Turkish Rugs

On a recent trip to Istanbul (and isn’t that a great segue?), I had the opportunity to visit a Turkish rug store and learn something about this national art and how they are made. The store I visited was originally a caravansary built in the 1500s, a stop-over for camels as they traveled through the area.

Turkish (and Persian) rugs are pretty much the only furniture a nomadic people can carry and they’ve been produced since 3500 BC.  Used on both floors and walls as a means to insulate and regulate the temperature, they are incredibly durable and there are still existing rugs made in the 1500s.   Today, the handmade rugs are still produced in much the same way, including the use of natural dyes, and their sale often creates a daughter’s dowry.  There are an estimated 7000 weavers in Turkey today.  A visit to a rug seller is a hospitable affair, befitting the cost of a well-made rug, and begins with the offer of tea or a cup of that intoxicating Turkish coffee.

A rug is made of the warp (the vertical support system) and the woof (the horizontal support system) with the pattern produced by yarns knotted to them.  A Turkish (or Anatolian) rug uses a double knot like this:

The double-knot system lasts longer than the single-knot tradition of Persian rugs and I’ve seen 75 year old rugs that look as good as new.

There are 4 types of weaving: wool on wool, cotton on wool, cotton on cotton and silk.  Wool on wool (in which both the support system and the knots are from wool) are the most common because since families raise sheep, there’s no cost for the materials.  Because wool is a bit thicker than the other materials, the count of knots per inch is not usually a factor in the price.  They’re usually easy to identify because the fringes are gray in color.  Cotton threads are smaller and so allow for tighter knots.  Mercerized cotton, a process using lye to treat the cotton to make it more easily accept dye and to shrink the fiber, also increases the luster and may make it difficult to distinguish from silk. Silk, always tied on a silk background, may range from 64 to 400 knots per inch.  Not surprisingly, silk is the most expensive.

Turkish rugs are made mostly out of the Shia Islam tradition and although they may feature scrolling vines, arabesques and geometric patterns, they will not show any images of animals or people.  Many patterns are unique to the family that produces them.  Persian rugs, as a rule, are more flexible in the patterns they allow.

For those who are curious, brown dyes may come from walnuts, tan dyes from acorns, yellows from the leaves of apricot and peach trees, and, most traditionally, mint creates the green colors.  Green colors today usually come from a mineral source and, hence, are the most expensive color to make.  One advantage of natural dyes is that they do not bleed colors when wet.

Rugs come in various sizes, of course, and the smallest (and consequently least expensive) is the killim or prayer rug.  Most of the full size rugs that I looked at ranged in price from $2500 to $20,000 although a killim, or prayer rug, may be as cheap as $75.

If you’re fortunate enough to own one of these works of art, you’ll want to minimize its exposure to light and rotate it to minimize sun fading.  Humidity can also take its toll, but moths cause the greatest damage.  It should be swept weekly and be careful when vacuuming not to damage the fringe.  Beating is preferable.  They should be cleaned every 3 to 5 years, but steam cleaning can remove the natural oils (lanolin) in wool and that can make the rug more brittle.

I was astonished at the complexity, beauty and variety of patterns in the rugs I saw.  Too bad I couldn’t afford one.

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