- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 18, 2002

Oriental rugs come in so many colors and patterns and can date back so many years that customers must rely on a rug dealer's savvy in selecting a quality rug. Dealers, in turn, know that pushing an inferior product could cause customers to look elsewhere for their next rug.
It's a delicate balance, but the beauty, history and practicality of these rugs makes the required investment of time and money more than worthwhile to their owners.
Sumru Belger Krody, associate curator of the Textile Museum's Eastern Hemisphere Collection, says an Oriental rug can be defined in slightly different ways.
She sees it as any rug produced in a specific cultural and geographic environment, typically by hand. Imperfections are expected, and they add to the artistic nature of the rugs.
The oldest existing Oriental rug, the Pazyryk Carpet discovered in southern Siberia, dates to the fourth or fifth century B.C.
William R. Seward, co-owner of Trocadero Textile Art in Northwest, says Oriental rugs sometimes are the saddlebags, blankets and wraps other cultures use in daily life.
Rugs differ from other artistic mediums such as painting in one key respect, Mr. Seward says.
"Paintings have the introduction of ego. Rugs don't," he says.
"Rugs express a group identity," says Mr. Seward's wife and
fellow shop owner, Jane Seward. "That's how you can tell where a rug is from."
An Afghan Turkoman rug, for example, typically uses shades of dark red and asymmetrical patterns.
Most rugs, the Sewards say, are made outside the United States.
"We don't have a feel for it as an art form [here]," Mrs. Seward says, citing a lack of cultural or spiritual content.
Customers sometimes opt for Oriental rugs even if their homes have no practical need for them.
Richard Jensen, 50, used to have wall-to-wall carpeting in his District apartment. His wife, Beth, had grown to love Oriental rugs during the 1960s while studying in Lebanon.
Two years ago, the couple decided to try laying an Oriental rug on top of the existing carpet, so eager were they to include such rugs in their home. Mr. Jensen says they liked the way the new rug looked so much that they abandoned their carpeting and installed hardwood floors to make way for more Oriental rugs. Last month, they bought three such rugs.
"Our interest is mostly for the aesthetic quality," Mr. Jensen says of the rugs, which retain some of their value over time. "There's some comfort to be taken that they have a resale value, but we're not planning to do that."
His rugs come from Turkey and Tibet and show a variety of colors and geometric shapes. Turkish rugs bear both geometric and curvilinear shapes, and the country's prayer rugs feature intricately detailed pattern work. Tibet's rugs are thicker than other rugs and are made with rich, natural dye colors.
Joshua Nabatkhorian, owner of J&J; Oriental Rug Gallery in Old Town Alexandria, says customers want newer rugs created in the classic traditions of their countries of origin.
That said, he acknowledges that the older models remain a draw.
"I cannot keep antique Oriental rugs in the store," says Mr. Nabatkhorian, a third-generation rug dealer.
He says seven countries provide the bulk of new Oriental rugs Iran, India, Pakistan, Turkey, China, Afghanistan and Russia.
Mr. Nabatkhorian says rugs from Iran have been popular of late, particularly after the trade embargo was lifted 1 years ago.
The value of a given Oriental rug depends on a variety of factors, including where it was made, what materials were used, the crispness of the design and the number of knots per square inch. The latter measure, if high, allows for curvilinear designs and makes the rugs more durable. Rugs range from about 50 to 500 knots per square inch.
Mr. Seward's shop deals exclusively in natural-dye rugs.
"The best dyes are natural dyes. That's what tribal groups used traditionally," he says.
"It doesn't fade in sunlight. It doesn't blend when you wash it," Mrs. Seward says.
Aniline dyes, common artificial colorings, will fade with time and exposure to sunlight, Mrs. Seward says.
Today's new rugs can be broken down into two categories.
"Programmed" rugs, a term that dealers use, describes rugs that are mass-produced using synthetic dyes with little artistic interpretation.
Non-programmed rugs use real dyes and allow the weavers to be more creative.
"There is more intrinsic art in the rug. The weavers are encouraged to put themselves into it," she says.
The average rug takes a year to weave, with two persons working full time on the project, but because labor fees are much less overseas, the rugs are less expensive than one might think.
However, the price for your average Oriental rug is anything but average.
A Gabbeh rug, a simple design from Iranian villages, is one of the more affordable rugs. It can cost about $1,000 for an 8-by-10 rug. A standard Oriental rug can run up to $2,000 but also can rise as high as $10,000.
Rug experts implore customers not to fall for the various "going out of business" rug sales or auctions that pop up around town.
"If it's going out of business, there's nobody to bring it back to," Mr. Seward says. "[The dealers] can tell people anything; then they're gone."
His store, like many others in the city, stands by its carpets and will repair loose threads or other structural imperfections.
A discerning buyer can get a feel for a rug's quality by touching it.
"The best wool is a little bit sticky, based on the lanolin content," Mrs. Seward says. Dead wool feels like "overtreated hair."
Silk-made Oriental rugs, though, are nearly impossible to distinguish from their phony, rayon-based counterparts.
Armen C. Babaian, a third-generation rug retailer and president of the Milwaukee-based Oriental Rug Retailers of America, says rug sales nationwide have slowed a bit during the past year but typically are steady.
Mr. Babaian says would-be buyers should shop around before committing any money to a rug.
"Become comfortable with the dealer you're talking with. You're forming a relationship that's going to last," he says. "If anything happens, he'll repair [the rug] for you."
A list of reputable dealers can be found on his group's Web site (www.orrainc.com).
Different shops reflect different tastes in Oriental rugs, Mrs. Seward says.
"I tell people to go to a bunch of stores to find out what they like," she says. "What we have here reflects our aesthetic. Every story has a different character."
Reputable shops often allow customers to take a rug home to see how it will work with the customer's furnishings and interior design.
Mrs. Krody, whose museum offers a library filled with information on the subject, says if Oriental rug owners have questions about their rugs, they can visit her museum's free consultation sessions, held the first Wednesday of each month. Museum experts can help determine the rug's country of origin, how it was produced and the materials used.
Those curious about the rich history of Oriental rugs can visit the Textile Museum's current exhibit, "The Classical Tradition in Anatolian Carpets," on display through Feb. 16. The selected Turkish rugs date to the 15th century.

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