Persian carpets and other “rugs of the East” are firmly established as elegant design elements — subtle and often-unheralded — that loudly whisper refinement and good taste. Historically, many of us think of them in terms of the imagery of medieval Europe: They were considered great status symbols in the 1500s and, some 200 years beyond, were too precious to put on floors; instead, they adorned tables, chests and walls.
But the story of Oriental rugs goes back so much further — try 3000 B.C., when Nomadic tribes in Mongolia and Turkey used hair from their camels and sheep to weave carpets to keep their earthen floors warm, and 1000 B.C., when rugs with an impressive 300 knots per square inch were already in existence.
In Persia, especially, the artistry of the carpet developed so much that, today, a dizzying variety of distinctive patterns and styles is linked to at least 40 rug-making Iranian cities or villages. Oriental rugs have been prominently depicted in literature, art and music for thousands of years.
“We have a long history of admiring Oriental rugs,” said Fort Worth interior designer Joe Minton. “They’re a beautiful thing to use in a room. I just really love them and I’ve come to know a lot about them because I have used them in my business for 40 years. … I like to educate people about them.”
There’s pride of ownership, of course, but also discomfort — the latter, because of the oft-reported idea of village women and children toiling away at looms, tying tiny knots all day to weave these intricate patterns of Persian florals onto artistic tapestries that others might tread upon with nary a thought. (Child labor continues to be an issue the carpet weaving industry grapples with, especially in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Read more about that at goodweave.com and in a recent Forbes article on the prevalence of child laborers within India’s mills.)
A true Oriental rug is “hand-knotted,” woven one knot at a time — a tribute to the patience and craftsmanship of the weavers. The terms “hand-tufted” and “handmade” are misleading — those can still be machine made. It is said that the average weaver ties as many as 10,000 knots per day, and a 9-by-12-foot Persian rug that has 500 knots per square inch takes four or five artisans, working six hours a day and six days a week, about 14 months to complete.
My medium-sized, cream-colored creation is a Kashan, I’m told, and like me, it is, at least, a semi-antique. It was jokingly dubbed my “dowry rug” when my dad purchased it several decades ago during a two-year period that our family lived in Iran.
I was 13, an age when many Iranian girls from wealthy families — in a not-so-distant past — were routinely married off to old men of their fathers’ choosing. Although I treasured this exotic souvenir of time spent abroad, I also tucked it away for decades — seldom using it, walking upon it or inviting others to do so.
It’s a decision that folks with strong footholds in the rug-making world call “a crying shame.”
“Rugs are like paintings,” said Ben Shabahang, owner of Shabahang Empire Rugs in Southlake, Texas. “It’s art. But that doesn’t mean you tuck it away and ignore it. “Working himself up to something between a gentle admonishment and a good-natured scolding, he added: “These types of carpets are meant to be used. Used and worn and enjoyed forever.”
Tom Siasi of CT Rugs in Fort Worth agrees: “I always say rugs are a little bit like humans. If you rolled me up and put me in the corner, my back would hurt. … Unused rugs can get mildewed and musty-smelling, and sometimes you can never get those smells out.”
At first glance, my Persian carpet is a twin to one that resides in California with my sister. Our dad purchased them together, and they bear the trademark elongated center medallion surrounded by vines and Persian florals that make them instantly recognizable to those in the know as products of the city of Kashan. Of course, the symbolism and history of the intricate pattern were lost on us, the artistry of the weavers a hard thing to fathom.
Our dad hung the carpets on the wall of a bedroom through our teen years, and my sister and I discovered many miniscule differences between them. We would trace the delicate patterns of vines and blossoms with our fingers, lovingly pinpointing the places where one weaver made a flower using mint thread while her counterpart selected yellow or green.
Whether mistakes or artistic deviations, these types of “flaws” are a hallmark of Oriental rugs: Two women from a nomadic tribe might start weaving a rug from opposite sides, adding their own touches as they work, while weavers of Persian prayer rugs are known to purposefully weave irregularities into their creations — a little speck of bright orange in a rug full of browns, for instance — as a reminder that humans cannot duplicate the perfection of Allah.
As for my old visions of children toiling away to make my rug — and other rugs like it — Shabahang and other local rug retailers say it’s important for rug retailers to research their suppliers and, similarly, for consumers to find rug dealers whom they trust, to ask questions about their carpet sources and not to be comfortable with retailers who give evasive, vague or inadequate answers.
A third-generation rug dealer and entrepreneur, Shabahang said he eliminated the child labor issue from his business by opening small factories of his own in India and “completely cutting out the middleman.” His operations reportedly house about 40 looms and produce Persian-designed rugs the old-fashioned way, with two to four people working each loom.
Taking a different approach, Hassan Khoshroo, owner of Atlas Rugs in Fort Worth, said he travels to India and elsewhere to check on his suppliers’ factories and view the work conditions of the weavers.
Meanwhile, Siasi of CT Rugs said he never worries about industrialization or the growing market for mass-produced Persian carpet “knock-offs” eliminating the ancient techniques of making hand-knotted rugs. Noting that “they’re two different markets,” he says nothing can replace the allure of a “real” Oriental rug like mine.
“You never see an antique Persian carpet at the Goodwill,” he said. “People keep them in the family and pass them on through the generations. They’re classics.”