Buying a carpet is a life-long investment for most people. So, it is a trifle surprising that not many people know what makes a good carpet, or even what are the factors that affect the quality – and by extension price – of an heirloom that is passed on from one generation to another. There’s another thing: what is expensive for you may be laughable for your grand children and their grand children, so in general, if you feel that rugs are an integral part of your home décor, it makes better sense to aim higher rather than take the bargain route.
There are several types of floor coverings: machine-made pile carpets, hand-woven dhurries, hand-knotted woollen carpets and hand-knotted silk carpets. In the international trade, no difference is made between the term rug and carpet: both are used interchangeably. There’s another thing, but this is a peculiarity of the English language: carpets are all
knotted, whether by hand or machine. However, when you speak of the process of making a carpet, you refer to it as
“weaving a carpet”. As a general rule, those rugs that will increase in value are the hand-woven or hand-knotted ones.
Afghan kilims made by tribal women on mobile looms are now worth their weight in gold. Their value lies in the fact
that the designs are not drawn beforehand, but are the result of imagination of simple, unlettered women all over the
tribal belt of Afghanistan.
Hand-knotted carpets are woven in Agra, Jaipur and Varanasi in India. However, they are all woolen carpets. The only
place in India where silk carpets are woven is Kashmir. That too, they are exact reproductions of the designs that
come from Iran. That is because carpet weavers are believed to have come from Persia (now Iran) in the 15th century.
Turkey is another centre of carpet weaving. Indeed, the two countries have developed their own system of knotting that
forms the pile of the carpet. The Turkish knot is symmetrical and is called the Ghiordes knot while the Iranian knot
is called the Senneh knot and is asymmetrical. In Kashmir, the Senneh knot is prevalent, though it has to be said
that there is nothing intrinsically “better” or “worse” about either style. What is certainly better, more painstaking
and results in a better finish is the single knot as opposed to the double knot.
But why is a knot required on a carpet at all? Simply to provide durability. Without a knot, the pile would just be
looped around the warp and weft that forms the largely invisible base of the carpet. Without the firmness of a knot to
hold it in place for generations, a carpet would be as limp as a towel and just as durable!
The concept of a carpet is to form a desirable layer underfoot. Thus, all over the world, the garden with verdant
grass and multi-hued blossoms is considered the best thing to walk on. Carpets seek to re-create that magic, which
is why flowers – natural and geometric – are the motifs for the vast majority of carpets. Vases of flowers, the tree
of life, hunting scenes and the niche that faces Mecca: the mihrab are other motifs. It has to be said that at first
glance, carpets like the Senneh hardly resemble gardens, but so stylized have the decorative elements become over time
that that is precisely what they are.
After at least three centuries of carpet weaving in Kashmir, the trade is organized like any industry. No carpet weaver
creates patterns from his own imagination like the Afghan tribals of yore. So, while you could argue that a “mistake” in
a tribal rug is the charming result of human error, missing a few lines in a Kashmiri carpet is not similarly quaint! The
carpet trade in Kashmir has several layers. The makers of combs and sickles cater to the weavers who use combs to press down newly woven knots and sickles to cut each thread of the pile after forming a knot. Dyers have on hand thousands of skeins of silk thread dyed in beautiful colours. These colours can be seen at shops in Zaina Kadal, Srinagar. You’ll notice that the range of hues is bright but never gaudy and this is what distinguishes a Kashmiri carpet from any other.
Then there’s the artist who represents the design of an entire carpet on a graph paper, who can be said to be the key
person in the entire process. From the design of the full rug, strips of brown paper are distributed to “talim” writers
who translate the graph into the patois of the weavers. This looks like a sort of shorthand and mentions the colours to
be used as well as the number of knots in each colour. This shorthand is perfectly intelligible to those who know the
“language”. To readers of Urdu, Arabic, Hindi or English, however, it makes not a whit of sense.
In the “karkhana” or studio, each weaver sitting at a loom will have a “talim” looped to his warp. He (or she) will
read the pattern while knotting furiously all the while. In some cases, when a whole studio with around six looms is
working on identical carpets, one boss will sing out from the talim while the weavers’ fingers move accordingly. For
those lucky enough to have seen the experience, it is almost as magical as being at a music recital.
Carpets, when fresh off the loom, have a certain rustic quality about them. They have to be beaten, the pile trimmed
and the entire carpet washed for them to resemble the product as seen in swanky carpet showrooms.
In between, there are plenty of things that can go wrong. The dyer could have too small a batch of one colour. When he
tries to dye another batch for the same carpet, it becomes slightly different. In the final product, it means that one
half of the carpet will be one shade and the other half will be another shade. When it is a matter of one of the minor
motifs in the design, the result is not so glaring, but try living in a room where the background of a carpet has two
different shades: it will drive you crazy.
An error on the part of the talim writer will almost definitely result in a fault in the carpet, unless the weaver is
so alert or so experienced that he catches it in time. Weavers who are not alert could, in extreme cases, “forget” one
strip completely, so that it shows up as a lop-sided carpet in which one side has a row of, say, three flowers but the
corresponding side doesn’t. This is a defective carpet and it would be a punishment to have in one’s drawing room!
The final point that can affect the quality of your carpet is the material. Because of the practice of re-decorating
one’s house every year or even every season, it is not feasible to buy an heirloom every few months. Dealers have worked
out a less expensive alternative: mercerized cotton. It has the approximate appearance of silk at a fraction of the cost
and at double the heaviness. Mercerized cotton – called staple in the Kashmir trade – is useful if you want a less
expensive look-alike, but is the grey underbelly of the trade when dealers pass it off as real silk. One fool-proof
test is to take out a single thread from anywhere in a carpet and burn it. Real silk burns slowly and will leave a
lump like the top of a match-stick; staple will burst into flame.
Finally, the warp and weft of your carpet is most likely made from cotton. When the pile is made of silk, your carpet
can quite legitimately be called pure silk or 100 percent silk. Occasionally – as when a very senior weaver is given
a carpet to weave – even the warp and weft is made of silk. This results in a far superior product which will command
a price of around 30 per cent more. Silk on silk as it is called in the trade, will always have the trademark silk
tassels and the carpet will be more supple than a silk on cotton one. Further, all silk carpets present two appearances
depending on the direction they are viewed from.
Double-knotting is a technicality that has the effect of diminishing the knot count of the carpet: single knots are
undoubtedly better as they provide a finer finish. But how do you tell which is which? It’s not difficult. Run your
palm over the carpet first one way, then the other. If one side is much smoother and the other is far more rough, it
is probably a double knotted carpet. This is not a fault: the majority of carpets woven in Kashmir are double knotted.
It just means that if you chance upon a single knotted carpet, you have found a superior product.
One last thing: first choose the place in your house where your carpet will go; then go out and look for a carpet for
it, rather than the other way around. Take care to ensure that if the carpet is a “one side design” which means that
there is a top and bottom to the design, you are going to place it in an appropriate corner: constantly viewing an
upside down mihrab or a tree doing a somersault is hardly good design. Then, photograph your house and take the
photograph along to be sure that the carpet you like best looks great in the place where you intend it to be.
Most Kashmiri rug dealers are nothing if not flexible: it’s not unheard of for the dealer to send a staff member
to your house with the rug/s of your choice to be sure that you have a perfect garden underfoot.