In this guide, we’re going to look at the history of rug making, what type of rugs you should consider for your home, as well as what to look for, and what to avoid.
An ancient art dating back thousands of years, the area rug is one item in our home that hasn’t gone out of style. While modern homes are trendy, even the most minimalist designers use heirloom-quality rugs to add a touch of elegance and sophistication.
The cost of rugs is as diverse as the designs and while some can be found for under $100, there are many that cost small fortunes to procure. Today, the traditional craftsmanship once treasured has transformed into the lowest cost labor available, or mass-manufactured rugs for big home stores around the world. Since we’re all about helping you find quality and enduring value, here is some history and tips to help navigate you around the world of heirloom-quality rugs.
The History of Area Rugs
Since the dawn of man, area rugs have been in existence. From animal hides salvaged for warmth under the feet in cold rock caves, to palm leaves, hay, and other vegetation being used in the forests as protection from the elements, there is no doubt that area rugs have a deeply rooted history that dates back to the beginning of evolution.
Initially, area rugs – as we know them today – were used for practical and protective purposes. In cold climates, they provided warmth and a comfortable and cozy bed to sleep on. In more tropical climates, they were often used for protection, from thorns, sharp rocks and even wildlife. Constructed from various materials found in nature, some tribes would focus on skinning animals for their hides, whereas others would use reeds and plants that they would weave together into a rug. In some areas, these rugs were handed down from one generation to another, and were often the family’s most prized possession due to the work and energy it took to make one.
Our most primitive cave drawings, scriptures, and novels showcase numerous references to these rugs. Some of the processes still used today were created thousands of years ago, and handed down through instructional writings and drawings.
The tombs of Egypt and Mesopotamia have given us evidence that shows flat weaving was used and even pile rugs have been dated back to 2,000 BCE in Asia and the Middle East.
The “Pazyryk” carpet, dating back to the 5th century BCE, was found in the late 1940s by Sergei Rudenko, an archeologist from Russia. He found the carpet while excavating a burial site in Siberia. Frozen, deep in the confines of the ice, the rug survived due to the subfreezing temperatures which helped to preserve it. The rug, a beautiful and richly designed piece, is believed to have been made in Mongolia, featured a hand-knotting technique called Ghiordes that is still in use today. Even though it is argued by some historians that the first woven pile rugs were made in Mongolia, it is widely agreed that it is the Persians who perfected it.
During this time, nomads throughout Asia became the first group to mass-produce rugs from the wool harvested from the sheep they were known to breed
In Europe, the use of pile rugs is believed to coincide with events through history as tradesmen imported the rugs around the world on their travels and as military advanced into new war zones.
For most of England, however, rugs were not in use by society until the beginning of the 17th century. For most homeowners, hay was laid down as a rudimentary rug, and only the Royal family had their hay replaced daily by their servants. This was noted in the writings of Paul Hentzer, a traveler from Germany, who witnessed the relaying of fresh hay at Greenwich Palace in 1598 for Queen Elizabeth.
As the centuries passed, and the members of society increased their wealth, members of nobility began to use the Persian-style rugs as decor in their homes, as well as for comfort. It wasn’t long, before it was fashionable to have rugs throughout your home. Over the years, having beautiful rugs was important for a wealthy estate. In commissioned oil paintings, families would often request their rugs be painted into the portraits. For much of the century, England relied on importation from Asia, before learning how to manufacture the rugs themselves, in the latter part of the 18th century.
The popularity of rugs has continued to grow. Following World War II, Belgium and other European regions began to mass-produce rugs made by machine. This continues today, and although they advertise these rugs as being high-quality, nothing compares to the handcrafted rugs they aren’t well equipped to make.
Today, there are historic rugs still in existence and many quality rug makers from around the world, but they can be difficult to weed out from among the many inferior rug products on the market.
