Expanded Tips for Buying Rugs Abroad

When Grant Martin of Gadling asked me if I would be interested in doing a short video interview about tips for rug buying abroad, I jumped on it.  How cool, I thought, and started writing up some points I could make.  Those quick off the top of my head details became five full pages of facts, all of which could never fit into a 3 minute film.  The video is great, and covers a lot of valid information in it’s short duration, but I thought I might just elaborate a bit on some of the points made in it.

1. Types of knots

The first thing you might want to think about when buying a rug (new or old) is the knot type used in its construction.  The earliest rugs produced were flatwoven rugs such as kilims.  Building upon the kilim are rugs such as soumacs which are a flatwoven rug that has been knotted over.  Early pile rug construction would have used a Persian (single) knot.  The Turkish (double) knot which came along later tightens itself as it is walked on.  A Persian (single) knot will show a vertical line going up the rug, and a Turkish double knot will show a horizontal line going across the rug.

2. Types of dyes

Natural dyes are made from organic (natural) elements such as saffron, tobacco, berries, roots, and flowers.  The process for dying wool with natural dyes is quite long, as the color is set by placing yarn in the sun.  The set time varies from color to color, and place to place.  Chemical dyes are a much quicker process.

“The first human-made (synthetic) organic dye, mauveine, was discovered serendipitously by William Henry Perkin in 1856. Many thousands of synthetic dyes have since been prepared” – wikipedia

While the first natural synthetic dye was discovered in 1856, chemical dyes were not widely used until sometime in the early 1900s.  Today, quality rug makers are moving back towards a use of natural materials, processes, and dyes.

Natural dyes tend to glow with an iridescence that chemical dyes to not get over time, as though with age they become more lustrous.  There is no easy way to distinguish natural and chemical dyes by eye – unless of course there are indicative factors such as a corrosive brown or colors like “hot” orange.  Metals were used to create the natural brown dyes used in antique rugs, causing oxidation (and therefore corrosion to take place).

Silk is one material which does not take natural dyes, only chemical.

“Antique washing” rugs is a process done to rugs whose colors are not so desirable (mainly red and blue rugs) – the reds tend to fade out to a neutral color, while the blues remain.  Making a palette that is more pleasing to the eye.  Sometimes, however, pieces that have been antique washed may not look as expected once out of the wash.  Also, styles are cyclical, and when color started coming back in, many rugs that were antique washed could have fit the bill prior to altering.

3. Materials

Wool is the most widely used material in antique rugs.  This is because Sheep, and therefore wool, is what was most readily available to people.  If a rug has all wool construction it can be indicative of the age.  Wool on wool is generally a much older carpet, though the material continues to be used more often in foundations of tribal rugs today.

Cotton was used in the warp and weft of most rugs in the latter half of the 19th century, except in more tribal areas of production.  All cotton rugs are fairly rare, except for in the case of Indian “jailhouse” rugs / AKA cotton Agras, or Indian Dhurries.

Silk is the least popular material here in the states.  Silk rugs tend to be very refined, and very formal – not such an American taste.  Silk rugs should be constructed on silk foundations.  The reason for this is that the silk is stronger than cotton or wool, and can be tied tighter, causing the foundation to break if not silk.  A bursa silk rug, from Turkey, can be placed on a light box, and will appear to be a completely different rug.  Silk on cotton or wool exists, but is not recommended for a high traffic area.  The finer the silk used, the smaller the knot, the higher the knot count, and the harder to keep a piece straight and even.  For this reason, more refined silk pieces are usually small in size.

Newer silk rugs are being made with recycled silk on cotton using much chunkier knots, so as not to cut the material of the structure.  Cotton wefts give the rug a “body” not found in 100% silk rugs.  The Turkish (double) knot is better when using silk because of the slippery nature of the material.

Newer rugs also contain other materials such as jute, rattan, bamboo, el paca, etc.  A large number of workshops now are experimenting with materials and processes in ways never seen before, bringing new life and texture to the industry.

4. When and where to buy

Many antique rugs that are of value or have popularity are already here in the States or Europe.  Many of these pieces were initially designed by European designers who had workshops in Turkey or Iran, and made for export to America or Europe.  These pieces remain what are of interest and value here today.  Much of what is purchased by dealers today is found at auction or via private sellers.

