As you stroll through the bazaars to the insistent voices of carpet sellers inviting you to their store for a closer look, you might get your defenses up, so having proper ammunition in your battle for a bargain will prove imperative. They say “knowledge is power,” and knowing the trinity of carpet buying will arm you to be both informed and confident in what to look for.
Traditional Persian carpets are handwoven on a loom, so one of the most important features to look out for is the knot count. A quality rug will have at least 120 knots per square inch. To at least feign the appearance of a carpet connoisseur in front of the seller, flip it over and look at the knots from the underside. You’re not expected to count them, but the back of a carpet has much to say. A handmade one will have a soft backing with a few bigger knots, a clear testimony to being woven by hand, whereas a machine-made one will raise an eyebrow due to its knot uniformity.
Handwoven Persian carpets are typically made of wool, silk, or a wool-silk blend. The 100% pure silk rugs are quite fine and have a shiny finish. Wool, on the other hand, is the most commonly used material. The quality depends on the breed of sheep, the climate, pasturage, and time of shearing. Don’t mistake these two quality flame-resistant materials for the synthetic fibers of machine-made carpets, which are highly flammable and tend to give off lint.
Traditional Persian carpets are made from natural dyes, so you want to look for colors that seem to come from nature: cochineal insects for reds, the indigo plant for blues, and pomegranate rind for shades of yellow. Synthetic dyes tend to penetrate the fiber evenly, whereas natural dyes will coat the surface. Bend the carpet to isolate a few threads, and if you notice a subtle unevenness, then you know you’re dealing with natural colors.
Now that you know the three most important factors to look for as far as the rug itself, there are a few other points to consider to help you narrow down your choice even further.
Prices for Persian carpets vary about as much as the dizzying array of floral and geometric patterns do, so first and foremost, set a budget for yourself. Silk rugs will be on the expensive end of the spectrum—with a more difficult to obtain material and higher knot count comes a higher price. Because wool is more readily available, wool rugs will be more affordable. Limited budgets can even consider the new trend that has become quite popular: quilt-like carpets made with squares of old rugs patched together.
Think about where you want to place your carpet and what you’ll use it for. Although they may be the ultimate luxury item, silk rugs are less resistant to stress and therefore serve more decorative purposes, such as being hung on the wall. Wool rugs are more practical, incredibly durable, and can handle a high volume of foot traffic for decades (even centuries) without showing signs of distress. And for those who have young children, they are excellent at disguising any spills or mishaps!
Not all Persian carpets are created equal, and it’s not unusual for novices to mistake a gelim (a flat woven carpet) or a gabbeh (a pile rug commonly woven by nomads) for a “traditional” Persian carpet just because it’s from Iran. These varieties are beautiful in their own right, but be sure you know the difference so that you don’t invest in the wrong one.
Floral? Geometric? Paisley? Traditional? Tribal? Depending on what area of Iran they come from, carpet patterns differ greatly. Get a feel for what your options are as you walk through the bazaars or window-shop. Rest assured, there’s a pattern out there for everyone.
Finally, nobody wants to be taken for a ride, so a bit of haggling is in order. But when it comes to Persian carpets, you get what you pay for. And while you don’t want to overpay, something too cheap will eventually be indicative of its quality. As a good rule of thumb, remember that you are investing in a piece of art. Persian carpets are painstakingly labor intensive, with weavers sitting hunched over a loom creating thousands of knots for several months to several years depending on the size. It’s curious that such works of art are then placed on the floor so that people can walk on them. In the end, as long as you think you’re paying a fair price, consider it a good deal.