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What is a Persian Carpet?

"Persian carpet" is not the same as "carpet made in Persia". In fact, the exact meaning might vary from speaker to speaker, but most probably means "individually knotted pile carpet bearing a traditional persian design pattern or picture". A carpet made in China, India or Pakistan might still be called "Persian" because they imitate the Persian designs and production techniques, though some speakers try to use the more exact terms "Sino Persian", "Indo Persian" and "Pak Persian". (There is a change regarding Kashmiri Persian carpets, more often just called Kashmiri.) A carpet made in Iran using modern knitting machines bearing a non-traditional design would not be called Persian carpet. On the other hand, carpets made in countries that developed styles different from Persian styles, might still be loosely called "Persian carpets" in a collective sense, though "oriental" might be the more appropriate qualifier but that leaves out the north african countries whose carpts are often included in a comprehensive discussion of "Persian carpets".

The wall to wall carpets laid in offices and homes are made in long rolls of standard width using machines that weave wefts (cross threads) between warps (longitudinal threads) and add different coloured yarns sticking up to form the carpet pile surface. Individual rugs made by machines usually apply a different method called tufting: a base cloth of cotton or jute gets an added pile by hooking or punching different coloured yarn through holes between the threads of the cloth. (It is sometimes necessary to seal the floor facing surface of the carpet with latex to hold the tufts in place, especially with cotton cloth.) However when we refer to Persian carpets, we usuall mean one with a pile created by putting individual knots of yarn on warps held on a loom, and then adding sets of wefts each holding down a row of knots, gradually creating the carpet base layer and the pile together. This process is difficult to mechanize, so a "knotted" carpt usually means one that has been weaved by hand.

Not all Persian carpets get used as floor mats; some finely weaved rugs, especially small rugs made of silk, have attractive pictures or traditional patterns so that people hang them up as wall decoration. Saddle bags and shoulder bags with knotted outsurfaces are also made, probably more to be used as wall hangings than for their original purposes, at least for those exported to the west, whereas those put to actual use are likely to be made in simpler ways. Cushion covers with pile surfaces are also available, though rather expensive relative to alternatives.

Please see rug paintings portfolio. View Slideshow Many of the indoor scenes are "orientalist", in fact mostly harem scenes and rather decadent.

Persian makes

Different localities adopt different weaving techniques and vastly different traditional designs, which may be based on a central medallion, with a pair of pendants hanging off its two ends and four corresponding spandrels in the corners enclosed inside the carpet borders, or some repeated motif based on flowers and other familiar figurings, in particular the tribal "gul" that is representative of each region. Such starting points usually result in an overall symmetric pattern. There are also prayer cubicle, vase or tree of life designs which would be one-directional. The compartment design, dividing the surface into a set of squares or diamonds each containing a small picture, is favoured in some localities. Virtually all the designs include sets of three borders, a wider one between two narrow ones, each containing repeated figurings of some type, most commonly flowers or some close derivatives.

It is common to separate persian carpets into three categories - tribal, village and city. Tribal carpets are supposed to be made by nomads that migrate with their herds, and whenever they stay at a spot with water and grass that would last some period, they set up their simple looms to work on carpets that may be already partially made in their previous location. Because looms are repeatedly dismantled and re-assembled, the weaving on the same carpet may be uneven, and this is supposed to add a primitive charm to the products. Village carpets are made in peasants' homes and are of more uniform standards, but the material used would not be up to modern levels and production techniques are simpler. The carpets made in city workshops can be much finer in material and workmanship, with complex and carefully crafted designs prepared by experienced artisans and mass produced according to painstakingly worked out procedures by trained crews. Though actual conditions may not be quite as described in the three paradigms, there are certainly clear differences between the types, with carpet collectors showing strong personal preferences to the many choices.

To varying extents, rug designers have been influenced by the taste of buyers from Europe and USA, and many "traditional" looking designs might actually have a short history, especially in the colour combinations. In fact, it was common for importers to change carpet colours by bleaching and dyeing/painting them in the early days; today they merely order rugs to be weaved to their preferred specifications.

I have found three rug makes particularly to my taste. Qum, a relatively recent centre for carpet production, is known for small, all silk carpets, though it also produces high quality wool rugs. Its designs are usually some eclectic combination of older designs from other localities, which are often frowned upon by traditionalists, but which I find refreshing and modern. The very fine Qum silk rugs with intricate pictures and patterns command high prices in the west, but I personally prefer the wool rugs; the silk Qums seem to me quite unsuitable for walking on, while even the finest wool rugs remain functional.