Most of the people weaving these rugs at the time they were made were quite poor, and couldn’t afford to hold onto the rugs produced in their country.  Because of this 99.9 % were exported.  The same practices continue today, as the cost of production is a major concern in the carpet industry.

Buying at auction can be a good place to get a good rug at a good price.  However, once a rug starts to go quite high over the estimate, chances are you are bidding against another private client who also wants this particular rug.  Dealers will stay closer to the estimated price, but often are willing to take rugs that need servicing and repair, whereas a private client will not want that hassle.

5. Age

“antique” – over 100 years old.

“semi-antique” – 50-75 years old.

6. Condition / Repairs

“German Condition” is a term used referring to antique rugs in perfect condition.  This is due to fact that rugs in Europe seem to age less quickly, and people there are more interested in collecting pieces that have little to no wear.  It may be due to the temperature or climate that these rugs seem to keep very well, or it could also be that they are used in show rooms with little to no traffic.

Rugs that have worn down so that the warp and weft show through are often painted.  One way to test for this is to lick your finger and rub the area in question.  If it is painted, the color will rub off on your finger.  The main reason you will want to know if a rug is painted is so that you don’t try to clean it and cause color run.

Repairs and cuts are better seen in the back of a rug, and on the face are usually better felt than seen.  Remember that if you’re buying an antique, perfect condition will cost you a pretty penny.

Some people like the worn look, others don’t.  It’s all a matter of preference.  Every antique in my house shows age, use, and repairs…I like to look at them and think that there’s a story or history that comes with each piece, and that each repair is a part of that story.

One major factor to watch out for is dry rot, as the rug will forever crack.  This is usually seen in Indian and double wefted rugs such as Bijars.  Also, older rugs woven on jute suffer this fate.  One way to test for this, if the rug is not already cracking, is to fold the rug and pinch.  If you hear a snapping noise, there is a possibility of dry rot.

7. Buying Overseas vs Buying in America/Europe

Many have the misconception that buying overseas will save them money.  Almost 90% of the time, it will not.  The reasons for this, are A. (as previously mentioned) the good stuff is already in the States/Europe.  B. Most are buying in tourist centers, where the prices are adjusted to fit the tourists’ wallet.  That’s not to say that there are no good pieces to be found, nor is everything you buy overseas going to be overpriced.  But there is a high probability that it will be.  If you’ve bought a rug overseas, chances are when you got it home and searched out something like it, you found a nicer piece for less money.

Everyone knows the tout and haggle game exists in eastern markets.  Knowing this, if you are still set on buying a rug overseas, well, that’s where the fun comes in.

First off, remember that you are NEVER obligated to buy a rug…even if the tout has shown you around town, and gotten you free into every attraction in the city…you are still not obligated.  Let them serve you tea, let them do their song and dance.  If you are interested in something, ask the price, but never let them ask you to offer how much you think you would pay for it.  As a tourist your perception is skewed, and you will almost always offer much more than the carpets value.  Once they have offered you a price, most overseas vendors will expect you to immediately counter with half of what they’ve told you.  You can do this back and forth, knowing its part of the game, but you should also understand that with this practice you will end up halfway between his initial price, and your offering – which may or may not be a good price.  Probably the best thing to do is not feel bad about offering too little, offer waaayyyy less than the initial price put out there, and then haggle from there.

Number ONE rule when buying overseas – unless you’re ready to make a purchase NEVER shake a dealer’s hand.  While not legally binding, a handshake means a lot in many cultures.

8. Collectable Items

Pretty much any antique rug (or weaving) type can be collectable, as there are people who love many different types of rugs and therefore there is a collector for everything.  Some more collectable items include caucasian rugs, tent bands, bag faces, vagireh (samplers), and fragments; but there are also collectors of styles such as French or Chinese Art Deco, Arts and Crafts, Balouch, American Hooked Rugs, Navajo weavings, etc.

9. Most Importantly

At the end of the day, the most important question after everything is said and done is; do you love the rug?  You are going to live with it, so you better love it.

*all carpet photos in this post courtesy of Rahmanan Antique & Decorative Rugs.

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