A Persian rug is entirely handmade – not hand finished, which describes a power-loomed or hand tufted rug that is then trimmed or have fringes attached. They are both made in a bewildering array of qualities, designs, colours, and sizes but are always made with a pile, or none in the case of flatweave kilims or dhurries. The materials are for the most part wool, cotton and silk with tribal rugs and decorations using goat and camel hair too. The most ornate finely woven i.e. the highest density of knots woven in a square inch or metre are what are called City or Workshop rugs.
There are two types of loom- the vertical and the horizontal. The former is used in 98% of all rugs made for the floor (as opposed to pictorial or flatweave rugs which are made to be displayed on the wall or used to drape over beds, tables, and chairs). A vertical loom is comprised of two rollers made of either wood or steel which are secured top and bottom – this makes for a roller at ground level and another at a height of about 2-4 metres depending on the finished rug size requirement.
The base of the rug is made by stringing cotton threads, the warp, around the two rollers which are then adjusted to get the correct tension. This is important because an incorrectly tensioned rug will become out of shape after some use, which created ripples in the pile as well as curves that become more noticeable the longer the rug or runner is.
The pattern of a rug is either unchanged through time and known by heart by the weaver or is drawn by a master designer and transferred to paper. The pile materials of wool, silk or cotton – or a combination of two or three of them – are pre-dyed to the required depth of colour. Before the invention of chemical dyes in Europe the colours were derived from roots, bark, berries, fruit and vegetable skins, seeds, insects, crushed rocks, leaves to make lovely green carpets, like this selection of green Persian rugs. The work of applying these colours to the yarn was highly skilled and the knowledge passed down from generation to generation. Obviously, it was as highly guarded as the recipe for Coca-Cola or Lea and Perrins! A better-quality rug has enough dyed yarn made in one batch to ensure the evenness of tone throughout. Many rugs develop bands of differing tones as they age, called Abrash, which shows that the materials were dyed at different times.
An experienced weaver who always works on one type of rug commission will be able to work from memory and automatically use the correct colour yarn, balls of which are hanging in front of them at eye level. For a younger weaver, or to make a highly detailed design with many colours, the pattern will be written in code on a paper which again is hanging at eye level. There are small workshops in cities and towns making finer and more expensive rugs which employ a master weaver, always a man, who will chant out the colours and design to ensure complete accuracy and save the workers from having to glance at the paper instructions.
The rug is built up by each knot being tied by hand around two of the warp threads until one complete row has been made, after which the threads are separated by a spreader bar and a horizontal weft thread is placed between them. This weft thread is beaten down with a metal fingered claw to lock down the knots – just as cement is used between layers of bricks.
Length of Time
A rug can take, depending on the quality and size, from mere weeks to a couple of years to complete. Once ready a final locking weft thread is inserted and woven around the warp threads at either end and the rug it is cut of the loom by severing the warps at each end.
A rug made on a horizontal loom is almost always a Tribal rug i.e. traditionally made by nomadic or settled tribes in Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan. These are much simpler affairs and simply use the same roller at each end, albeit a fraction of the size and weight, with the warp threads again strung between them. The tension is derived from hammering pegs at each corner and is done by experienced touch. These looms are designed for simple reasons- used in the open air by tribeswomen they are moved as and when new pastures are needed for their flocks of sheep and goats. The rugs and kilims (rugs with no pile) that are woven on them are far smaller and simpler than rugs woven on vertical looms and therefore the accuracy of design and colour is far less important. This often lends an abstract charm lent by the mistakes that are made- mistakes often allowed by the loom’s owner as their young girls learn to weave. On that note, a hoary old perceived wisdom is that any mistake in a rug is intentional because ‘only Allah is perfect’ – a simple and very oriental sidestep when selling a less than perfect rug. These rugs are finished and slipped off the loom in the same way as the vertical.
At this point it is an indistinct and slightly shaggy article and needs to be finished. The sides are secured by a selvedge of wool or cotton wrapped around two or four of the outermost warp threads. On cheaper rugs this is achieved by simply sewing on a pre-made twist of yarn which over time will come loose and the knots on the edge of the main pile start to fall out.
The rug is placed in a large iron latticed drum (tribal rugs are beaten with a stick) which rotates over a collecting pit and which removes the excess wool and general dust, after which it is washed by simply placing in a stream or being continually soaked in water on a concrete platform and brushed out.
Once fully dried out in the sun the final process is the clipping of the pile which must be done by an expert or the rug can be totally ruined. Traditionally this was done with hand held shears which required a strong forearm and a very keen eye. These days the cutting is by electric shears which makes the job far quicker but not much less skilled. The shaggy pile is now low- the lower the pile and therefore thinner the rug (generally!) the better quality, as the rug with the most knots per square inch or metre will not reveal gaps as a lesser quality will. Think of pixels on a screen- a lower quality screen will show dots of space between the pixels. The awkward thing about knowing rugs is that a thicker heavy rug, like a Persian ‘Heriz’, is as hard wearing and beautiful as a thinner finer Persian ‘Isfahan’. The design is now clear and with a handmade Persian or Oriental rug be the exact same on the back as the front.
Many poorer quality rugs are then given a final wash in chemicals which will alter the final appearance. This can give a very washed out bleached effect, a silky shine (which fades after a time) or a tea leaf sepia tone. A better rug should stand on the original quality of the materials and not be mucked about with like this- all chemicals have a detrimental effect on a rug.
The rug is now ready for the wholesaler to show in Lahore, Tehran or Bhadohi or to be shipped directly to a showroom in London, New York or Buenos Aires.