What is an Oriental Rug?

(Posted on 08/07/13)

What is an Oriental Rug?

The term ‘oriental rug’ can be a source of some confusion to those familiar with the subject/ it literally means a rug manufactured in the Orient, and could legitimately be applied to any rug of oriental origin, regardless of its appearance or how it was made. In practice, however, the term is normally used only to describe hand-made rugs produced by traditional methods in ancient weaving regions of Persia (Iran), Anatolia (Turkey), Afghanistan, the Caucasus, Baluchistan, Turkestan, China, India, and Pakistan.

This vast geographical area-stretching from China to the Balkans and from India to the northern tip of the Caspian Sea – is inhabited by peoples of infinitely diverse cultural, religious and ethnic origins. Whose only common feature (apart from occupying territories along the old silk route to the East) seems to be their desire and ability to elevate rug-making from a functional craft of art.

It can be difficult for Westerners to appreciate the importance of weaving in the East. Among many nomadic and tribal peoples it was often the only medium of creative release, and even in the more sophisticated cultures of Persia, China and Ottoman Turkey, weaving has always ranked alongside painting, architecture, sculpture and ceramics as a valid and celebrated visual art. A master weaver in Persia or Anatolia was held in the same esteem as we hold Rembrandt or Vermeer, and even today there are some textile artists whose reputation and status are equivalent to those of any contemporary artist in the West.

Much of this veneration is due to the fact that rugs, in addition to their aesthetic value, have long been an integral part of religious experience of the Islamic world. Every good Muslim has his own special prayer rug, and Islamic religious symbolism is at the root of many of the most universal rug designs. It is for this reason that many experts prefer the expression ‘Islamic textile art’ when describing oriental rugs, despite the fact that many of the items covered by this description will certainly have been woven by non-Muslims and possesses no trace of Islamic symbolism in their compositions. Nor does this expression take into account the elements of Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu and even Christian imagery found at the heart of many rug designs.

By virtue of being hand-made, all oriental rugs can be said to be unique – a weaver, no matter how hard he or she tries to follow a particular design, will invariably make small mistakes or innovation which will impart some individual flavour to the work – but it is rare to encounter a rug in which the weaver has consciously striven to express his own creative ideas at the expense of a traditional design. New designs have of course evolved over the centuries, and will no doubt continue to do so, but the Western passion for artistic freedom, novelty and personal expression is not shared by the textile artists of the East.it is perhaps because they are both unique and at the same time a faithful continuation of ancestral traditions that oriental rugs are objects of allure and fascination for the West.

In addition to their underlying similarities, of character and appearance, oriental rugs are also defined by the manner in which they are made. They may be either ‘hand-woven’ or ‘hand-knotted’. The former are generally referred to as kelims or flatweaves, and are normally the cheaper and less frequently encountered of the two types.  Hand-knotted rugs are known as pile rugs, or simply as rugs, and are generally regarded as the most important and aesthetically satisfying manifestations of the Oriental rug maker’s art. They are usually very well made, and although there are always some relatively shoddy examples on the market, the vast majority are extremely durable; provided they are treated with a reasonable degree of care, they will last for many years. Evidence of this can be seen in the surprising number of items surviving from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which one could be forgiven for thinking, were only a few decades old.

In summary, we can say that an oriental rug, in order to be truly authentic within the generally accepted meaning of the term, must be either hand-knotted or hand-woven, originate from one of the traditional weaving regions and also follow certain ancestral patterns of composition and design.