Nine Indicators of Rug Quality

Nine Indicators of Rug Quality

It is true: beauty IS in the eye of the beholder.  However, that doesn’t mean all pieces of art are created equal, right?  For example, no one would claim that an original Renoir painting, and one done by the guy down the street are of equal value, just because they were both created using oil paints.  There are criteria that allow one to go far beyond personal opinion in evaluating the two pieces.  The same is true of rugs.   There are basic criteria by which all rugs can be compared and contrasted, and conclusions drawn concerning their quality and value.   This list is by no means comprehensive, but will help a rug “amateur” to evaluate the 1000s of pieces available in the marketplace today.

1:  Weaving Technique

There are three main classes of “oriental” rugs sold in the US:  machine-made rugs, hand-tufted rugs, and hand-woven/hand-knotted rugs. In rugs, this classification is everything. 

Machine-made rugs, even nicer brands such as Karastan are simply that:  machine made.  They can be very pretty and quite functional, but they are not rightly comparable to a hand-made rug of any variety, and like most mass-produced home furnishings, are not generally considered to be works of art.  You can tell a machine-made rug by examining the fringe.  If it is sewn onto the rug, the piece is machine-made.

Hand-tufted rugs are very deceptively named.  A tufted rug is in no way a hand-made rug.  Rather, a mechanized “gun” is used (albeit by a person) to shoot pieces of wool through a canvas backing which has a pattern sketched onto it. No knot is tied in the wool; rather a petroleum-based rubber backing is painted over the back of the rug to keep the unsecured strands of yarn from falling out.  We have heard from clients that they have had issues with a strong petroleum smell radiating from their hand-tufted rugs, and have ended up discarding them as unacceptable for home use.  Needless to say, besides not being environmentally-friendly in any sense of that term, hand-tufted rugs are not considered to be art, and do not have intrinsic value.  A tufted rug is easy to spot because of the “backing” on the rug.  No hand-made rug will have any sort of backing on it, rubber or otherwise. 

The designations “hand-woven” and “handmade” are reserved for rugs that are made entirely by hand.  In both types of rugs, a set of vertical strings, or “warp” is attached to a loom.  Then wool is either woven through the warp strings, or hand-knotted onto the warp strings, to form the “weft” of the rug. At no point are machines used. One way to tell a handmade rug from its machine-made counterpart is to examine the fringes along the edge of the rug.  In a handmade rug, the “fringe” is actually the warp strings, and is an integral part of the rug, rather than an applied ornamentation. But not all handmade or hand-woven rugs are created equal, either!  For more information on how to detect quality in handmade rugs, please see below.
2:  Skill of Weavers

The best rugs are designed and woven by adult weavers at the top of their artistic game.  These men and women are considered true artists in their own right, and are well paid for the work they do, and publicly-acknowledged for their skill.  Interestingly, however, their names are rarely known outside their own circle of friends and other rug makers.  Why? Traditionally, rugs are the product of the work of two groups:  the designer(s), and the weavers, who bring that design to life.  It is not uncommon to see 4-5 women working to execute the knots in a single rug.  Thus, it would be deceptive to attribute the rug to any single party. That is why signatures are almost never seen on the best examples of the textile arts.  It has only been in recent years that the concept of adding an “artist’s signature” to rugs was created.  This is, plainly put, a marketing ploy intended to appeal to western buyers. 

Contrary to our instincts, signature lines on rugs are not an indicator of superior quality.  In fact, the opposite can sometimes be true. One must look to actual quality of design and execution and not modern gimmicks like signatures to judge the skill of the weavers.  The subject of design and motifs is broad enough to constitute a lifetime’s learning.  But you don’t need to know everything about a rug’s design to be able to judge whether or not it is of value.  The following criteria will help also help to detect the work of superior weavers.

3:  Quality of Materials 

In rugs, like in most things, one must start with high quality materials to end up with a high-quality product.  In rugs, this means first-grade, unadulterated wools or silks, hand-spun if you can find it.  In simple terms, the better the wool or silk, the better the rug.

