LONDON, Oct. 1, 2011 – One of the many fascinating things about rugs is the many different ways they are made.
In some places they are hand-kotted with traditional designs that date back thousands of years. In others, they are partly or entirely woven by machines and there is constant innovation.
The result is a variety of rugs so great that it is easy to get lost in a sea of choices and terminology.
To make sense of this vast world of weaving, Tea & Carpets recently sought out an expert who deals with it daily.
We asked Tony Sidney of Rug Store North East, Britain's top rug online retailer, to describe the main ways rugs are produced today and why.
Sidney says the terms to know are hand-knotted, hand-loomed, hand-tufted, and power-loomed. Each kind of production offers qualities the others do not.
Hand-knotted offers the quality of the most human contact between the weaver, her or his creation, and the rug buyer. When the design is a traditional one, the rug is a message from one culture to another and across both space and time.
Here is an Afghan Kunduz rug, available from Rug Store NE. It is an example of the traditional "red rugs of Central Asia" that continue to be woven today.
But because hand-knotting is laborious and time-consuming, many rug producers have for centuries also sought ways to machine-assist weavers.
One way is to use a loom that is powered by the hands and feet of the operator. This method, particularly used in India and other parts of Asia, speeds the weaving of kilim-like rugs which don't require a knotted pile.
A more recent innovation, since the 1980s, is hand-tufting, which helps weavers quickly produce a piled rug that resembles a knotted one but without actually tying knots.
Here is an example of a hand-tufted rug in a classical oriental design, available from Rug Store NE.
In hand tufting, the weaver pushes wool or a man-made yarn through a matrix material using a hand-held pneumatic gun. Later the yarn is trimmed to create the pile and an adhesive backing is affixed to the rug to hold everything in place.
Sidney says that because hand-tufted rugs can be made faster than hand-knotted rugs, they are generally less expensive.
Yet the tufting method also creates a highly durable rug which, when produced by a skilled craftsmen, can accurately depict even intricate designs.
After hand tufting, the next step in mechanization is machine-looming. The photo below is of a machine-loomed Qashqai available from Rug Store NE.
The use of machines to make rugs has a rich history, beginning in 1800 century with the first mechanical loom invented by Joseph Jacquard of Lyons, France. But large-scale machine production of carpets did not begin until 1839, when Erastus Bigelow, an American, invented a steam-driven loom.
The steam-driven loom dramatically upped the productivity of weavers. A single weaver suddenly could produce 25 square yards of carpet in a workday of 10 to 12 hours, compared to 7 square yards of carpet before.
Ever since, the invention of new machines and synthetic fibers has greatly stimulated the manufacture of rugs and carpets. Today, the technique is used to make copies of all kinds of rugs in western and oriental as well as modern designs, with wool or synthetic fibers.
So which of the many different kinds of woven rugs sell best?
Sidney says the biggest market exists for machine-loomed rugs. At his store, he says, "the largest selling machine-woven rugs at the moment are probably shag pile rugs with the main production coming from Belgium and Turkey."
Turkey – and Bulgaria – are also rising producers of machine-loomed Oriental rugs. "Turkish and Bulgarian wiltons (named for the Wilton Loom they are woven on) are becoming more evident in the market as Belgian ranges in traditional Oriental designs seem to be slowing down," Sidney notes.
The next bestselling rugs, Sidney says, are hand-tufted rugs in both contemporary and traditional designs.
Rug Store NE, for example, stocks mainly Chinese production with a large variety of qualities available -- including high-end wool and silk ranges from Nourison, the world's leading producer of handmade area rugs. Here is an example in wool.
For both machine-loomed and hand-tufted rugs, it is price, availability of programmed sizes (especially larger sizes) and choice of colors that seem to be the main reasons for their popularity over traditional hand-knotted rugs. Rapid and large scale production means distributors and customers can count in advance on find the size and colors they want.
Does that mean that hand-knotted rugs -- the small fish in this sea of production – one day will be crowded out of the market?
Sidney sees no danger of that.
"There is still no substitute for a genuine hand-knotted Oriental rug, woven by a experienced weaver using good quality wool and dyestuffs," he says.
He adds, "We will always have a select group of customers who know the difference and are happy to pay for a good quality hand-knotted piece that will far outlast any machine-made rug."
(The picture at the top of this page is a detail of a medallion in a hand-knotted rug from Pakistan reproducing a William Morris design.)
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