Stories from the Silk Road - Magic Carpets

Added over 8 years ago

Magic Carpets

If there's one item you should really try to take home with you from this part of the world, it's a carpet. The Silk Road passes through all the best countries famous for making carpets, either now or in the past, and the choice is endless. I have been lucky enough to pick up a few prized pieces over the years and here's some of the info I've picked up.

History  Today, Persian carpets are the most famous and Iran certainly does have some great buys, especially now that its currency is so weak. Historically, however, Persian carpets came to prominence only in the 16th century (Shah Abbas I's reign, 1587-1629, marks their peak); before then, the best carpets were made in Central Asia and it was this region that was first known as the Carpet Capital of the World. Bukharan carpets (Bukhara is the capital of the Bukhara Province of Uzbekistan) are particularly famous and have a distinct, rectangular design, usually in a dark red colour. Going further back, what is now western China was actually the original home of carpets and during the first millennium AD a Khotan carpet was considered supreme, though nowadays most of the carpets in this area tend to be made in factories.

Silk  If you are going for a silk carpet you should be able to really haggle the price down as most vendors find these harder to sell. Make sure the base is pure silk as well as the carpet itself and check the knottage (see below); that said, silk is so fine the knottage is bound to be exceptional so it's really down to which one you like the best. Be warned though: if you do buy a silk carpet think twice about putting it down on the floor - even shahs and emirs would reserve their silk carpets for decoration rather than everyday use as they are very difficult (and expensive) to clean.

Wool  For a pure wool carpet with a wool base, the three primary factors when establishing its worth are its design, its age and its knottage. If it was made by a cooperative or factory it will probably carry a standard design. If it has been made by an individual or family (often the case if it's from a small village or from nomads) the design will follow a general theme but will have certain idiosyncrasies which make it unique and therefore more valuable.

Detail from a handmade wool Bukharan carpet

The chances are that because it has a wool base in the first place it is quite old (modern practices tend to use a cotton base). Anything over 30 years old is considered valuable purely because of its age but if you are going to use the carpet on a floor where it will be regularly trodden on, you might not want to buy one that is too old.

Cotton  For cotton-based carpets, the same rules apply but there is one other thing to look out for. The strands of cotton that form the back matting are not actually individual strands but three thinner strands wound together. These three strands are also, in fact, made up of very skinny strands wound together, too. The important thing is how many skinny strands are used. If it's three, 3x3 equals nine so the carpet is called a ‘nine line' carpet; if it's four, 4x3 equals twelve so it's a ‘twelve line'. Obviously, a ‘twelve line' strand is thicker than a ‘nine line' so fewer knots are need to complete a row and these are cheaper. Cotton is thicker than wool and keeps its shape much better, making it easier to work with, which is why cotton backs are favoured today.

Knottage  For knottage, you will have to trust the vendor to a certain extent, because unless you have a very strong magnifying glass with you, you cannot count individual knots with the naked eye. Most vendors quote their knottage in knots per square inch. Anything made in the last 50 years will probably be 350 knots, 500 knots or 750 knots, though the latter is quite a rarity. If the carpet is a real antique, the knottage could be an irregular figure, as each maker would determine the knottage according to how long he could afford to spend making it. The more knots per square inch the more a carpet is worth. If you go to see a carpet being made you will see that a ‘knot' is literally a knot - the maker will wrap a piece of wool around two strands of the base, tie a knot and move on; when he (often ‘she') has finished his row he will trim the loose end (hanging on the front side of the carpet) and reveal the pattern that the knots have made. If a carpet maker is only producing a low-knottage carpet, he will tie his knot around four strands of the base, or six, and so make his job quicker. A high-knottage carpet will take over a year for one person to make. One way to check just how well-made a carpet is, is to turn it over; the pattern on the back should be tight and precise and almost as clear as the front - the better defined the pattern is, the more knots will have been used and the carpet will last longer without losing its shape. Don't expect too high a knottage from nomads' carpets - their unique designs are their strengths.