How can one recognize good wool?  It should have a certain luster or sheen, but it should not shine, per se.   It is commonplace in today’s world to see poor quality wools blended with petroleum-based artificial materials to approximate the sheen of good quality wool.  This is to be avoided at all cost, as bad wools will become brittle and fall apart, and petroleum-based materials (besides being ecologically-unfriendly) can sometimes take on an odd smell over time, especially if laid on a heated flooring surface.  

In general, the best quality wools are also hand-spun.  This is easily detected in flat-weave rugs due to a “knobby” texture to the weaving, but is harder to recognize in hand-knotted rugs.  (see:  The Rug & Relic Yeni Kilim Collection)  Machine-spun wools are also perfectly acceptable; they are just not as highly prized and therefore a rug made with machine-spun wools should be less expensive than one rendered in hand-spun materials.

The makeup of “silk” rugs is actually much easier to test.  One simply needs to pull a tiny strand of silk from the rug, and burn it.  If it shrivels and smells like burnt hair, it’s silk.  Any other reaction means the rug is made of some other substance, most likely mercerized cotton.  Silk rugs, unlike their wool counterparts, should be extremely shiny when looking down the nap. High shine means a better chance you are seeing actual silk, as opposed to some other blend of materials.  NOTE:  Some rug dealers will use the term “art silk” when referring to certain  pieces.  Please be aware: “art” is short for “artificial,” and is not an indicator of superior quality- in fact, quite the opposite.  
4: Dying Materials

There are three main classifications of wools used in rug production:  Chemically-dyed, Vegetal-dyed, and Natural (or no-dye) wools. No question about it, natural or vegetal-dyed wools are preferred over wools dyed with chemical substances.  The reasons for this are myriad, but the biggest one is this:  vegetally-dyed wools are simply more aesthetically pleasing (and therefore more valuable) than their chemical counterparts.  However, less than 20% of the rugs made in the world today (and less than 5% of kilims) actually use vegetal dyes. Why?  Plant-based dyes are much more difficult to work with, and require a skill level that takes many years to acquire.  Thus, vegetal-dye pieces are far more costly than their chemically-dyed counterparts. (Note:  Some rug dealers will try to tell you that every rug they sell is vegetal-dyed.  Please tread with extreme caution if you hear these words, as this is, in virtually every instance, a misstatement of the facts.  Some folks will say this to justify very high prices, but the reality is, very few rugs are actually vegetal dyes.  This is especially true if the dealer is selling older pieces, as the art of vegetal dying was nearly lost in the last hundred years or so, and has only recently made a “comeback.”)  

One important thing to watch for when viewing rugs is color-fastness.  Check for this by dampening a paper towel and gently blotting the towel over the back of the rug.  If you see dye on the cloth, this indicates the dyes are less than totally colorfast, and due caution should be used in cleaning. Obviously, a rug that is not colorfast is not a “fancy” piece, and while this doesn’t mean the rug must be avoided, it does mean the piece should be relatively inexpensive.
5:  Knot-count or KPI

The easiest but the most deceptive of the rug quality indicators is the concept of KPI, or “knots per square inch.”  KPI is calculated by selecting a one-inch area of a rug, and counting the number of knots extending in each direction.  Rugs are often classified according to knot-count as ranging from “coarse” to “super fine.”  This is a helpful measurement in terms of evaluating the work that went into creating the pile on a rug.  Please be aware, however, that this is but one of many criteria that are used to “grade” a rug, and therefore KPI must be used with due caution.  It is easy to get so caught up in counting the quantity of knots on the back of the rug, that one forgets to examine the quality of the rug in general, and the knots in particular.  An “art silk” rug might have 10 times the umber of knots present in a simple nomadic piece of similar size, but the first has no value whatsoever, and the second could be worth many thousands of dollars.

6:  Length of Pile

With a few notable exceptions, the longer the pile on the rug, the worse the quality of weaving in the piece.  This is true for two reasons:  a longer pile renders complex designs “fuzzy” or “muddy.”  (see images, below)  Long pile is also detrimental to a rug’s durability, in that long pile will “crush” over time, and is more susceptible to developing wear patterns.  So, then why would a weaver leave pile long, knowing these two things?  One reason:  to hide poor technical skill in the actual weaving of the rug.   

