Making Persian Rugs: Gathering and Dyeing Wool

Just How Handmade Are Persian Rugs?

When we say Persian rugs are handmade, we really mean it! Every part of the traditional Persian rug creation process- shearing the sheep, dyeing the wool, creating the yarn, weaving the fibers, washing and finish the rug, and everything in between- is done by hand. This month’s blog will focus on the first steps in the Persian rug creation process: gathering and dyeing the fibers.

We’ve included photos from both Indian and Iranian artisans in this blog post, as the overall rug making process is quite similar in both countries. We often refer to rugs of certain designs or that are made in the traditional Persian way as “Persian rugs”, even if they are from India, China, or another country that is not Iran.

Gathering the Wool

The Persian rug making process begins with gathering the fibers that will be used in the finished rug. Typically, Persian rugs are made of wool, so we’ll be focusing on the wool gathering and dyeing process. Although you can find rugs made of other materials or blends of other materials with wool, the average Persian rug is 100% wool.

Most Persian rugs are made of sheep wool. Although you can sometimes find rugs made of other types of wool as well, sheep wool is the most desirable. The quality of this wool varies widely, and not all wool is equal. The quality of wool is highly dependent on factors such as the diet of the sheep and the environment where it has lived. Additionally, different areas of sheep have softer or coarser wool. For example, the wool on the belly of a sheep is much softer than the wool found on their backs. This is because the wool on the belly is generally untouched by environmental stressors, like wind and dirt.

Shepherd Shearing Sheep
This shepherd is shearing his sheep. This usually occurs right before the peak summer months. The wool is high in oil content, making it desirable for use in Persian rugs. The sheep also gets a much needed haircut before the heat becomes unbearable.

Once the wool is sheared, it must be washed and spun. You can’t just start weaving with the unfinished wool! The wool is thoroughly washed by hand in large buckets of water. At the end of the day, even the softest wool still needs a good cleaning. The cleaning process removes impurities, such as dirt, small bits of plants, and other things that might find their way into a sheep’s coat. After it has received a nice and thorough washing, the wool can be spun into yarn, which will be used in the actual weaving process. Some rug makers spin their yarn using a spinning wheel, but many rug makers still spin the yarn by hand.

Women in India Spinning Yarn
These women are part of the rug making process in India. They are spinning the wool into yarn using a simple machine which requires a high level of skill to operate.

Dyeing the Wool

Next up is the dyeing process. You might be reading this and thinking that there is no way people still dye the fibers by hand. Think again! People still dye the wool by hand, and the practice is still very much alive in Iran.

Rug dyes fall into two main categories: natural dyes (also known as vegetable dyes) and chemical dyes. Some rugs are made using vegetable dyes, and some rugs are made using chemical dyes. There are pros and cons to both types of dyes. There are also some colors that can only be created using vegetable dyes, while other colors can only be created using chemical dyes.

Vegetable dye produces the traditional colors many rug enthusiasts love, however, it is also very difficult to reproduce these colors using vegetable dye. This is because there is a limited source of materials, and one batch of saffron based dye can look different from another batch due to the inconsistencies between harvests. Compared to chemical dyes, vegetable dyes age beautifully. The colors become more subtle over time as they fade, yet they still retain their initial beauty.

Women Making Vegetable Dye
These women are making dye using vegetables, which you can see behind them. The dye pigment is produced when the vegetables are ground up into a fine powder. Although these women are in India, the dyeing process is just like this in countries such as Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey.

Chemical dyes are far easier to reproduce. All one needs to do to reproduce the exact same color multiple times is to record the exact amount used. They also provide a more uniform look compared to vegetable dyes. Depending on your tastes, this can also be a negative attribute, as many people prefer the imperfect look that natural dyes have.

Man Measuring Out Chrome Dye
This man is measuring out the exact amount of chemical dye he needs in order to reproduce this color multiple times.

Pigments are poured into a dye vat. Next, the dye is mixed in. Once the mixing process is complete, the wool yarn can be added in. The wool is pushed in with a wooden paddle, spun around multiple times, and thoroughly mixed into the batch of dye. This is to ensure that the colors are applied to the wool fibers evenly. The fibers should be saturated in color with no blotchy areas or undyed spots.

Dye Being Poured Into a Vat
In Iran, this artisan is pouring the dye pigments into a vat. The pigment will be mixed with water, and then the wool can be dyed.

Once the fibers have been dyed, they are laid out to dry. After the drying process, the yarn is brushed thoroughly to remove any tangles and knots. Once that step is complete, the yarn is ready to become a Persian rug.

