This is Part 1 in a series. Please leave a comment if you find the posts helpful or relevant, or if you have followup questions.
In a hand-knotted rug, colored yarns are wrapped by hand onto individual warp threads. They are secured by one or more rows of weft . The long pile yarns, which create the design, are sheared to uniform length. Persian and oriental rugs are hand-knotted. All hand-knotted carpets may be generically referred to as “oriental” rugs, regardless of design, because the technique of hand-knotted originated in Asia.
The type of structure familiar to most people is the flat-weave. In a flat-woven rug, colored weft yarns are woven through the warps to create the design. These rugs have no pile. Remember those potholder looms you had as a child? Those potholders were flatweaves. Flatweaves are available at all price points in many different materials – wool, cotton, hemp, etc. Kilims, dhurries, and tapestries are flat-woven.
Tufted or “hand-tufted” rugs are increasingly common. A tufting gun, which works like an oversized needle, is used to punch the yarns through a pre-woven grid foundation. When the rug is finished the back is given a coat of latex to secure the yarns, then covered with cloth or canvas. This is a much faster, less labor-intensive process which does not require any particular skill. These rugs can may appear like hand-knotted rugs from the pile side, but are much less durable. Since they are usually created with low price in mind, they generally use inferior wool or synthetic yarn.
In advertisements, all three of the above types – flatwoven, tufted, and hand-knotted rugs – are referred to as “handmade”. (Though tufted rugs are made with the use of a power tool, the tool is held by hand.)
Another type of rug is the machine-made, in which rugs are woven on mechanical looms. Many of these are made from synthetic yarns such as olefin or nylon. Some better-quality machine-made rugs, such as Karastan, are made of wool. Again, they may appear similar to genuine hand-knotted rugs on the pile side, but are not as durable, nor are they unique.
There is still no equivalent to a hand-knotted carpet in terms of quality and durability. Tufted or machine-made carpets, even if made of wool, will not last as long, wear as well, or clean as readily as a hand-knotted carpet. In addition, many inexpensive tufted rugs use inferior latex in the backing; when these rugs gets wet or are cleaned, they emit a noxious smell which does not go away.
If you are shopping for a rug, use of the term “area rugs” usually means that the products are machine-made or tufted. Hand-knotted oriental rugs are usually sold by specialty retailers and high-end department stores. Since it is not within everyone’s budget to purchase a hand-knotted rug, there is certainly a place in the market for these other types. However, it’s important that you know and understand the tradeoffs. Ask questions. And if you intend to buy quality, then hand-knotted is the only way to go.
Next: Handmade carpets, part 2: Why do hand-knotted rugs cost so much?