Among the traditional designs, the Bijar pattern based on a series of concentric hexagons I found particularly appealing. The successive layers of the hexagons are filled with different coloured Herati forms, made up of floral figures (one is the so called Mahi or fish-eating-lotus sign, having two leaves shaped a bit like two fishes surrounding a flower with the three items together evoking the idea of an open fish mouth swallowing the flower, interpersed with differently coloured flowers each enclosed inside a diamond or a hollow square formed by four leaves, sometimes a more complex combination) laid out on a square grid, but because of changes in the colour combinations as we go from the inner to the outer hexagons, the grid pattern is broken into a mixed set of fields that provide both variation and unity. Bijar carpets are weaved in a way that makes them particularly thick and dense, with what amounts to two layers of warps due to the insertion of a very thick weft between the front and back warps, and have the reputation of lasting forever as thicker piles take more time to wear down and tighter weave resists fibre pulling. However, their rigidity makes it undesirable to fold them for transport or storage, and instead they should be rolled. (It is preferable to roll side-to-side, bending the wefts, rather than end-to-end bending the warps, which, in two layers, are more subject to stress.) If you find a Bijar that has been folded, it probably is not of the highest grade.

Both Qum and Bijar carpets tend to be expensive; a less expensive make is the Bakhtiari, which most commonly come in the compartment design with floral and sometimes animal pictures in the individual boxes. They are usually coarsely knit (100 knots per square inch is regarded as quite fine already which for Qum and Bijar is more like the start rather than limit) and some dyes used are on the garish side, though with a tendency to mellow with age, as the organic compounds (called "vegetable dyes" though few come from edible vegetables) oxydize, unlike chemical dyes which might maintain the original colours longer, or at least, would fade or change colour differently from the organic dyes. There is a Joshegan style which sort of combines the Bijar diamond with the Bakhtiari compartments, dividing the carpet field into a set of diamond shaped floral patterns with a large one in the centre, whereas the Bakhtiari compartments are usually rectangular, while the diamond shaped compartments are all over the field without a central medalion.

Other prominent carpet producing localities are Kashan, Tabriz, Nain and Isfahan, at least in terms of amount of supply likely to reach the markets in the west. Of these probably the more numerious items are the Nain Shishla and Nolah grades. Shishlas are woven with threads of 6 twined strands, and Nolahs with 9 strands so the warps are more widely spaced and knots larger. The finer Charlahs, with threads of four strands, are not so available. The rugs are mostly wool but with fine details knotted in silk yarns, producing quite refined designs while keeping costs moderate, especially for the less fine Nolahs. However, I myself found the Nain designs rather bland, frequently using the same circular medalion with radiating petals like a chrysthanthemum which seems to be favoured because it is used to make smaller, circular rugs so that many are trained to do it. Their colour combination also tends to be rather pale. Somehow, they do not manage to achieve the classic grandure of Isfahans and the better Tabrizs (Tabrizs can vary widely in quality) or the somewhat quirky approachability of the Qums. One thing worth mentioning: many Tabriz carpets use the Mahi flower grid like the Bijars but instead of straight sided hexagons, they use curvy almond- shaped diamonds to partition the carpet field into different colour sections, providing a sophisticated contrasting "bend" to the more "forthright" Bijars, but without the same thickness, tightness and strength.

The Gabbeh ("rustic" - the pictures look rather like Paul Klee's Morocco paintings) variety, featuring simple designs often without floral borders, a plain monochrome background (sometimes with non-uniform colouring as yarns dyed in separate batches and therefore slightly different are mixed within one carpet), and crudely made little figurings knotted with coarse yarns (50 knots per inch or thereabouts) and very thick pile, became fashionable in the West in recent years for its natural unaffected charm, though in my own view Persian Gabbeh carpets do not appear to be clearly superior to the much cheaper Indo Gabbehs and one might just as well settle for the latter, which are also more widely available from home furnishing outlets in the west. Gabbeh is a style rather than a place or tribe name, though mostly done in the Qashqai region. The "regular" Qashqai region carpets usually have the Qashqai diamond, or hexagon/octagon if corners are nipped off, either as the central medallion, or in a string to produce a "pole medallion" as in the Yalamehs, also quite popular in the west, and they would have little Gabbeh figurings, knotted out in finer detail, as surroundings of the medallion. These would be for sale to others, while in the past the Gabbehs were for the use of the makers themselves.

Most interesting to me are the prayer rugs, mostly the rustic types from Baluch tribes but there are also very fine products that are probably more for general use than just for praying, which require relatively small and thin types that can be easily rolled up and carried around . Please see prayer rug portforlio. View Slideshow All prayer rug designs have the two spots where you place your two hands while kneeling on the rug in the direction of Mecca. They do not necessarily show a mosque scene, though some are meant to show a mosque niche.

