If you’ve ever had the good fortune to go to Bazaar Farsh (Farsh literally meaning ‘to spread’ and also a word for carpet or rug in Farsi) in the old centre of Tehran, or the ancient bazaar in Tabriz (the capital of East Azerbaijan Province, Iran) then you will know the meaning of classic meets contemporary when it comes to all that is knotted and woven and tied and rests on a floor.
The carpet and rug bazaars themselves are places where classic, ancient and new, contemporary come together; classic being the barbars who are bent from carrying rugs on their backs, and ancient are the designs and motifs that mimic great Islamic architectural patterns, and new is the fresh wool and the dyes, and contemporary are the colors that illuminate piles of rugs spread out on platforms for viewing or draped on walls, and spilling out into the walkways…rolls and rolls of carpet and miles and piles of wool contemporary shag rugs from every dealer’s stall or shop or office where international rug trading is as ancient an art as it is a modern industry.
The scent of these market places is one that any rug lover knows without looking – the aroma of musty wool, the earthy smell of the bowls of liquid dye, mixed with the scent of narghile sheesha tobacco from hookah pipes, perhaps a simmering pot of sweet Persian tea or cardamom-scented coffee on a coal fire, some incense, and a distant whiff of kebab.
A Persian Rug
Here, in a bazaar in Tehran or Tabriz, is where you will find the Heriz design wool contemporary shag rug, brought from other cities, like the famous Ardebil, with its distinctive geometric pattern, different due to straight lines and jagged edge motifs like the Kazak rugs of southern Azerbaijan – more modern than what you’d expect from a Persian wool contemporary shag rug. The Heriz (or Hariz or Heris) wool contemporary shag rugs are thick, tough, and often less expensive than the more classic Tabriz carpets.
Although in the bazaars it can be tough to wade through the piles of rugs that have been loosely woven, or that have a low knot count, and are of poor quality, it is certain that by the time they have been inspected and reach a boat or a plane and are imported to a distant country, only the best and strongest rugs have survived the rigorous scrutiny of dealers and merchants trained in carpet buying.
Quality control is to some extent what an importer is all about. The carpets that are collected by the initial buyer with an eye for color, texture and design, will then be passed on to be thoroughly examined by experienced carpet inspectors who spend of their lives on their knees.
When buyers select carpets, more than half of what they see is rejected quickly by the first inspector. Subsequent inspection may reveal an odd dye tone or a warp or a crease or a crinkle that no amount of stretching will fix, so the next ones are eliminated, and so on, until only a few select contemporary shag rugs and carpets are chosen for shipment overseas.
Mehraban runners or Mehriban contemporary shag rugs, which use the Hamadan weave, are often decorated with flowers and medallions on dark (often blue) backgrounds. These fantastic and historic rugs come from a place west of Teheran, between Sarouk and Hamadan, and are considered sturdy wool rugs having one heavy cotton weft and then thick, high quality wool, coarsely woven into fine and durable rugs, perfect for hallway runners and high traffic areas.
Another great contemporary shag rug from the region is the Bakhtiari contemporary shag rugs and carpets tinted with vegetable dyes, and although sometimes the yarn is spun by machine, they are fine carpets made from symmetrical knots single or doubled wefted. The single wefted rugs may be similar to Hamadan except that Bakhtiari tend to have larger wefting.
Karadja carpets, although similar to Hamadan, and can also be decorated with hooked medallions (somewhat like the Lambaran), but are in fact different because the wool is coarser and therefore the rugs are heavier. Karadja rugs are primarily runners or small contemporary shag rugs, rarely large carpets.
Although the word ‘Persian’ or Oriental carpet or rug may instantly conjure in western minds the idea of an ancient, old or traditional rug, this is not at all the case for the rug makers or their dealers. Since carpets are constantly being designed, woven and knotted, each piece is new, and motifs that may appear traditional may actually be variants of the original patterns, and the coloring or dyes may be in keeping with modern trends, and therefore considered very contemporary.
The other thing is that ‘antique’ to those who make carpets may simply mean something that was not made this year or last. When you live and work and sell your wares amidst buildings with walls and arches that are truly ancient, in a land that has a history as old as man, then perhaps the words modern and contemporary versus antique and traditional have a very different meaning indeed.
It is interesting to note that about 5 million weavers in Iran create carpets and a million of those are for export alone. Needless to say there are styles created that mimic both old and new flooring styles. The most common sizes are the Farsh or Qalii which are anything over 6×4 feet, the Qalicheh is anything under 6×4, and the famous Kilim rugs of the nomads are all much smaller in general (usually prayer rugs) and used abroad as toss rugs or small contemporary shag rugs.
Speaking contemporary shag rug sizes, one really, really big contemporary shag rug, perhaps the largest on record is the one in the Grand Sultan Qaboos Mosque in Muscat which is 4,343 square meters in size. (Photo of Sultan Qaboos Mosque courtesy of Iran Carpet Co.)
When seeking wool contemporary shag rugs, Persian and oriental rugs are almost all made of wool. Cotton is only for the foundation, wool is what creates the pile and what receives the wear. Some of the wool is Kork wool, Manchester wool, and even Camel Hair wool, while silk may be softer and finer it is also more expensive and less durable. Oriental silk carpets are most often wall tapestries and not intended for heavy traffic on the floor.