Persian Rugs 101

Persian rugs have been wowing the world for centuries. They feature classic motifs, rich colors and come in an array of styles. Here’s a Persian primer to help you unravel the differences between a Balouchi and a Bidjar, or a Qum and a Qashqa’i.

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March 23, 2020
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Photo By: Jessica Glynn

Photo By: Christie’s

Photo By: Christie’s

Photo By: Christie’s

Photo By: Christie’s

Photo By: Christie’s

Photo By: Christie’s

Photo By: Christie’s

Photo By: Christie’s

Photo By: Christie’s

Photo By: Christie’s

Photo By: Christie’s

Photo By: Christie’s

Photo By: Laure Joliet Photography

Photo By: Rachel Oliver

Photo By: Koenig & Strey Real Living

Photo By: Erin Williamson

Persian Rugs: Timelessly On-Trend

Persian rugs never go out of style. These classics are the most well-known type of Oriental rugs, so much so that the two terms are often used interchangeably. Persian rugs are a type of Oriental rug handwoven in Iran (once known as Persia.) These Middle Eastern masterpieces are one of the most complex and labor-intensive handicrafts in the world. They feature designs and colors that work with many decor styles, from traditional to midcentury modern. “I like them because they can be formal or informal,” says Elisabeth Parker, a rug expert with Christie’s Auction House in New York. “They can go in your living room or your kid’s room.” Here’s a lesson on Persian rugs’ rich history and some of the major design styles.

Heriz

Persian rugs come in an array of classic design styles named for the city, village or tribe that weaves them. Heriz is one of the most famous rug designs from Iran. When you think of a Persian rug, it’s most likely a Heriz you're picturing, with a medallion in the middle of a rich red or rust field surrounded by geometric patterns. The rugs take their name from Heriz, a city in northwestern Iran. The most common colors in Heriz rugs are reds, pinks, blues, greens, yellows and ivory. Finer grades of Heriz rugs are called Serapis. One of the measures of a rug’s quality is its knots per square inch, or KPSI. It’s a measure of weaving density that’s to rugs what thread count is to sheets. The higher the KPSI, the better the rug's quality. Higher KPSIs also make it possible for weavers to produce more intricate designs.

Kashan

Traditionally made of silk and wool, Kashan rugs are super-luxe Persians with intricately detailed patterns, like this one made in the first few decades of the 20th century. The rugs were traditionally made in Kashan, a hub of silk-making for more than 500 years. Kashan rugs are finely woven and come in tones of ivory, red, blue and soft green, and they usually feature center medallions and detailed Persian floral motifs.

Isfahan

Made in the city of Isfahan for more than 500 years, these rugs feature floral designs along with scrolls, vines, lacing patterns, trees, animals and pictorials of people and nature. This particular rug was made in 1930 and features a floral pattern. Isfahans have a rich color palette that includes reds, blues or indigos, often on an ivory background. They're also tightly woven with the finest examples having as much as 600 KPSI. Isfahans are some of the most valuable antique Persian rugs around. A 17th century silk Isfahan rug that belonged to tobacco heiress Doris Duke fetched $4.5 million at auction in 2008.

Kerman

Kerman rugs, traditionally made in the 1,000-year-old city of Kerman, feature romantic floral patterns and pastel colors in shades of blues, rose, greens and ivories. The finest Kermans are called Lavars, like this one made in the last quarter of the 19th century. You'll have a hard time buying one of these beauties, though: a 2018 embargo on Iran makes it illegal to import Iranian goods into the United States, including Persian rugs. So new “Persian” rugs available for sale in the U.S. are actually made in Pakistan, India or Afghanistan. To get a real Persian rug made in Iran, you’ll need to shop for vintage and antique examples imported pre-embargo. Americans can't legally buy a brand new rug made in Iran.

Meshed Rug

These finely woven wool rugs come in rich tones of aubergine, crimson, blue, navy, brown and a variety of greens. The design, which features all-over patterns as well as Arabesque medallions, originated in Meshed, a city in northeastern Iran. The production of Persian rugs increased greatly between 1900 to 1940 when rugmakers found there was a huge overseas market for their weavings. This Meshed was made in that era, around 1920. A word about buying Persian rugs: old is best when it comes to these classics, because you’ll get better materials and the wonderful vibe of an heirloom that you can’t get from a new rug. “I like rugs with a little bit of wear,” says Elisabeth Parker, a rug expert with Christie’s. “I have a little Kazak prayer rug in my home that’s got holes that are sewn with linen rags. It makes me happy every time I see it.” You can't buy new ones, anyway, Americans, because of that pesky embargo.

Gabbeh

Gabbeh are tribal Persian rugs with striped, geometric or figural designs and a high pile. They’re made by nomads of the Fars province of Iran, who spin locally produced wool into yarn and tint it with vegetable dyes. The designs feature simplified but sophisticated human, animal and tree motifs taken from the weavers’ daily life — like the camels in this vintage 20th century Gabbeh. They’re modern looking and go well with contemporary decor. There are two general types of Persian rugs: city rugs and nomadic or tribal. Nomadic rugs, like Gabbehs, have irregular shapes because they are often made on portable looms by weavers on the move, so you can feel the weavers’ lifestyle in the imperfection of the rug. The images on nomadic rugs come from the mind of the weaver, not from a long-standing artistic tradition, so it’s more individualistic than a design from a big, urban workshop. You can feel the touch of the human hand in a Gabbeh.