Several middle eastern and central Asian countries other than Iran have their own carpet industries, and their individual designs provide interesting alt- ernatives to Iranian makes. Besides producing some imitative Persian carpets, both China and India have their own traditional designs. The Chinese designs tend to have a monochrome background, with traditional symbols like dragon, phoenix, peony, etc, and patterns derived from good luck characters like Shou (longevity) and Fu (blessing). The Indian designs are usually based on large floral figures, occasionally Mughal themes. While Pakistan and Kashmir have not produced designs of their own, their products provide cheaper substitutes for those made in Iran, with Kashmiri silk on cotton carpets perhaps the best value in view of the high cost of Iranian silk carpets (but do realize that very cheap ones are made of artificial silk;silk is more brittle than wool, especially those with loose weaving, and could not take much traffic).


The most common material used as carpet yarn is wool, which comes in many grades. Generally, sheep raised in higher altitude locations have finer wool. The Kurk wool, taken from the belly of Iranian highland lambs, and Kashmiri wool, are generally considered to be the best. Because wool threads are not very strong, if they are used for carpet warps, they cannot be set on high tension to produce a very tight weave and fine patterns, for which stronger warps and wefts made of cotton, sometimes silk, are used. Today only some of the nomadic carpets are still all-wool, but it is more common among antique carpets.

Silk, being stronger than wool, can be made into thinner threads, whether used only for the pile with cotton warps and wefts, or for the whole carpet with thin and closely spaced silk warps and wefts, which may be used to create the finest carpets with over 400 knots per square inch (i.e., over 20 warps/wefts per inch). Silk also has a shine that ordinary wool cannot attain; however, the oil content of Kurk and Kashmiri wool leaves it with a more subdued shine which can also be quite attractive. Silk carpets usually show a different amount of shine depending on which direction you look, because the sides and the ends of the pile threads reflect light differently. Wool fibre being more curly and less uniformly aligned, the directional effect seen with silk carpets is usually not so prominent. (The fibres are normally made more curly by being spun twice, once clockwise, the so called Z-twist, and once anti-clockwise, the S-twist - a S2Z3 yarn consists of 6 threads after clockwise spinning 3 threads together, and anti-clockwise spinning of 2 composite yarns - so that individual fibres bunch together for mutual support and do not get pulled so easily)

Cotton is commonly used as warps and thin (sinuous) wefts - wool is usually only used for the thick cable weft which adds body to the carpet base layer, while silk/cotton threads provide the strength; however, silk yarn are sometimes used to insert fine/shiny details in a mainly wool pile. Some supposedly silk carpets are actually of mercerized cotton, processed to produce a lower grade shine. Rayon is sometimes used also. Such "art silk" carpets, however, tend to have an inferior look.

Synthetic fibres are often used for machine knit carpets. Because the material has an electrostatic effect of attracting dust, they are difficult to keep clean and usually need replacing in a matter of years. Well made Persian carpets, in contrast, can last for generations if reasonable care is taken, with regular vacuuming to remove dust lodged among the pile fibres (the dust causes damage, like sand left on a floor rubbing on the surface when you walk on it), and an occasional washing to remove stains and stuck on particles. The gradual fading of the colours can actually make the appearance better by producing a more subdued, mellow look.

Some old carpets have been auctioned as antiques (over 100 years) or semi antiques (over 50 years); however, generally speaking, carpets should be regarded as long term possessions that are useful and enjoyable to the owner, rather than as investments: rugs are not usually "negotiable instruments" since they are subject to personal preferences causing a lack of "liquidity". When someone says "this carpet is an investment item", one should not take it to mean "capital appreciation upon resale", but more along the line "rising price for similar items would make you feel happier."

It might also be of interest to mention that soles of athletic shoes are much more damaging to rugs than smooth leather soles or bare feet, as they do not readily slide over the pile but tend to grip and tear, especially if dust and sand have been caught in the grooves.


Creating a carpet knot usually involves putting a piece of yarn around two neighbouring warps. If you loop the yarn around one warp and merely go behind the other warp and come out again without creating a loop, you have made a persian knot; if you loop the yarn around both warps and pull the ends out between them, you have created a turkish knot. However, some carpets made in Turkey use the persian knot, and quite a lot of the carpets made in Iran actually use the turkish knot. Knots that wrap around single warps do not help to hold the carpet base together resulting in a weaker product, while those that involve more than 2 warps produce a less dense pile more likely to wear away exposing the warps and wefts to rubbing. (These are respectively called the spanish knot and the jufti knot.)

