QUESTION: My great grandmother left me a beautiful Oriental carpet runner. My grandmother said it is quite old, but I’m not sure by how much. What can you tell me about antique Oriental carpets? I have no idea about its origins, pattern, and such.
ANSWER: What most people classify as Oriental carpets are actually Persian (now Iranian) or Turkish carpets. Originally made to cover the sand in the tents of nomads and to kneel on when saying daily prayers, these beautiful floor coverings have a long history.
Oriental carpets have been highly prized in the West since their first appearance in Venice in the 13th century. By the 18th century they were common in wealthier households. But relative demand was fairly small, so the production of carpets declined. During the 19th century, trade routes improved, contact with the Orient increased, and the Western obsession with the exotic grew. So Persian weavers produced great quantities of carpets for export.
Carpet-weaving is an integral part of Iranian culture and art and dates back to ancient Persia. Weavers from other countries copied the designs of Persian carpets, but Persia produced 75 percent of the world's woven carpets.
Generally, Persian carpets can be divided into three groups—Farsh/Qa-li, any carpet greater than 6×4 feet, Qa-licheh, sized 6×4 feet and smaller), and nomadic carpets known as Gelim including Zilu, meaning "rough carpet," mostly for use in tents.
Wool is the most common material for carpets but cotton is frequently used for the foundation of city and workshop carpets. There are a wide variety in types of wool used for weaving Oriental carpets, including . Kork wool, Manchester wool, and in some cases even camel hair wool.
Persian rugs have both a layout and a design which in general include one or more motifs, so it’s not unusual to find more than one motif in a single rug. The original designs act as the main pattern and the derivatives as the sub patterns. Rug experts have identified 19 pattern groups---historic monuments and Islamic buildings, Shah Abbassi patterns, spiral patterns, all-over patterns, derivative patterns, interconnected patterns, paisley patterns, tree patterns, Turkoman patterns, hunting ground patterns, panel patterns, European flower patterns, vase patterns, intertwined fish patterns, Mehrab patterns, striped patterns, geometric patterns, tribal patterns, and composites. The most common motifs include Boteh, Gul, Herati, Mina-Khani, Rosette, Shah Abbasi, Azari Kharchang, and Islimi Floral.
Persian rugs are typically laid out using one of four patterns—all-over, central medallion, compartment and one-sided. So a rug’s design can be described in terms of the manner in which it organizes the field of the rug. One basic design may serve the entire field, or the surface may be covered by a pattern of repeating figures. In areas using long-established local designs. the weaver often works from memory, with the patterns passed on within the family.
Weavers often tailored the dimensions of their carpets to suit Western needs. They produced a disproportionate number of runners—long narrow rugs originally designed to cover the sides of rooms or tents since these had special appeal to Westerners. Even so, the standards remained the same. The major carpet-weaving centers—Persia, Turkey and the Caucasus—continued to use traditional motifs and techniques, maintaining the carpets’ regional integrity and originality.
While carpets made before 1800 are extremely expensive, the antique carpet market offers some excellent buys for the beginning collector. High quality runners generally cost between $1,500 and $15,000, depending on overall design, pliability, date, and type and number of knots.
Edgar Allan Poe once said, “A judge at common law may be an ordinary man; a good judge of carpets must be a genius.” And as hard as they are to judge, they’re certainly easy to enjoy.