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The Craft of Weaving an Oriental Rug

The complex process of weaving and finishing a hand-knotted carpet includes at least 50 steps and utilizes about 300 people. A good quality 9x12 has more than 1.5 million hand-tied knots, 12960 feet of warp and about 24000 feet of weft, all of which require approximately 200 man days (10hr/day/man) to weave. Finishing a carpet (washing, clipping, selvedge) requires an equal amount of time. By the time it is shipped our carpet has required about 3500 man hours for completion.

Learn about the five stage process to making an oriental rug:

Designing an Oriental Rug

The first step involves design. Whether we are reproducing a rug for our Arts & Crafts or Southwest Looms lines the process is fundamentally the same. Ideally we physically take an original piece to India to be reproduced. An original piece is always the preferable template. Alternatively we put designs on graph paper and take them to India and, after 5000 cups of tea and a lot of brainstorming, come up with the desired design.

Brainstorming a new Egyptian Mameluke design A sketch of a new Mameluke Egyptian Rug Design
Brainstorming a new Mameluke Egyptian design taken from an original Mameluke rug.

Every rug is drawn to scale on graph paper with a grid the same as the knot density to be utilized. For example one square inch may have 10 horizontal and 10 vertical knots, equaling 100 knots per square inch (psi). Each size rug to be woven must be scaled separately and design elements modified as necessary for appearance. The color of each knot is painted onto the graph. The finished drawing is called a naksheh and is given to the weaver who places it onto the loom and reads it like sheet music.

To see the design process in action just click on this video!

Oriental Rug Fibers

Oriental Rugs may be woven with wool, silk and cotton or synthetic yarn. Antique Persian Rugs use wool, silk and cotton that was locally sourced. Some very high-end Persian Rugs used silk and even gold thread. Our own lines of Oriental Rugs are woven with New Zealand wool on a cotton foundation. Tibetan Rugs, which are prominent in the contemporary rug market, use wool from sheep grazed at high altitude in Nepal or Tibet.

Raw wool is supplied in bales and must be carded to align the fibers. This is usually done by machine. Once carded, the wool is ready to be spun into yarn. Two methods are commonly used: machine spun and hand spun. Machine spinning provides yarn of uniform diameter which produces a smooth, even-colored finish. Hand-spinning yields yarn with varying diameter, which produces a soft, variegated surface look. We use both methods in our rugs to achieve different effects depending on the design, whether it be for our Arts & Crafts or our Southwest Looms lines.

Spinning Yarn.

Traditionally, Oriental Rugs have either been woven on a wool or cotton foundation of intersecting warp and weft strings. A wool foundation is indicative of a rug being a Tribal or Nomadic rug. Cotton was commonly used in the towns and cities. On some very fine rugs, from places like Isfahan and Qom rugs use a silk foundation. Some of these rugs run at 600 knots per square inch and higher and were lovingly and painstakingly made.

Warp and Weft Oriental Rug Foundation
Oriental Rug Foundation

In the last decade many other fibers have appeared in the rug world. Perhaps most common is Mercerised cotton, which is cotton that has been given a sodium hydroxide bath. The result of the process is both a strengthening of the cotton fiber and a lustrous finish akin to silk. Up until recent times Mercerised cotton was the bane of any rug buyer, who needed to extract a fiber and apply heat in order to determine whether it was cotton or silk. The unscrupulous rug merchant stood to make a good profit by selling the cotton as silk.

Today, trying to detect Mercerised cotton is the least of our worries, as all manner of “Art-Silk” (effectively “Artificial Silk”) has been introduced into the market. The most commonly seen Art-Silk today is Bamboo Silk, which gives a rug a lustrous glow for a fraction of the price of genuine silk.

Image of Bamboo Silk Example of a modern bamboo silk rug
Bamboo thread and bamboo silk in a modern rug.

Dyeing Oriental Carpets

After the wool is spun into yarn, it must be dyed to produce color. Natural wool is transported to the dyer where two types of dyes are used.

Natural dyes are extracted from plants and minerals. They provide a wide range of colors, some of which are difficult to achieve with synthetic dyes, and are nearly impossible to consistently replicate. Natural dyes have been used since time immemorial and include red from the madder root, blue from the indigo plant, black from pomegranate skins, green and brown from walnuts, olive leaves and acorn cups, and yellow from more than twenty plants, such as saffron and chamomile.

Synthetic dyes are chrome based, give a huge variety of colors and can be consistently reproduced. Dye lots are hung out to dry, bundled, and transported back to the weaver where they are rolled into skeins in preparation for weaving. We use Swiss chrome dyes in our own Arts & Crafts and Southwest Looms lines. In order to provide color continuity between rugs yarn is dyed as needed, rather than stored in huge lots.

Dyed Yarn Awaits the Loom in India.
The dyeing vats of Fez Morocco
The famous dyeing vats of Fez, Morocco.
Indigo dyeing vats in Japan
Indigo dyeing vats in Japan.

Weaving an Oriental Carpet

To execute the design we must weave the carpet. The large volume producers these days use mechanized looms with computer programs to execute the designs. In comparison all of our rugs are hand-knotted, staying true to the traditional weaving arts.

Although this is not known for sure, in all likelihood the first looms were horizontal, laid flat on the ground. This theory gains credence from our knowledge of Asiatic Nomads, who generally wove on the ground.

Persian Luri Loom Image Bedouin Loom Image
A Persian Luri loom and a Bedouin loom

That being said it is intriguing to note that upright, vertical looms were also used at a very early date, as may be seen in this depiction on a Classical Greek Krater.

With all of our rugs we use a vertical loom. The first step is warping the loom. Cotton warp strings run through the carpet from end to end and may be recognized as the fringe in the finished product. The warp is wrapped as a continuous string and is set up to produce the required knot density. During warping every other warp string is passed through the heddle. Upon completion this allows the weaver to separate the warps and pass a horizontal thread, the weft, between them with ease.

Warp and weft construction
Angled view of Warp and Weft construction with knots shown in red.

After the loom is warped, weaving begins by placing a few rows of cotton weft at the bottom end. After this, the pile is tied to the warps knot-by-knot using asymmetrical knots until one entire horizontal row of knots is tied. Then 1-2 rows of horizontal cotton weft are applied and packed tightly with a comb hammer.

Rug Hammer Comb and Cutting Blade
Rug Hammer-Comb and Curved Cutting-Blade.

There are three commonly used knots, each best illustrated visually. These knots are selected depending on the rug that is being woven. They are the Persian, Turkish and Tibetan knots:

Persian Knot
1. Persian Knot
Turkish Knot
2. Turkish Knot
Tibetan Knot
3. Tibetan Knot

This process of tying knots is repeated row by row until the design is complete. One of our 8x10 rugs will contain between 576,000 and 1,152,000 hand-tied knots, depending on the type of wool used. Knot density can vary from 16 to 4480 knots per square inch.

To see a weaver in action on an upright loom in India just click on this video. You will be amazed at the speed and dexterity!


Finishing an Oriental Rug

Once a rug has been woven it is taken off the loom and the finishing process begins. Finishing involves many stages, including clipping the yarn to a uniform pile, wrapping selvedge along the edges, finishing fringe and washing and stretching. In order to see each of these stages with video click here!