Most of us upgrade our home’s major furnishings — sofas, coffee tables, armchairs — every decade or so, as our tastes and bank accounts mature. But to misquote the diamond ads, a handmade rug is forever. As much a piece of art as it is utilitarian décor, it will likely move with you throughout your adult life, and will often be passed down to the next generation.
Much of that is due to the sheer investment: Large, high-quality, hand-knotted rugs can command tens — or hundreds — of thousands of dollars. In 2013, one 17th-century Persian rug fetched $34 million at auction. Clearly there’s a lot more at stake than shopping for kitchen stools.
Dr. Hamid Adib, one of the country’s foremost experts in antique Persian rugs, says the most important part of buying a rug is educating yourself. “It’s the same as when you’re buying a car or a computer — when you equip yourself with education, you make the least mistakes.”
The Adib family, whose tradition of rug weaving dates back centuries, has two destination rug galleries, one run by Adib in Salt Lake City, the other by his brother Ray in Walnut Creek, California. Serious collectors travel across time zones to visit each. We asked Adib to take us by the hand and show a neophyte buyer what to look for.
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A handmade tale
First things first: Know if you’re buying a hand-made or a machine-made rug. Think of it as the difference between an original painting and a print. The finest rugs are made entirely by hand, which means no parts are manufactured on a machine. Adib says sellers sometimes use confusing terms that give the impression of a handmade piece, when in fact it was partially produced on a machine.
Hand-tufted rugs, for example, are produced using a tufting gun and are glued instead of knotted. A hand-loomed rug employs more handwork, but does not entail the high degree of workmanship that increases a piece’s quality and value. It’s a matter of getting what you pay for, he counsels. “If it’s machine made, you should only pay for a machine-made rug.”
Workmanship made simple
To put it simply, “the more knots, the more labor, the more expensive.” Adib explains that many of the rugs his family commissions are the product of three people working eight-hour days for six months; a truly spectacular project may take 12 artisans six years to finish. So when you wonder why hand-knotted rugs cost so much, “Look at the man hours. It’s incredible.” Workmanship accounts for nearly 90 percent of a rug’s value. “Look at the back of a rug and you’ll immediately become educated. It’s a simplified way to describe the workmanship involved, but you’ll understand why a rug with 100 knots per square inch and one with 800 knots per square inch are priced accordingly.”
Getting technical: Materials and dyes
Adib explains that while wool is the fabric of choice, there are varieties: Some is fine, some is what he calls “slaughterhouse wool.” “In our family we say if you’re spending so much time weaving a rug, there’s no sense in using a cheap wool.” Silk is another fine ingredient; again, it comes in varieties. “Real silk that comes from silkworms and is processed correctly” is more desirable than silk substitutes made from bamboo, viscose, or mercerized cotton. “You have to know which is which, in order to make the right decision. It can mean the difference between a rug that lasts 15 years and one that lasts over 100 years.”
Dyes also factor into a rug’s value. Those that come from natural sources — vegetables, insects, even the natural color of the sheep itself — are considered “good” dyes, as are chrome-based chemical dyes. All need to be stabilized, meaning the yarn must be washed again and again until it no longer bleeds. Adib says that while aniline dyes provide vibrant colors, they can adversely affect the yarn. So much so that Persia banned their import in 1903.
That special something
Finally, a rug’s uniqueness factors tremendously in its value. Dynasties of rug-makers in Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, Morocco, Egypt, the Caucasus, India, and Pakistan have been practicing their art for thousands of years, and the results are patterns and color groups that are distinct not only to a region, but to a specific family. That family’s signature is what can make a rug so valuable. Finding a family trademark on a rug, says Adib, is similar to the value a Van Gogh signature brings to a painting. Not just generations of artistry, but of family honor, are woven into the piece.
“Sons and daughters can’t compromise the names of their families by creating something with a coarser weave,” says Adib. “It is a labor of love. Of culture.” Which is one reason a rug that’s authentically “Persian” — meaning it was made in Iran — is so much more valuable than a rug with a Persian pattern made in China. You might say it is a tangible product of a country’s soul.
Once you understand rug essentials, shoppers can focus on what they need. That’s often a matter of size. Adib says one common problem is a customer who looks at the area she feels needs to be covered — the space between a sofa and a fireplace, for example — when she should be looking at the entire room. “I have customers with a 600-square-foot room looking for a 5 by 7 rug. It will have a shrinking affect, taking a big, elegant room and making it look smaller.” Almost as bad: covering an expensive floor with a rug so large, it looks like wall-to-wall carpet.
Large spaces such as great rooms can require multiple rugs, each defining an area: dining, entertaining, lounging. Adib says you want to choose rugs that look good together but are not perfectly matched. Laying down three rugs in the same pattern diminishes the artistic quality of each. “Things that are too matchy-matchy start looking machine-made. Look for rugs that are three distinct pieces of art that complement each other.”
He’s also a fan of layering rugs over larger pieces, even wall-to-wall carpet. “It’s a technique used throughout Europe, but here seen mostly on the coasts. Look at old European mansions and you’ll see lots of it — beautiful carpets with more delicate silk rugs layered on top.”
Adib says although there are hundreds of subcategories, you can place most handmade rugs into one of three general styles: traditional, transitional, and contemporary. Which you choose depends on your home’s overall personality. Generally, he suggests going in a different direction than the space’s overall style. “People think, ‘I’ve got a contemporary house and I need contemporary furniture, paintings, and rugs.’ But I would suggest making it less predictable. Coordinate, don’t match. In a contemporary space, bring in a transitional piece, something that doesn’t blend into the overall scheme.” Likewise, he likes using a rug with a graphic, simple pattern in a traditional space. The idea is to avoid a room where everything blends together in one monotonous style.
A matter of trust
There are tons of things that are great to buy online. Handmade rugs, says Adib, are not one of them. “Trust is very important when buying a rug. I see people selling machine-made rugs on the internet as handmade. Not only can the glue backing create a health problem, the dyes will eventually run together.”
But not all brick-and-mortar retailers are created equal. “If you are being pressured into a sale, leave.” Instead, he says to seek out a seller who is patient enough to educate a client, will allow you to take a rug home and live with it for a few days, and exchange it, if need be, without any hiccups. “Work with someone you know you can always go back to. You want a doctor, mechanic, and attorney you can trust. You also need to trust your rug dealer.”
Carpet vs. solid flooring: Solid floors are simple, elegant and practical. Consider natural stone or wood and tiles of all sizes, textures and colors. Luxury Vinyl Planking imitates natural wood or tile affordably. Area rugs add interest and enhance comfort and can be cut to fit space and style. Carpet can provide all-round comfort, color and style in a wide range of fibers and textures.
Padding: What’s underneath is important too, with underlays and setting materials making your flooring feel better and last longer. A pad that is too thin will feel uncomfortable; too thick and it may cause your carpet to wrinkle. Low-density padding may not support your carpet correctly, providing inadequate protection against wear and tear. A higher density pad will feel more solid and extend your carpet’s life.
Other considerations: A moisture barrier protects against dirt and spills and keeps your carpet at its best longer. Also consider pads that allow in-floor heating to radiate through, or insulate against cold or drafts.
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