7:  Weaving quality indicators

Symmetry in size
Is the rug symmetrical?  Or is one side markedly longer than the other?  While slight variations in symmetry are to be expected, large variations in size indicates the work of a novice weaver.

Symmetry in image
Compare the back of the rug to the front.  Does it look the same? Or are the colors or the patterns difficult to discern from the back?  A good weaver’s “picture” will remain the same, and in the work of a truly gifted weaver, there will be so little difference one could even flip a knotted rug over for use!  (though we don’t really recommend that…)

Symmetry in knot construction
Does the back of the rug feel smooth to the touch?  Or can you feel small bumps when you rub your hand over the back?  Are the fringe ends of the rug smooth, or do they pucker?  Is the surface visually smooth? Or can you see numerous visible breaks in the base structure of the rug? A good weaver’s knots will be smooth, with few bumps, bulges or puckers.  Does the edge of the rug generally lie flat when placed on the ground, or do the edges roll under or up?  Good quality weaving should lay flat, without rolling or curling along the edges. 

8:  Design and Motif Considerations

Rug designs are as varied as the people who create them.  And while it is true generally that more complex designs are harder to execute and therefore are more valuable overall, there are no “preferred” designs that are conclusively more valuable than others. 

Rugs and textiles, like most other art forms, are subject to the likes and dislikes of their purchasers, which are in turn subject to the trends of the times, as well as economic conditions that have nothing at all to do with quality.  For example, 20 years ago, even a mediocre-quality Persian piece made in Iran was considered to be very valuable.  Why?  There was an embargo on the importation of Persian rugs into the US.  This meant that there was a very limited supply of pieces to be had.  In practical terms, that might mean that a rug that was (hypothetically) valued at $800 before the embargo might have been valued at $5000 a few years later.  Unfortunately, when the embargo went away, so did the artificially-inflated value of the rug, leaving many owners feeling their rug had somehow become less valuable. The reality was, the piece didn’t increase in value because it was well-made, but only because it was scarce.  The same is true as to the effect of decorating trends in rugs. One year, Kazak rugs are all the rage.  The next year, Heriz pieces are the cats-meow, and no one wants their Kazak pieces anymore. In short, be aware that there can be many reasons other than intrinsic quality inflating the value of a rug.  If long-term investment is important to you, it is better to buy based on quality and your personal preferences than on market or design trends.  

9:  Age
One of the best things about buying one-of-a-kind, handmade rugs or kilims is that age is likely to help them retain and sometimes even increase their value over time, something that is untrue of almost any other form of home furnishing.  That means even a simple and quirky village rug will probably retain its value, and can likely be re-sold for its purchase price (but see below) and sometimes considerably more, once a few decades have passed. Try that with your couch!  (See:  Vintage Kilims and Vintage Carpets)  Age will not, however, make up for deficits in any of the attributes of a well-made rug discussed above.  In other words, a poor quality rug that is 150 years old is still a poor quality rug.  If you want a rug that will hold its value, you must seek out a good quality piece at the start of your investment.  

There are a very few new rugs being made in the world today that have a real potential to appreciate over the years, and can even be regarded as good investments. These “investment quality” rugs stand out from their counterparts, in that they are almost exclusively done with hand-spun wools and vegetal dyes, and meet the highest standards for each of the quality indicators we’ve listed above.  We highly recommend our Yeni Kilim Collection kilim and carpets as solid investment-quality pieces, having been recognized by rug experts the world-over (Architectural Digest and Hali Magazine among them) as among the finest examples of the textile arts. 

Other Considerations: 

Ethical Considerations
There is much to be said concerning the ethics of modern-day rug production and the use of slave, prison, and/or child labor to create cheap reproductions.  The short version is, this practice is abhorrent and unethical, not to mention produces very poor quality goods.  (for more info, please see fair trade considerations).    Unfortunately, it is more prevalent today than at any time in history, due to high demand in the West for cheaply-produced handmade rugs.  In our opinion, most Americans would not support this method of exploitation if they knew of how their rugs were being made.  Thus, we try to educate people about how a good rug is made, and offer only those rugs we can personally guarantee did not come at the price of another person's well-being, not to mention their  childhood. 

How can we possibly make that guarantee?  Because we actually know our weavers.  No middleman separates us from the people who design and create our rugs. We visit their looms and their families at least twice each year to make our selections.  For us, there is more to selling rugs than finding the cheapest sourcing.  We strive to support our suppliers by providing them a place to sell their goods for a fair price, and helping our clientele to understand that it is possible to find goods that are ethically-produced and sustainable, while still being reasonably-priced. 

The best advice we can give is this:  if you want to buy investment quality rugs that are not made by children or slaves, find a trusted rug dealer with whom you can establish an ongoing relationship, and who is willing to guarantee the authenticity of their pieces, and spend the time to teach you about the pieces you are considering.  All reputable dealers will do this.  If the party you are talking to is not willing to invest this much in your satisfaction, it’s time to find a dealer who is.  
Deceptive Selling Practices:

The “eternal exchange”

You will sometimes find a rug dealer who will tell you that they will "guarantee" their rugs, and will take any rug back as a trade-in on any other rug in their stock, no questions asked, for life.  Sounds great, doesn't it? Almost too good to be true?  That's because it is. 

It is self-evident that NO business can possibly stay afloat by exchanging its inventory to its established customers year after year, without some serious trickery involved in the transaction.   This is especially true with very high-cost inventory such as rugs.  Why?  Let's illustrate by example.  Let's say that a business sells a client 5 rugs in the first year.  It cannot then maintain an inventory in perpetuity without ever selling another rug to that client, and simply exchanging new rugs for old.  Basic math dictates that a business must actually sell its inventory and purchase more inventory,  not exchange its’ available stock for no profit to the same customers.  How can the business possibly generate the income with which to pay the bills associated with running the business without doing so? And yet, there are many rug dealers who purport to do exactly that.  SO – how do other rugs stores offer this “eternal exchange policy?”  By doing two things:

1)   They buy inferior products, made by slave or child labor, for almost no money. Then they don’t put prices on their pieces, and when someone inquires, they start out the “negotiation” at approximately 10,000% of what the rug is actually worth, and negotiate their way down to something that is merely unconscionable.  (e.g. the rug starts out at $22,500, and they “discount” the rug to sell for $10,000.  The actual value of the rug is $2,500; thus they've gotten 4 times legitimate retail for the piece at the outset, and have guaranteed themselves the chance to take the same advantage when the customer comes back with their "trade-in.")

2)   When that client comes in a few years later to “exchange” his rug, they take him through the gallery and tell him to pick any piece he wants for the exchange. Then, no matter how poor the quality of the new rug, that rug automatically becomes the “Maserati” of the gallery.  “Of course you can exchange your rug for this rug, Mr. Smith.  But you picked a very good piece.  It will only cost you an additional $5000 to do so.”  End result:  Mr. Smith has a new rug, of similar or lesser value than his last, and it only cost him an additional $5000, PLUS the rug he “exchanged.” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist – or an accountant – to see that this “exchange” ended up costing the client dearly, both in terms of what he spent and in what he got for it.

The High-Pressure “Discount” or “Liquidation” Sale
Last but not least: approach live auction sites like eBay, and shopping in places like the Grand Bazaar with due caution. While it is possible to find a treasure, they are dominated by rugs with some very suspect and/or deceptive pedigrees.  And if you must move forward despite this precaution, be prepared to sort through a lot of very poor-quality materials, in a very high pressure environment, where you are expected to buy first, and ask questions later.  If someone is offering to sell a “$10,000 rug” for $800, odds are the rug isn’t worth the $800, either. As they say, "if something looks too good to be true, it probably is."  Even more important - and you'll just have to take our word for it here - there are very few fools in the rug business who don’t have any idea about the value of their goods. Thus, while the odds are high that someone is being taken advantage of, it is unlikely to be the seller. 

In a friend’s words, “treat shopping for rugs on eBay or when visiting foreign countries, the way you would a trip to Las Vegas. Have fun, buy something, but don’t spend more than you can afford to lose.  Because just like with roulette and blackjack, unless you're a professional, the odds are excellent that you are going to lose.”