Qashqa’i

Qashqa’i rugs are made by the Qashqa’i people, clans of nomadic tribes native to southern Iran. These tribal rugs typically feature six to nine alternating colors, with indigo, madder red and gold being the primary hues. Qashqa’i rugs have bold, geometric designs and tribal symbols and are more coarsely woven. This antique example was made in 1890 and features tree, animal and flower motifs. The Qashqa’i kept their traditions and were still using vegetable dyes for their rugs in the middle of the 20th century, long after other tribal groups had switched to chemical dyes. So you can still find vintage Qashqa'i rugs made before the standardization of chemical dyes.

Tabriz

These rugs hail from the world-famous center of weaving, Tabriz. Rugs have been woven in Iran's second largest city for more than half a millennia. There’s a wide range of designs, ranging from classic medallions to all-over patterns in every color imaginable, from rich jewel tones to pastels. They’re considered a city rug, meaning they’re made on a fixed loom that gives them a more consistent weave. They have elaborate designs and a high KPSI count. This example was made in 1900 and features a center medallion surrounded by an intricate floral motif.

Bidjar

These rugs made in the Iranian town of Bidjar and its surrounding villages are identified by their weave instead of their design because they're made with a unique technique. Bidjar weavers beat the strands of wool with a hammer when they’re on the loom, creating a compact weave that’s dense, heavy and super-durable. This example, made in 1900, has an indigo field with a dense, all-over floral pattern and a scrolling border.

Nain

Nain rugs have a high knot density and complex designs like arabesques, floral motifs and double borders in deep blues, ivory and camel, with light blue, green, yellow and burgundy used as highlights. Nain rugs have a cotton foundation with a silk or wool pile, and most have some silk detailing. Weavers in the city of Nain began producing their own signature designs in the 1930s, so it’s the new kid on the block in terms of classic Persian rugs, where style ages are measured in centuries. This rug, made in 1970, features a central medallion and a cartouche with the signature of the Iranian company, Sherkate Sahamie Farshe Iran.

Qum

The city of Qum became a weaving center in the 1930s, so Qum rugs have been around for less than a century. This example was made in the 1970s. Qums are made of silk and have a high KPSI. They’re thinner than wool rugs, so people sometimes hang them on the wall instead of putting them on the floor where foot traffic is more likely to cause wear and tear. Qum designs are borrowed from Kashan, Tabriz, Isfahan and older weaving centers, so they feature a hodgepodge of floral and garden motifs, landscapes, medallions, vine patterns and even hunting or historical scenes on red or blue fields. Their silk construction, rather than the colors used or patterns, is what sets them apart from other styles.

Bakhtiari

Woven by nomads who hail from the Zagros Mountains of Iran, Bakhtiari have patterns that are geometric or semi-geometric. They have dense, bright colors like deep reds, bright blues, navy, greens, brown and beige. The most common Bakhtiari design is the garden design, like this example from 1915, which features a big central shape surrounded by ornate floral motifs.

Balouchi

These nomadic rugs are mostly made in smaller sizes to be used as prayer rugs. From a decor standpoint, that means they're perfect for a small space. Balouchi carpets are made by a tribe that lives on the border of Iran and Afganistan. Because of this geographic proximity, Balouchi rugs have Afghan influences, namely the dull color palette of dark red, dark blue, black and brown and geometric designs. Balouchis are tight and thin, and most are made of a mix of wool and goat hair. Newer versions may have a cotton base.

Design Tip: Make the Rug the Star

Persian rugs are pieces of art that last forever and can work with any style decor, but there are secrets to making one work in your home. We're going to spill some of those secrets. In this kitchen, the walls and cabinets are white, which alongside the transparent ghost chair, allow the Persian rug to take center stage. The black table echoes the colors in the rug, unifying the room.

Design Tip: Embrace the Clash

In this bedroom, the designer didn't even try to match the graphic black-and-white wallpaper with the Persian rug between the beds. The result is irresistible swagger. The secret to pulling off this look is to limit the mismatched patterns. If you go overboard, you'll create a chaotic look, not a confident one. Once you build a room around your handwoven Persian rug, be sure to take care of that precious rug. "Don't forget to vacuum the back side of the rug, to get the dirt out of the knots," says Christie's rug expert Elisabeth Parker. "If you leave dirt in them, the rug can get brittle over time." A good rug is a piece of art. Care for it as a curator would.

From: Rachel Oliver

Design Tip: Repeat Rug Colors in Furniture

The red chairs in this Chicago conservatory echo the Persian rug's red accents. Despite the other patterns and colors thrown into the mix, the overall effect in the room remains unified.

Design Tip: Echo Rug Colors in Patterns

You can’t go wrong with visual echoes. That's the strategy in this kitchen, where the William Morris-inspired wallpaper works beautifully with the ornately patterned Persian because they share the same hues. You can fold several patterns into a pleasing room if they're color cousins.

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