Wool Fibers Drying After Being Dyed
This wool yarn is drying off after being dyed. Click the image to view more photographs of the dyeing process from an Iranian wool dyeing company.

Antique Tapestry or Replica?

You may be asking yourself what kinds of long-lost wonders you could find in a Persian rug gallery after watching a certain CBS special. The special, “Long-Lost King Henry VIII Tapestry Found in NYC Rug Gallery?” covered the discovery of a tapestry believed to have belonged to King Henry VIII himself. Our very own Behnam Tavakolian gives his expert opinion on this news.

Behnam Rugs Tapestry CBS News
The tapestry believed to have belonged to King Henry VIII.

“I am not surprised to see a lost treasure has been found somewhere far away from its home and origin. Persian rugs, fine tapestries, and valuable textiles are often silently moved because they are easy to transfer. They are then hidden for years. It has happened once again; still, they hold their original value tremendously. The recent discovery of a long lost King Henry VIII tapestry in a Persian rug gallery in New York is no exception.

I have seen this often through the years of being in business. People bring in their family treasures, rugs, and tapestries for evaluation and restoration and are totally surprised when we tell them how old and how valuable some of their pieces are.”

One recent example is The Zucker family tapestry. Check out our blog post on that tapestry to see its transformation and restoration.

The process starts when a family member ask us to evaluate their grandparents’ rugs after inheriting it, and then request for us to properly take care of it. We appraise and restore hundreds of inherited rugs a year, and we always educate the  rug owners on how to properly care for their family heirlooms, ensuring that their rugs also last generations.

Mr. Tavakolian’s personal opinion of this “long- lost tapestry”, after watching a video of it and seeing pictures, is that this tapestry is a replica. It has been copied from the original design, in material, size, color, and workmanship.

The market was flooded with tapestries during the 1980s to the early 2000s.  Persian rug importers, with the help of Persian Rug designers from Iran, went into China to utilize inexpensive labor and produced millions of reproductions of fine tapestries. French tapestry makers also made lots of replicas of original tapestries in the late 1800s to early 1900s in France.

This tapestry has to be over four hundred years old to have belonged to King Henry VIII.  Even if it was only stored, the materials, hand crafted from silk,  cotton, and wool, would have become more oxidized and very fragile due to their organic properties.  Still, this could be the King Henry VIII tapestry if it was kept in a controlled climate storage with the  temperature, airflow, and humidity all regulated. The best way to determine the age of any masterpiece is by performing a complete fiber test.

How did King Henry VIII’s tapestry from the palace of Hampton Court of England end up at the Persian Rug Gallery in New York? You never know, maybe someone dropped it off for repairs and never picked it back up!

Last Updated: 26 August 2017

Tabriz, an example of the finest rug in the world

Tabriz, an example of the finest rug in the world.

You have a Tabriz rug if the designs are very sharp and clear to see.

These excellent designs makes your rug among the most beautiful and desirable of all Persian rugs.

Another easily identifiable trait of Tabriz rugs is the center medallion, many fine Tabriz rugs have a center medallion. A rug medallion is like the diamond on a ring.  The medallion can come in the diamond design and is normally found in the center you may have a very nice rug with matching designs in the corners like the rug pictured.

This Persian Tabriz rug is on display at Behnam Rugs, it is worth taking a look at with its regal patterns including flowers, branches, and all over intricate design.

An average weaver can tie between 4,000 and 8,000 knots in a day. This means that a 9′ X 12′ rug woven at 350 knots per inch can take over two years for one weaver to make.

Another sign of a fine rug is how close the knots or raj  are and how many knots make up the entire rug.  In Iran, most knot counts are measured in “raj”. One raj is the number of warp threads in 7 centimeters

The term Raj in connection with the name of Tabriz carpets refers to the number of knots in a 70 mm span range. The denomination 40 Raj refers to carpets with 400-500.000 knots/m2, 50 Raj to carpets with approximately 500-600.000 knots/m2, 60 Raj to carpets with 600-800.000 knots/m2 and 70 Raj to carpets with approximately 800-1.000.000 knots/m2. The last mentioned being extremely rare on today’s market.

KPSI Knots per square inch

Low KPSI starts at: 50

Average KPSI starts at: 400

High KPSI starts at: 600 & up

Can you count the KPSI of this rug?

This rug is on display at Behnam Rugs feel free to count the knots and feel the quality construction of all our rugs for sale.