Sharna with a beautiful handknotted Iranian Chubi in the background

Patterns  Trust your instinct and go for the pattern you like best - the chances are you are not going to sell it when you get back so don't think of it as an investment but rather as a piece of furniture for your house. Make sure you fully unroll the carpet and that it lies flat on the floor, for bumps and misshapen ends are signs of bad workmanship or wear and tear (if the rug is really old, it is very likely that it will have been put to good use at some stage in its life so don't worry about the sides being perfectly straight; wool by its nature tends to stretch and change its shape; cotton-backed rugs, however, should be perfect). Try to avoid modern dyes, as they will fade much quicker than traditional dyes, especially in sunlight: modern dyes should be obvious because they are so bright but sometimes you can't tell (although the older carpets the more chance it will have been made with wool coloured with natural dyes). Old carpets might have been washed to make the colours bright again but this isn't a problem - newer carpets, however, might have been washed to fade their colour so they can be sold as older carpets, so beware.

Bukharan Carpets    The dark reds, scarlets and crimsons of Bukharan carpets are famed throughout the world but the story behind them is a complex one. Traditionally, the best rugs were woven by the skilled fingers of the nomadic women from the surrounding deserts (notably Turkmen women). It was only because they were then brought (often hundreds of miles) to market in Bukhara in the hope of an inflated price that the town became synonymous with the wares.
It's a bit like what happened on the Panama Canal where hats made far away in the mountains of Ecuador were brought down to be sold to visiting cruise-liners: hence our preference for a ‘Panama Hat', rather than an ‘Ecuador'. 
Bukharan carpets come in all shapes and sizes, and their patterns depend on the tribes/families who have made them. Certain symbols and designs are handed down from generation to generation, although now many factory-made items just copy whatever is in vogue. A good place to look is Tim Abdulla Khan, a silk-weaving and carpet center next to Telpaq Furushon Bazaar.

Styles  Different countries have different styles in the design and feel of their carpets. This might be because of the type of wool they use - different sheep breeds have different wool - or the way the carpets are cut. If a carpet is really soft, almost silk like, it might have been made from the wool cut from a sheep's neck, which is finer; if it's really thick and firm it might have been made from camel hair - thick carpets are actually better for everyday use because they'll last forever. Turkmen tend to cut their carpets short so that they're almost oily to touch but how long the wool is doesn't matter.
A Tibetan pure wool carpet

If you can't afford a carpet, you can opt instead for a Kilim, which is a bit like an unfinished carpet. With no back they are so much thinner and have loose knots on the reverse. As a floor covering these won't last as long but can look good on your wall (you'll find them in most places you find carpets, especially bazaars).

Buying  The first decision you need to make is how much you want to spend as this will dictate which type of rug you go for. For a silk carpet expect to pay a US dollar sum in four figures, even for an average-sized, 6ft x 4ft (1.8m x 1.2m) piece. For a pure wool carpet on a wool base (back) you will be looking at upwards from US$400. For a modern, handmade (but in a factory) wool carpet on a cotton base, you can pay as little as US$100-150. In my opinion Pakistan has the best selection of all the countries en route because its buyers gather carpets both locally and from Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia, and the prices are still cheap. The authorities are not too strict on exporting you carpet home either.
Bazaars will always be cheaper than shops. Try to get down to half the opening price in bazaars, whereas in shops you might have to settle for two-thirds.

Getting your carpet home  Whichever you choose, do make sure you check out the export regulations for the country you intend to buy in. As long as your carpet is not considered an antique, you should be allowed to take a 6ft x 4ft from any of the countries along the Silk Road but many customs officials (particularly in Central Asia) demand a ‘special fee' (which is often amounts to little more than a bribe to be pocketed). Most carpet shops will offer to ship your purchases to your home but this works out as almost the same price as buying an imported carpet in your home country.

Special Note:  There are several books on carpets, their manufacture and their designs but probably the most interesting is Christopher Kremmer's Carpet Wars. Kremmer is an Aussie writer who has spent several years in these countries and has written this thought-provoking travelogue set against a background of the carpets and carpet-sellers he has met.

At Kashgar in Sydney we have a collection of handmade carpets and kilims for sale that Bernard Heaphy has personally sourced on his travels through Central Asia over the past 20 years.  The majority of these fall into the category of pure wool rugs handmade by an individual or family living in remote villages or in a nomadic lifestyle, although we do occasionally source cotton, wool/cotton and silk/cotton rugs too.  While Bernard sometimes buys these rugs from bazaars and marketplaces, he prefers to buy directly from "shouldermen", the family men who bring their own weavings to town markets once or twice a year and walk up and down the main street with their year's produce over their shoulders.  This way, Bernard avoids the rug salesmen middlemen and is able to pass on all the money he pays to the weavers themselves.  If you would like any further information on our collection of carpets or would like to view a few of them, please contact us at


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