Comparing persian/turkish, it is easier to create fine patterns on a carpet with Persian knots because the two ends of each knot yarn are separated by a warp, producing an even distribution of pile ends. The Turkish knot produces two ends between one pair of warps and none in the neighbouring gap, unless you have a "depressed warps" (or offset warps - more below) arrangement with half the warps hidden behind in which case we have two pile ends of the same colour between each successive pair of front warps.

Carpets vary greatly in thickness, which may be due to the pile, the base or both. Using a longer thread for each knot produces a thicker pile, but tends to make the pattern on the surface more fuzzy as threads of different colours mix up, unless the weaving is very tight forcing each yarn to stay in place. A carpet which is both thick and having fine picture therefore tends to be expensive. Finely knit silk and wool carpets are usually thin and less hard wearing, making them more suitable for floor areas with low traffic, while thick carpets with coarser patterns are more suited for high traffic areas. Depressed warps increase the thickness of the base as well as the tightness of the pile, and the carpets made this way usually also can have thick piles without making patterns fuzzy.

When you lay out the warps on a loom by wrapping threads between the upper and lower beams, the warps are in two rows with even warps in front and odd warps behind, separated by a shed stick to create some space to work in between. Lowering or raising the shed stick makes the angle of separation larger or smaller, depending whether you are adding the knots or tightening them. After a row of knots have been laid, a thick cable warp (usually the same material as the pile yarn) is inserted between the two rows. Then a thin warp (usually the same material as the warp thread) is threaded in front of the front warps and behind the rear warps. This can be achieved with the help of a loom component called the heddle, a rod placed in front of the loom (some looms are horizontal, and the heddle is held above it using a tripod of three sticks to which the heddle is tied by rope) with a set of thread loops which go between the front warps and loop around the back warps. Pulling the heddle causes the back warps to come out between the front warps so that the thin weft is simply passed between the two warp rows, after which the heddle is released returning the back warps to their original positions, but now with the thin weft behind them. This switching back and forth can also be done by moving the shed stick up and down if the heddle has been set in a particular position.

By pulling the sinuous weft tightly and pressing it down hard on the row of knots (using a comb-like tool) you bring the two sets of warps together and tighten them against the knots and the wefts, before starting on a new row of knots. The ends of the wefts are wrapped around the leftmost and rightmost warps to form the edges of the carpet. In machine tufted carpets, the edges are usually sewn on the base cloth after the pile has been added, and this provides a simple clue to look for when trying to discover whether a carpet is hand knotted or machine made. Similarly, whereas the fringes of a hand knotted carpet are just the excess ends of the warps and integral to the rug (indeed, poorly secured fringes may lead to the unravelling of the carpet), those of a machine knit carpet are separately tied in.

When you tie a persian knot, you have the choice of looping around the front warp and only going behind the back warp, or do the looping around the back warp which takes a bit more effort, and just go behind the front warp. These choices produce carpets with the open back and closed back wefts. The two constructions have different kinds of problems when the carpet suffers wear: the open back, whose back warps are less "crowded" than the front which have the knot loops, exposes part of the wefts, which tend to slip behind the knot loops instead of fitting between them, to rub on the floor instead of just the back of knots; whereas the closed back exposes the front warps, which do not have knot yarns going around them and so are open to the front, when part of the pile surface wears thin, especially at the edges. If remedial action is not taken, the weft/warp can break causing the carpet to unravel. Losing the fringes of the warps at the ends is another cause of potential unravelling that could be prevented with early action.

When the turkish knot is used to link a front and a back warp, you can produce a double knot carpet: instead of pulling the back warps forward to go between the front warps, you maintain the two rows and press them close together. The back warps are said to be "depressed" or "offset" with respect to the front ones, and you are able to pack twice the warps and knots in the same width producing a much denser carpet, as between each pair of the front warps there are two ends of the same yarn. If the closed back persian knot is used, the two ends between a warp pair come from neighbouring knots and may be of different colours, which may contribute to fuzziness of pattern.

I have only discussed knotted carpets with a pile surface (believed to have been invented by nomads trying to reproduce something similar to fur). The persian carpet industry also produce flatweaves that have warps and wefts but no pile, so that the pictorial design is achieved by the use of different coloured wefts requiring a very different set of weaving techniques. Such products tend to be thinner, and though they could be used as floor coverings, especially if you use a latex underlay to enhance bounciness and prevent slipping, I find them more suitable as quilts or tapestries rather than as carpets.

A few items of my own: