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How to Identify Antique Rugs

Kate Miller-Wilson
antique middle east rugs

Antique rugs provide a unique combination of beauty and history to any room. Learning how to identify your rug can help you learn a bit about its past, understand how to care for this type of antique, and even get a sense of its value. There are several clues that can help you discover more about your rug, many of which you can interpret yourself.

Examine the Weaving Style

The first step in identifying your antique rug is to examine how it was woven. Most antique rugs will be wool, jute, cotton, or another natural fiber, but the construction methods can vary. Artisans create rugs in a number of different ways, but there are a few primary types of antique rug construction.

Flat-Woven

According to Area Rug Facts, flat weaving involves stretching fibers, called the "weft," on a loom and then interweaving additional fibers, called the "warp." This type of rug won't have any pile, or fiber ends showing on the surface. Flat weaving is a classic style that lends itself to simple designs. In most cases, antique flat-woven rugs were made by hand.

Backside of antique rug
Backside of woven antique rug

Hand-Knotted

Another way antique rugs are constructed is through hand knotting, according to the Nazmiyal Collection. There are a number of different knotting styles, but all of them involve tying fiber pieces around the weft on the rug loom. These pieces can be various lengths, but they will provide pile. A hand-knotted rug may have an open or closed back. This means that when you look at the underside of the rug, you may be able to see the fiber pieces. Alternatively, the back may be covered with fabric.

A stack of, handmade colorful knotted antique Persian oriental rugs made of wool.
Handmade, knotted antique Persian rugs

Other Styles

Depending on the type of rug you have, you may also see the following construction styles:

  • Hooked rugs have a higher pile made by hooking yarn through a rug backing. They came into popularity in the 1840s.
Hooked Rug 1920-1929
Hooked rug
  • Braided rugs are another American folk tradition. They are constructed of braided strips of wool fabric that is then sewn together in a flat, continuous spiral.
Braided rug
Braided rug

Determine the Type of Rug

According to Nazmiyal Antique Rugs, there are dozens of different rug styles from past eras. The designs vary, depending on the area where they were made and the production techniques. You'll find antique rugs from just about every culture in the world.

To begin identifying your rug, examine its construction and appearance and compare it to the following common rug types.

Persian and Oriental Rugs

Oriental rugs come from all over Asia, including Turkey, China, and India. Persian rugs are one type of Oriental rug, and they come from the area of Persia, now known as Iran. This area of the world has been making rugs for thousands of years.

There are a number of classical design elements that can help you identify an Oriental rug, although each rug is unique:

  • They frequently feature motifs like paisley designs and central medallions and rosettes.
  • These rugs usually have a bordered area with a medallion or an all-over consistent design. Almost all rugs feature symmetry.
  • You'll see both bound edges and fringed edges.
  • Common colors include ivory, black, shades of red, and blue.
  • Many rugs feature a higher pile, but you'll also see flat-woven Oriental pieces.
Persian rugs
Persian rugs

Continental European Rugs

Although the rug tradition isn't as well established as in the Oriental region, the Europeans have been making rugs for centuries. These rugs have some unique characteristics:

  • In contrast to Oriental rugs, these pieces often featured asymmetrical designs.
  • Sometimes, a rug matched the design of a decorative ceiling.
  • You'll see colors of gold, soft rose, and green, among others. Generally, the tones of European rugs are muted.
  • Flower motifs and garlands are very common.
  • They may have a pile or be flat-woven.

American Rugs

You'll see a number of different styles and construction methods in American rugs from past eras. Expect to find some of the following:

  • Navajo rugs feature a tight, flat weave and commonly have colors of black, brown, ivory, red, and sometimes blue. Most feature geometric designs.
  • Art Nouveau rugs have designs that were popular during the 1890s through 1910, including nature motifs and fluid lines.
  • Art Deco rugs have strong geometric images that were popular in the 1920s and 1930s.
Navajo rug
Navajo rug

Scandinavian Rugs

The Scandinavian countries also have a strong rug-weaving tradition, dating back centuries. You'll notice some classic features in this type of rug:

  • Scandinavian rugs often have strong geometric designs.
  • These rugs are often asymmetrical.
  • Many have an abstract simplicity in the main design, rather than being a figurative representation of something.
  • Some have a high pile, while others are flat woven.
  • You'll see almost any color.
Norwegian handmade rug
Norwegian handmade rug

Look for Age Clues

Your rug may include a few clues that can help you determine its age. Knowing when the rug was woven will give you a more accurate sense of the value and history of your piece. Try these tips for discovering how old your rug is:

  • Look for dates woven into the design of the rug. Oriental or Persian rugs often have Arabic numerals woven into the border area. Although this isn't the most reliable method of dating a rug, it does provide a starting point.
  • In the case of braided rugs, Antique Homes reports that many rugs were crafted from old wool clothing. This means that the oldest braided rugs rarely have a distinct pattern.
  • Hooked rugs were always unique until the 1868 invention of rug templates, according to Country Living. This means that if your hooked rug has unusual scale or color choice or just seems imperfect, it may be from before this era.
  • Examine the colors. According to A Buyer's Guide to Oriental Carpets, bright synthetic rug dyes weren't available until the 1920s. If the rug appears uniformly faded, it may be from before this time.
Uniformly faded antique Turkish rug
Uniformly faded antique Turkish rug

Ask Questions

If you inherited your antique rug or are considering purchasing one, ask questions about its history. You'll be surprised what you can learn about a rug's provenance with a few well-thought-out questions. Try these:

  • How much do you know about the people who have owned this rug?
  • Where might this rug have been used in the home?
  • Are there any stories about this rug?
  • Does the style of the rug signify anything in particular?
  • Are there any documents that go with this rug, such as receipts, letters, or photographs?

Consider an Appraisal

If you suspect that you have an antique rug of some value, consider having it professionally appraised. Even if you aren't planning to part with your treasure, an appraisal is important for insurance purposes. In addition, a professional appraisal is the best way to identify an antique rug. During the appraisal, you can learn a lot about the style, history, and age of your piece.

Beautiful Works of Art

Antique rugs come in hundreds of different style, shapes, colors, and patterns, so there's a lot to consider when trying to identify these beautiful works of art. Take your time and examine each aspect of your rug for clues about its fascinating past.

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How to Identify Antique Rugs