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 finishing 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.