The Insider’s Guide to Purchasing a Quality Area Rug

Welcome back to our special e-learning series about area rugs! In part one, we shared advice on how to decorate with area rugs to create a well-balanced space.

For the second part of our series, we’ve gathered our clients’ most common concerns  about purchasing quality area rugs and brought them to Chicago’s leading authorities on rugs: Bernard Drzazga of Gallerie One Distinctive Rugs & Carpet and Neisan Rouhani of Matt Cameron. Both experts agree that before you shop, you need to understand how rugs are made in order to appreciate the quality and investment.

We’ve seen rugs described as machine-made, hand tufted and hand knotted. What are the differences in these processes?

Bernard Drzazga: Machine-made rugs are woven on power looms operated either by hand, machine, or computer, hence their alternate name, “power loomed.” Once design and colors are determined, a computer card is created which tells the computer which size and color rug it needs to produce. The loom is strung with a warp of jute, or sometimes cotton. The rug is then woven using wool, nylon, polypropylene, olefin, or another yarn. There are two types of looms used to create three different categories of Oriental reproductions: Wilton, Cross-woven Wilton, and Axminster. Each of these can be designed to achieve various pile heights, densities, finishes and qualities.

Hand-tufted rugs are affordable alternatives to authentic hand-knotted rugs. The pile side of hand-tufted rugs often looks and feels just like that of an authentic hand-knotted rug. The fast tufting technique enables the manufacturer to produce these rugs more quickly and with less labor, enabling faster delivery to the market. It is for these reasons that hand-tufted rugs can easily cost 10 times less than a hand-knotted Oriental rug of the exact same size. Hand-tufted are constructed by injecting a shaped loop of yarn loaded onto a tufting gun through the back of a canvas backing to form the pile (instead of tying an actual knot around warp and weft fibers). Tufted and hooked rugs differ because tufted rugs are sheared or cut to look more like carpet, whereas hooked rugs are left unshorn with the “U,” or hook shape, to form the pile. The height of the pile is determined during the making of the rug.

Hand-knotted rugs are by far higher in quality than machine made rugs or tufted rugs and will last through generations. The fringe in a handmade rug is actually the warp thread of the rug, running through the rug from end to end. The pile is tied into the warp threads using one of three traditional knots, the Persian knot, Turkish knot or Sennah knot. A weft thread is then woven in between each row of knots to secure them even more tightly into the rug. All this is compacted tightly to form a very dense and strong structure that can withstand many years of hard use.

Photo: Label STEP, Fair Trade Carpets

Photo: Label STEP, Fair Trade Carpets

Neisan Rouhani: Machine-made rugs are designed and manufactured in factories, with use of modern machinery and precise digital programming. A room-size machine made rug is usually made within a few hours and will last 5-10 years, depending on usage.

Tufted rugs use a net-like foundation, through which fiber is pushed by a gun. Glue is then used to hold the fibers in place, and canvas is used in the back of each rug to hide and protect the glue. The chemicals often create an unpleasant odor in tufted rugs, and the problem gets worst after each wash. Tufted rugs have a much shorter lifespan, but are not always less expensive.

A hand-knotted rug will take a few months to a few years to complete, depending on intricacy of design and weave, but will last for several generations! Unlike machine-made and tufted rugs, most hand-knotted rugs become more attractive and more valuable as they age.

Image: Matt Camron

Image: Matt Camron

Hand knotted rugs are made on wooden or metal frames. Vertical lines (warp), usually made of cotton, are stretched and tightened across the frame to form the foundation on which strands of wool or silk are tied into many single knots. Using different colors of material, knots are tied, one after another, in horizontal direction. Upon completion of each row, a new foundation line (weft), is stretched horizontally between the warp lines.  A heavy comb-like instrument is then used to press and secure each row before starting the next row of knots.

Photo: Matt Camron's Afghan Made Collection

Photo: Matt Camron’s Afghan Made Collection

The weaver must tie knots repeatedly, using the correct color of yarn in each designated spot, in order to complete the whole design.

What makes one weaver better then the other?

Neisan Rouhani: The comparison of one weaver to another depends on many factors, including density of knots, balance of design, proportions of dyes, quality of material, and of course, the durability factor of products.  As with any form of art, the artist is ultimately the subject of praise, or criticism. Designers, colorists and weavers of one workshop are often compared to another based on similar characteristics of products.

Naturally, the reputation of one will supersede the other based on many aspects, but most importantly imagination, uniqueness, and marketability of a product.

How are the fibers colored or dyed?

Bernard Drzazga: Yarn is dyed with either natural or chrome dyes. Natural dyes are derived from plant materials and insects such as indigo, madder, oak, sumac, pomegranate, cochineal and larkspur. Before the 1870s, they were the only source used to dye wool. Natural dyes tend to gently fade with time and therefore produce a sought after patina. in the 1920s and 1930s, chrome dyes came into use. These synthetic dyes are more steadfast and have a much wider spectrum of colors to choose from. Chrome dyes bind to the wool with potassium bicarbonate, which resists fading and does not weaken the wool. There are hundreds chrome colors to choose from.

Photo: Matt Camron

Photo: Matt Camron Afghan Made Collection

The dye used to create a desired color is very specific. A rug factory has a “dye specialist” who consults a book for the exact color formulas and ingredients. A rug dye is not an item that can be bought at a store and poured into a vat. Multiple colors must be combined at a specific temperature, and the yarn must remain in that dye for a specific duration. If the water is not the right temperature, or the yarn is not submerged for the right amount of time, then the entire batch could be deemed useless. The specialist must also take into account the effect that the weaving will have on the dye. Unspun yarn has a deeper color than yarn that has been woven into a rug.

What should I be looking for on the back of a rug?

Bernard Drzazga: On a hand-made rug, you will see the back of each knot and a crisper view of the pattern. You should look to see that the rows of knots are straight and not wavy since this will distort the pattern you see on the front. Another thing to look for on the back of the rug is the number of knots that a rug has in a square inch. Intricate designs can have anywhere from 200 to 500 plus knots per square inch. Although you should not judge a rugs quality solely on its knot count since many hand made rugs, mostly tribal patterns have much fewer knots and are still works of art that will last generation.

Be sure to visit Matt Camron Rugs & Tapestries and Gallerie One online or make an appointment with one of our designers to shop at their impressive showrooms in the Merchandise Mart.