Types of Antique Carpets
Designwise, antique Hand Knotted Carpets fall in two basic genres – European and Oriental. European carpets include the Aubusson (tapestry) and Savonnerie (pile carpets).
Antique Oriental carpets are generally named after the city, town or village that they were made in. For example, Persian rugs are sub-classified as Tabriz, Kerman, Kashan, Serapi, Heriz, Sultanabad, and many more Persian towns and villages. Each town or village specialized in different designs, usually based on the flora indigenous to that area. Over the years, these designs have remained the same, only their size has changed to accommodate fashion trends.
European carpets include the Aubusson (tapestry) and Savonnerie (pile carpets). Traditionally, only the French king could own a Savonnerie carpet in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, leading to the development of the Aubusson, a flat-woven rug that emulated the royal rugs.
Antique carpets can also be classified on the basis of the circumstances in which they were made, into Workshop Carpets (made on commission by people who could afford them) and Tribal Rugs (made by nomadic tribesmen for their own use, and not for the purpose of being sold).
Workshop carpets mostly have floral designs and curvilinear patterns. These are woven in high knot counts and are extremely ornate.
Tribal rugs, also known as Kilims, have rectilinear or abstract geometrical designs. These are woven on narrow, portable looms and hence tribal rugs are generally small in size. Weavers of such rugs, although mostly illiterate, evolved a complex language, a Symbolism of Kilim Motifs through which they expressed their innermost feelings and desires through their Kilims.
Traits of Antique Carpets
- Antique Carpets were mostly woven with yarn coloured with Natural Dyes. Natural dyes are extracted from plants, minerals and sometimes even insects such as cochineal.
- Most Antique Carpets display Abrash – the shaded effect in the woven product, created by the imperfect absorption of handmade vegetable dyes by hand-spun wool. The presence of the shade bands of Abrash could have three explanations – the herder-weaver used mixed animal wool in the rug (different animal wools absorb different amounts of dye). Or he used wool from the same animals, sheared at different times of the year (the quality of an animal’s wool changes by the season). Or he ran out of wool half way through the rug, and dyed a fresh hank that was slightly different in shade.
- Antique rugs, especially Tribal Rugs or Kilims, often don’t have perfectly symmetrical designs.
- Often, antique carpets have an uneven pile. This is because black and some shades of brown wool tend to oxidize after about sixty to seventy years, resulting in a lower pile than the other colors on the carpet.
- The primary difference between antique carpets and new ones is that new carpets are almost always made from the point of view of being sold, and are therefore governed by fashion mores, cost of manufacture etc. Whereas antique carpets were either commissioned or made for self use – either ways, they were created by ‘the labour of love’, with the best raw materials available to the weaver. Which explains why some antique carpets have as many as fifty shades (even though each new shade means extra labour for the weaver) while new carpets rarely have even fifteen shades.
- Antique carpets also generally display better craftsmanship than new ones. Since they were not made for commercial purposes, the weaver could take as much time as he wanted. Hence, one often finds more knots per square inch (which translates to more intricate designs) in antique carpets than in new ones.
Did You Know?
- The oldest complete rug, the Pazyrk Carpet (now in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg) was discovered in 1949 during the excavation of a burial site in Siberia. It was frozen in permafrost for over 2500 years.
- Light, traffic, dust and mites are the biggest enemies of antique rugs. Guard against them to keep your antique looking good for longer.
How to Buy an Antique Carpet
- Accurately measure the room where the carpet will be placed; draw a sketch with all the columns and any obstructions in place. Decide upon an ideal size range -- and then be willing to compromise!
- Don’t go by the “knots per square inch/cm” criterion for quality. Antique carpets have a different benchmark for fineness thus rendering such comparisons irrelevant.
- Carefully examine the colours of the carpet. If any fluorescent shades have been used, chances are that the carpet is probably not that old, for fluorescent chemical dyes came into use relatively recently. Authentic antique rugs have all been made using Natural Dyes.
- Remember, old rugs are rarely straight; often uneven in pile -- their beauty lies in these imperfections. However, make sure that the edges and borders of the carpet you like are intact.
- Be prepared for minor damage (like holes less that 5 inches) Look for signs of repairs, such as a patch sewn in to replace a worn area or holes. Also, inspect the rug in bright light to ensure the pile of the carpet is full – unprincipled restorers just paint on worn areas and such rug are very fragile. If there are moth damages, get the dealer to repair them before buying the rug.
- If you’re purchasing the carpet as an investment, be aware of how 'available' a particular kind of antique carpet is on the market. There might be many pieces of a particular type of 100-year-old carpet that, easily found in the commercial market. But there are others (like those called Topkapi, which were woven in the 1920s and not even technically antiques) which are prized for their rarity.
- If the dealer allows it, bring the carpet home to assess how it looks in your home context.
- Choose a good dealer who gives proper certification for your antique.
How to maintain an Antique Carpet
- Many antique carpet aficionados treat their antique treasures with so much respect that they don’t spread them on the floor, and use them as throws. This is advisable if the carpet is particularly old and weak. If it isn’t (and the dealer ought to advise you on this) use it on the floor, with a rug pad underneath. This is often the easiest way of keeping the carpet aligned, and also discourages uneven wear.
- If you must place furniture over your antique rug, make sure you use furniture slides. Never place heavy furniture on areas that have already worn out.
- Rotate the carpet periodically, so that no one side wears out completely.
- Air your antique at least once a year (especially after wet weather). Bright sunshine is the best antidote to moths, and warms the rug to make it softer. You also could give it an old fashioned beating with a wooden paddle to bring out dust from its centre weave.
- When you take the carpet out into the sun, inspect the underside for moth damage. If there is any, your dealer will recommend appropriate treatment. If there is any damage, a visit to a qualified rug reweaver is the only solution.
- Vacuum your rug daily, making sure you vacuum in the direction of the pile. Otherwise the pile will begin to look discoloured (since fibres in different directions will reflect light differently).