Persian Tabriz Rug
Persian Tabriz Rug

A Short History of Tabriz Persian Rugs

The city of Tabriz in Iran sits in the northwest part of the country, near the border with Turkey. It is a major center of commerce because of its location.

Tabriz is also well known for the fine Persian rugs that are made in the area. The city is known around the world for its Persian rugs and has played a major role in the development of the decorative arts in Iran.

tabriz persian rugs dallas

An antique silk Tabriz Persian rug.

Tabriz has a rich history of rug making. It is one of the oldest rug making centers in the country and has one of the greatest variety of rugs. The rug designs range from medallion, Herati, figural, and pictorial.

A variety of carpets come from Tabriz, ranging from pile carpets to a flat weave. The craft of carpet making was passed on through generations, and this skill was considered the most valuable thing a family could have. Traditionally, Tabriz rugs focused on ornamental patterns with cream, red or navy blue background colors.

The designs for the Tabriz rugs are often taken from the writings of the great Oriental poets. They often show scenes of falconry or images of a menacing lion. Tabriz rugs are also noted for images of palaces, mosques and battle scenes. Other scenes have been inspired by the covers of ancient books.

The rug making tradition in the city was at a high point in the period from the 12th to the 16th centuries.

Later, during the 19th century, the city of Tabriz was home to some of the most celebrated rug weaving artisans, who carried on the tradition begun there hundreds of years earlier. Artisans in the city led the way in a renaissance of rug making, rugs that were made for the people of Iran as well as for export.

Their craftsmanship was unparalleled, and the materials they used were of the highest quality. Tabriz weavers made rugs with tightly-packed knots and complex floral designs. Some of the rugs produced there in the 20th century are among the finest ever made.

Tabriz rugs are unique because they have a double weft, most often made from cotton or wool, along with cotton warps. They also use both Persian and Turkish knots and a tightly woven double foundation.

If you’d like to look at some Tabriz hand-knotted rugs yourself, visit the Behnam Rugs showroom in Dallas. Give us a call at 972-733-0400 to make an appointment.

By Nazmiyal Collection (nazmiyalantiquerugs.com) [CC BY-SA 3.0]via Wikimedia Commons

A Brief History of Tribal Persian Rug Designs

Carpet weaving has always been an important part of Persian culture and art for centuries and among all the regions in Asia that produce hand woven rugs, Persian rugs are known for the variety and complexity of their designs.

In the past, Persian rugs were initially woven by nomadic tribes, in villages and towns, and even in the royal court. So, depending on where they were made, rugs represented different traditions, as well as the history of Iran and the different peoples who live there.

For example, the carpets woven in the Safavid court of Isfahan, a centrally located province in Iran, during the 1500s are particularly noted for their sophisticated variety of colors and artistic design. These rugs are important artifacts in museum and private collections all over the world. The design of these rugs is part of a tradition extending for the entire life of the Persian Empire, and extending up to today.

Dallas Persian rug cleaner

Detail of a Safavid court rug. Created in the 16th century.

Carpets woven in places such asTabriz, Kerman, Mashhad, Kashan, Isfahan, Nain, and Qom are noted for their unique weaving techniques, colors and patterns, as well as for the high quality of the materials they use. Rug makers in places such as Tabriz have been responsible for keeping the tradition of rug weaving alive during periods of historical decline.

Rugs that have been woven by different Iranian tribes all use high quality wool, radiant and intricate colors, and showcase their unique traditional patterns.

Weavers from small villages make rugs with simpler, livelier designs, which contrast with the more complex and planned out designs of the larger manufacturers.

The artistic quality of Persian rugs has suffered during certain periods in history, especially during periods of social unrest or change. One example of this was when synthetic dyes were introduced during the 1850s.

Today, carpet weaving is still an integral part of the Iranian economy. Today’s craftsmen have revived the traditional styles of using natural dyes and traditional tribal patterns, combining these with newer and innovative designs. However, the rugs are still woven by hand using techniques that were perfected hundreds of years ago.

Tribal carpets are produced by different ethnic groups with their own unique histories and traditions. They each have their own distinct knots, warps and wefts, selvages, ends and colors.

If you’d like to learn more about the history of Persian and Oriental rug designs, visit our Behnam Rugs showroom in Dallas. We’d love to show you some of their gorgeous designs and explain the history and meaning behind them.

Call us 972-733-0400 to make an appointment.

Image by Safavid court manufacture, Persia, 16th century (Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg, Germany) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons