian cities or villages. Oriental rugs have been prominently depicted in literature, art and music for thousands of years.
Connection to the Past
A true Oriental rug is “hand-knotted, “ woven one knot at a time — a tribute to the patience and craftsmanship of the weavers. The terms “hand-tufted” and “handmade” are misleading — those can still be machine made. It is said that the average weaver ties as many as 10,000 knots per day, and a 9-by-12-foot Persian rug that has 500 knots per square inch takes four or five artisans, working six hours a day and six days a week, about 14 months to complete.
“I always say rugs are a little bit like humans. If you rolled me up and put me in the corner, [it] would hurt. ..." Unused rugs can develop problems worse than they would be prone to from day-to-day use.
“Each one is beautiful in its own way. They give me and my family enjoyment every day because we use them. ... What other kind of artwork can you walk on and know that it just keeps getting better?”
Old Rug, New Rug: The Art of Antiquing
When my family first arrived in Tehran, of the many new sights and sounds encountered, perhaps none was more startling than the daily drama of merchants flinging their carpets on the filthy roads in front of their shops so that the speeding taxis and motorists would drive over them, accelerating their wear-and-tear quotients with muddy tire tracks.
From a Western perspective, it was sheer insanity, but we were soon told that an appreciation of floor coverings with a soft, cushy pile was an American eccentricity, and old, thread-bare Persian carpets were most prized in this culture — thus, the vendors wanted their fresh rugs to look like antiques and fetch a better price.
Many a Westerner swerved and stopped to avoid soiling the roadway rugs, and the merchants would come out to the curbs and gesture wildly, beckoning the foreign motorists to put tire tread on their carpets to help improve their beauty.
Perhaps in Iran and other corners of rug-making countries such as China, Nepal, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, some merchants might still use urban roadways to age rugs prematurely, but newer antiquing processes like acid-washing and leather-whipping are decidedly more common — and effective. Meanwhile, industry insiders say it’s almost impossible for a layperson to tell the difference between an antique rug and a newer one that’s been antiqued.
“A lot of good antiquers are just that good. They can make a new rug fresh off the loom look very, very old, and no one can tell the difference. That’s why [if you have an interest in acquiring authentic old or antique Persian rugs] you’ve got to deal with people who are reputable and who you trust.”
At first glance, my Persian carpet is a twin to one that resides in California with my sister. Our dad purchased them together, and they bear the trademark elongated center medallion surrounded by vines and Persian florals that make them instantly recognizable to those in the know as as products of the city of Kashan. Of course, the symbolism and history of the intricate pattern were lost on us, the artistry of the weavers a hard thing to fathom.
Our dad hung the carpets on the wall of a bedroom through our teen years, and my sister and I discovered many miniscule differences between them. We would trace the delicate patterns of vines and blossoms with our fingers, lovingly pinpointing the places where one weaver made a flower using mint thread while her counterpart selected yellow or green.
Whether mistakes or artistic deviations, these types of “flaws” are a hallmark of Oriental rugs: Two women from a nomadic tribe might start weaving a rug from opposite sides, adding their own touches as they work, while weavers of Persian prayer rugs are known to purposefully weave irregularities into their creations — a little speck of bright orange in a rug full of browns, for instance — as a reminder that humans cannot duplicate the perfection of Allah.
"Nothing can replace the allure of a “real” Oriental rug like mine, [I'm told].
“People keep them in the family and pass them on through the generations. They’re classics.”
I’ve resolved to use my dowry rug; and if I can’t bring myself to walk on it daily... I can at least mount it on a tall wall in my entryway and gaze upon it as I journey out and back again. If my rug is once again in full view, I’m sure I’ll stop from time to time to admire the intricacies.