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  • Writer's pictureMarni Jameson

Don’t Let Oriental Rug Sellers Pull Wool Over Your Eyes

The more I learn about Oriental rugs, the more baffled I get. In my experience, choosing one is the single most difficult home design decision one can make. That’s because so many factors need to click: material, pattern, scale, quality, motif, size, colors, and wiliest of all, cost. How do you know if the seller is pulling the carpet wool over your eyes?

Yet, a well-placed Oriental rug, that is one hand-knotted from Asia, can be the soul of a room. Which is why many designers suggest that, when decorating a room, you start with the rug. Of course, that’s fantasyland. In the real world, rugs come last. “That’s a beautiful rug, honey, but what are we going to sleep on?”

I have several of these rugs, which I’ve collected over the years, and would not part with, but recently I learned they’re not from where I thought they were.

Doubts surfaced while I was in an Uber. I got to talking with the Uber driver, that trustworthy of all sources, who was from Iran, where he worked in the rug trade. Naturally, I started asking questions like why is there so much distrust, price haggling, lying, and fraud in his business?

I showed him a picture of a runner in my entryway.

“Made in India,” he said, “in the Mamluk tradition, very common.”

“The guy who sold it to me was from Turkey, and implied it was from Turkey.”

“Well, it might have come from Turkey, but it was made in India.”

This seemed far-fetched enough to be true.

For clarification, I called Robert Mann, owner of Robert Mann Rugs, in Denver, one of the foremost rug authorities in the country. “The industry is not transparent,” he said. Mann has worked in the rug industry for 45 years. He has made, repaired, sold, cleaned, and appraised rugs. Today, he runs a large rug cleaning and repair facility.

Yes, he explained, Turkey was once a major producer of rugs. But as the country got richer around 1990, fewer women wanted to spend their days weaving. (Can you blame them?) Production plummeted. “Around that time, the country lifted its ban on importing foreign hand-woven rugs, he said. As a result, Turkey became full of rugs that weren’t Turkish.”

And that is how, though Turkey still makes some rugs, its rug dealers sell rugs made elsewhere.

I send him pictures of four rugs I thought were Turkish. Two are what he called Af-Pak refugee rugs. Likely made in Afghanistan, they harken back to the days after Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979, driving its citizens to Pakistan, where they plied their craft. The other two rugs Mann said were made in India, including the entryway rug, as the Uber drive had said, in the Mamluk tradition.

By this point, Mann could have told me that Santa’s elves wove these rugs during their off season in the North Pole. Regardless, that wouldn’t change my feelings toward them. I don’t care where they’re made. I do care that these are beautifully handcrafted pieces of a dwindling artform that dates to 400 BC, and that they add warmth, color and, yes, soul, to my home.

“You don’t buy an oriental rug as an investment,” Mann said. “You do it to make yourself happy. That’s the only logical reason. The value comes from your appreciation and enjoyment of it.”

While we average consumers can’t always know a rug’s provenance like Mann and some Uber drivers can, here’s what we can consider when assessing a rug:

· Knot count. The more knots a rug has per inch, the finer the rug, the more time it takes to weave and the higher the value. “In the Middle East there’s a saying,” Mann said. “You can tell how rich a person is by how thin their rugs are.” Put a ruler on the backside of a hand-knotted rug and count the number of stitches per inch each way. If you get 10 knots up and 10 across, the rug has100 knots per square inch (kpi), and 14,400 per square foot (100 x 144 square inches).

· Labor. In one day, the average weaver working at a loom might tie 6,000 knots. On a 9x12-foot rug, three weavers working side by side (three feet per weaver), could collectively tie 18,000 knots in a day. A 9-foot-wide rug with 100 kpi would have 129,600 knots for every foot-length of rug, and would take three weavers seven days to weave, and four months, working five days a week, to finish a 12-foot rug. That doesn’t include the time it takes to harvest, spin, and dye the wool.

· Cost per square foot. That is how the industry calculates cost, and you should, too. Say a producer’s cost, for labor, materials and to ship rugs to a U.S. warehouse, comes out to $15 a square foot. He will generally sell rugs to a buyer for twice that, or $30. That buyer then tags the item for retail sale at three times that, or $90 a square foot, but he’d be happy to get $60. Keep this supply chain in mind when negotiating.

· Fact check. Years ago, the occasional unscrupulous drug merchant gave the industry a bad name, Mann said. “Fortunately, today the Internet can vet a lot of lies.” Go into a store and ask questions. What type of rug is this? Where was it made? What’s it made of? (Look for 100% wool on cotton.) How many knots per inch? Take notes and pictures. When you find out it’s, say, a 16/18 Pakistan, search Google images to find out what it should cost.

· Gut check. Every rug dealer knows you can’t buy a rug without seeing it in your home and will happily load it in your car. Put it down, see if it works, and, most important, make sure you love it.

CAPTION: Art appreciation — Buying an Oriental rug, such as one like the hand-knotted Turkish Usak rug pictured here, can seem like a mysterious process, but it becomes less so when you know how these rugs are priced and what to look for. Photo courtesy John Bonath.

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