Characteristics of Area Rugs
An area rug is a decorative textile designed to cover an “area” of a room, which differentiates from the common bath mat or a door mat which cover small, functional spaces. An area rug may cover an entryway, a dining room, a living room, or a large area of a bedroom. Area rugs are traditionally laid over tile, wood, or other smooth cold surfaces to warm up, define and accent a space.
Choice is not a problem in today’s market for rugs; they are widely available at home remodeling stores, furniture stores, big box stores, rug boutiques, design stores, and the list goes on. Since rugs are so ubiquitous, shopping for one can be a pain because it’s hard to know where to go, what to look for, and how to be sure you’ve gotten something good. Here are the different characteristics to look for in a rug.
The choice of material in a rug is a key factor in determining price, durability, and design.
Natural, real oriental silk is protein made from amino acids that is very fibrous. The silk fibers are difficult to create and take great care and attention to make. They’re made from the cocoon of the silk worm, and although there are cheaper ways to obtain it, the purest silk is often used in the highest quality of rugs available around the world. If you are looking for an heirloom-quality rug, silk is probably your best bet.
Since silk is such a strong material when stretched, it has a natural luster that shines and creates rich and vibrant colors when the silk is dyed. What’s important, is that when trying to acquire a silk rug, that you confirm it is 100% natural silk, and not a blend, or worse, an artificial or counterfeit silk that’s inferior in quality. Just because the price is high, does not mean that the quality is. Although it may appear similar, fraudulent silk is effortlessly made with cellulose-based rayon, or even mercerized cotton that is treated with an abrasive solution of soda and stretched by machine so it appears similar to the real thing.
Wool is quite possibly the most optimal material for rugs. It’s also the most traditional option that comes from a renewable source. There is a reason that rugs have been made from wool for centuries; it’s strong, resilient, colorfast, looks clean even when quite dirty, and are often painstakingly hand-knotted.
Cotton is the third material typically used to make hand-knotted rugs (in addition to wool and silk). It can often be found in the warp threads that form part of the structure of a rug, but not in the visible pile. Cotton is also found in flat woven rugs, which is ideal for smaller rugs that can then be washed. Cotton pile rugs, while strong and natural, can felt and attract dirt.
Every synthetic fiber has been used for rugs including rayon, polyester, acrylic, viscose, and nylon. They all have their benefits, but they are primarily used to produce rugs less expensively than natural materials. This makes synthetic rugs ideal for high traffic areas where frequent replacement and cleaning is expected.
Sisal and Jute
You may have seen that many mainstream companies are selling rugs that appear to be made from grass and then edged with a border. These rugs are made from sisal, the versatile natural fiber of a type of agave plant that is used in a wide variety of products.
If you prefer a natural looking rug option, sisal is a great choice for certain uses. It doesn’t build up static or trap dust, so it’s useful for high-traffic, dry parts of your home. It doesn’t tolerate moisture well, so it’s best to keep it away from rain, snow or spills.
Jute is another natural vegetable fiber that is cultivated for a variety of uses. The final fiber is used in burlap, rugs, twine and rope among many other uses.
Construction & Knot Density
There are many different ways to construct a rug these days, but traditionally all rugs were woven. You can tell if a rug was woven by looking at the back side; you will see the exact reverse of the pattern on the front.
Hand knotted rugs are completely handmade on a loom. Each tuft of material is looped and knotted to create the pattern visible at both the front and the back of the rug. Even though it sounds similarly labor intensive, hand-tufted rugs are much quicker and cheaper to make, because the rugmaker uses a “tufting gun” to push the looped material into the backing. To secure the loops, a “scrim” filler layer is applied and glued with latex glue. Finally, this is covered by a backing material, so you won’t see the pattern or glue showing on the back side of the rug. Unfortunately, the scrim and latex filler will typically disintegrate over time (hence the backing), giving a hand-tufted rug a far shorter lifespan than a hand knotted one.
