What are Oriental Rugs?

Mary McMahon

Oriental rugs are rugs which originate in Asia, a continent with a rich rug-making tradition. The term also typically encompasses Middle Eastern rugs such as Persian carpets. Many people associate oriental rugs with high quality materials and luxury, which is why they tend to pop up in florid novels. Many rug stores sell oriental rugs in a wide array of sizes, shapes, and styles, and it is also possible to purchase them directly from rug making cooperatives in Asia and the Middle East.

Silk cocoons. Oriental rugs can be made with silk fibers.
Silk cocoons. Oriental rugs can be made with silk fibers.

Because Asia is a very large continent, it should come as no surprise that oriental rugs can come in a variety of forms. Typically, most people mean a handmade rug when they refer to oriental rugs, and many people think specifically of knotted rugs with pile which is often very thick and plush. However, oriental rugs can also be flat woven, as in the case of Afghan kilims, traditional flat woven carpets which have been made for centuries in much the same way.

Good oriental rugs are characterized by several things. The first is the use of natural fibers like wool, silk, and linen. The fibers used in a rug vary, and typically the rug starts out very stiff, because it is designed to endure years of hard use. Oriental rugs benefit from being walked on, as walking softens the fibers, essentially breaking the rug in. A second distinctive characteristic of oriental rugs is rich, vibrant colors, although colors in more muted natural tones are not unheard of.

Finally, oriental rugs often have complex patterns, whether they are knotted or pile woven. Floral themes are very common, although oriental rugs may also depict landscapes, historical scenes, and mythological figures. Some have purely geometric designs, and all tend to be very intricate, with complicated repeating patterns which require a fine eye for detail to execute correctly.

Some examples of oriental rug families include Anatolian rugs, Persian rugs, Central Asian rugs, Tibetan rugs, Chinese rugs, Kurdish rugs, Turkestan rugs, and Caucasian rugs. All of these rug families are quite large, encompassing a range of traditions, styles, patterns, and construction techniques. Some people also focus on antique oriental rugs, collecting beautiful examples of hand made carpets which may be two or three hundred years old. Antique collectors should be careful, as some rug companies are not below artificially aging their rugs so that they fetch a higher price.

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