Machine made rugs (also known as power loom or Wilton woven) are less ambiguous in terms of their construction, and they can be created with materials that match the quality of hand-knotted rugs. In fact, machine made rugs are often passed off as hand-knotted rugs.
Hand-hooked rugs generally come from China, and they have no pile. The overall appearance is similar to needlepoint or embroidery,
Flat-woven rugs have no pile, and can be constructed of almost any rug material. The pattern is the same on both sides, so it is essentially reversible. The flat profile makes them prone to slipping, so a rug pad is necessary.
Braided rugs are an early American creation in which strips of old fabric were braided together to form rugs. They are inexpensive and are often used in kitchens and porches, and are still an art fair staple in the US.
While some rugs appear very fine and others offer far coarser textures, there is a vast range of knot density used in between. In most cases, it will range from a fine density of 290 knots per inch to a bold 30 knots which creates a very coarse rug. In the majority of cases, the finer the rug, the higher the quality. This finer knot density allows the design to pop and appear more vibrant and defined. In addition, they reflect light beautifully, and can even be used as a decor technique to create ideal lighting in a room.
Natural or Synthetic Dyes
These terms are usually pretty easy to distinguish between when we discuss quality. Of course, like anything you buy, natural materials almost always supersede synthetics in terms of quality, enduring value and longevity. What is important to remember, however, is that the cost of using natural dyes will typically bump the price of a rug upwards of 25-45%. Although it is difficult to distinguish between the two types of dyes, it is important to remember that natural dyes will ensure longterm value and fetch a higher resale value in the future, should you ever decide to part with your rug. On the other hand, synthetic dyes come in a myriad of shades and colors, and don’t tend to fade over time.
Traditional rug designs have fallen out of favor in the last few decades as tastes have become more casual. The formal nature of traditional designs includes a rich, bold color palette with intricate floral patterns laid out with a border and a central point of focus. Tribal rugs feature the traditional designs of different rugmaking areas with geometric patterns in equally rich, if slightly more monochromatic colors.
Tribal designs are an excellent choice for more modern tastes that want a traditionally made, high-quality rug. Traditional formal designs are good for formal dining and living spaces, traditional homes with elegant woodwork, and for people who simply prefer to have one bold statement piece to tie together a room with minimal patterns. Finally, modern designs using simple color and pattern combinations are perfect for clean, understated spaces.
Country of Origin
The terms Oriental and Persian rugs are often used interchangeably, and some would argue that the definition of this kind of rug has changed over time. From a traditional standpoint, an “oriental” rug is a hand-knotted piece that comes from one of the original rugmaking countries in Asia, such as Iran, Afganistan, Turkey, or India among others, while “Persian” specifically refers to a hand-knotted rug from Iran.
Differences Between an Investment Rug and a Disposable Rug:
An Investment Rug features:
- A much higher price point
- Persian or Oriental by origin
- 100+ knots per inch
- Can be hand knotted or machine made, but the pattern should be visible on the back
- All natural fibers, such as silk, wool or cotton without the addition of synthetics anywhere
- Can be difficult to determine the materials, origin or age of a rug
- Potential lifespan of decades
- Hand knotted rugs are typically a one-of-a-kind
A Disposable Rug features:
- A lower price point
- 30-100 knots per inch
- Any synthetic material in the rug, whether it be throughout or just in the glue or backing
- Scrim and glue that can disintegrate over time
- Can be steam cleaned on the surface at home
- Potential to hold or emit odors as the backing breaks down or absorbs scents
- Difficult to deep clean and repair; costs can exceed the cost of the rug
- Potential lifespan of up to 10 years
Determine What Kind of Rug You Need
Rugs come in the full range of sizes, shapes, design, qualities and prices. Here are the questions to ask yourself before beginning the process of buying a rug.
- What size rug do I need? Measure the area you would like to cover to come up with a range of dimensions that would work for your space. Many handmade rugs do not some in standard sizes, so make sure your range includes the widest and smallest measurement to the inch or cm. Allow space for a border of flooring around the edge of a rug if it will cover most of the room. In your dining room, make sure your carpet covers enough space so that chairs don’t hang off the edge of the rug when sat on or pushed out.
- What style am I looking for? Contemporary, monochromatic, colorful, tribal, or traditional? This choice will often narrow down the source, size, and price range significantly. Traditional rug makers are making more and more contemporary designs, but you’ll find classic oriental floral patterns still dominate the high-quality rug world. Rugs are especially good for rooms in which the other patterns are simple or on a smaller scale, such as a dining room.
- How long do I want to own this rug? If you like to change your interior design, rearrange rooms, move often or are hard on rugs, you will probably only need a rug to last for 5-10 years. If you want to invest in a rug you can keep and use for decades, then you’ll want to buy the highest quality rug you can afford.
- How much foot traffic and dirt will this rug be exposed to? Dirt and traffic are hard on rugs, so it’s wise not to put an expensive, thin rug in an area that is exposed to a lot of activity. Animals and children can be particularly hard on rugs, and while an expensive Persian carpet is quite durable, not all stains can be removed from rugs, most especially animal urine and some food stains.
- Do I want a new, used or vintage rug? Vintage Persian rugs can be just as beautiful as new ones if properly cared for, but it’s a personal decision as to whether you prefer new, slightly used, or vintage. New will offer the biggest selection and the highest prices while used and vintage rugs are more difficult to find but can offer a much lower price point.
- How much am I willing to spend? An area rug can cost $100 or $100,000 (or a million, but we won’t get into those rugs here), depending on the quality, material and origin of the piece. Reputable rug stores usually carry machine-made inventory beginning around $500 and handmade inventory beginning around $3-4,000. Note that handmade rugs are often the result of a single family’s entire year worth of work, so the price reflects the intense labor inputs of the final piece.
- How will I maintain this rug? A proper area rug will take some time and money to care for. Aside from regular vacuuming, a Persian rug will need to be taken to a specialized rug cleaner (though they often will pick up and deliver rugs) that will need two weeks to properly clean it. Machine-made rugs can typically be cleaned with a rental steamer, depending on the material.
- Am I concerned with the labor methods used to produce this rug? It’s important to note that, unfortunately, many of the rugs found in store today are made by children. The use of child labor is a global problem in the industry, and not one that can easily be regulated. The issue is that many of these rugs are made in private homes, and not commercial workshops. One way to try and avoid acquiring rugs made by children is to focus on the highest-quality area rugs and avoid inexpensive rugs made in Afghanistan, Nepal, and India. Of course, the best bet, is to look for the GoodWeave® label on the tag. Click here to explore the full range of GoodWeave buying options.
The sale of rugs, especially high quality, all-natural material, hand-knotted imported rugs, are still dominated by local retailers, many of whom have been in the rug business for decades. Good quality rugs are rarely inexpensive, and designs, sizes and color palettes can vary wildly, so this is one of the few things you’ll hear us wholeheartedly recommending that you buy locally. You’ll often find, that the very best purveyors of area rugs are the ones who are interested in educating you and are passionate about what they sell. They tend to publicly denounce child labor through their marketing efforts, and they personally inspect each rug made in high-risk regions around the world. If that simply isn’t your shopping style, or you’d like something in particular, here are a few online resources for rugs.
This organization supports women in rug making in Afganistan to break the cycle of poverty by providing stable income, access to healthcare and education. Take a look at ARZU’s extensive hand-knotted rug collection here.
Home Decorators Collection
While it can be nerve-wracking to buy an expensive rug online, the Home Decorators Collection offers the full range of rugs in the different weave styles that is clearly organized to avoid confusion. They also offer a 45-day money back guarantee so you can try a rug in your home with minimal risk. Check out the Home Decorators Collection of rugs by weave here.
Regardless of what kind of rug you get, choosing a quality rug over a discounted one will net you longevity and a better-looking rug. What style of rug do you prefer?