The main materials used in making Persian & oriental carpets - wool, cotton and silk

Primary materials used in Persian & Oiental carpet making are wool (preferably from the highlands), cotton and silk

What Are Persian & Oriental Carpets Made of?

There is more to it than what meets the eye in the materials used to make Persian & Oriental carpets. Each of the material has it's own specialities and requirements to meet the highests standards. There is much ado when it comes to the perfect end result.

Persian Rug Materials

Cotton is used for both warp and weft in most rugs, however, some tribal rugs use wool in their foundation and intricate silk rugs often use silk as a foundation as well as pile.

Pile refers to the material or fibre used in weaving the rug. The main materials used in Persian rugs are wool, silk and cotton. Sometimes camel or goats wool is used by tribal weavers.

1. Wool

Sheering sheep in the mountains of Iran for Persian carpet making

Wool is the most commonly used material in weaving handmade Persian rugs, mainly because it is soft and durable but also due to the availability of the natural resource to the people of Iran. Although camel or goats hair is sometimes used, in excess it is undesirable. While they may add sheen to a carpet they are very difficult to dye and the rug may loose its colour faster than if woven with sheep wool. The best wool generally comes from colder high altitudes and the mountainous topography in parts of Iran is well suited to producing excellent quality. Other wool is imported from Australia and New Zealand who also produce excellent materials. Kork or Kurk wool is regarded the best type of wool, this is high quality wool which is extremely soft yet durable. The wool is shaven from only the shoulders and under-belly of a lamb on its virgin cut. This is when the wool is at its finest and is often used in conjunction with silk.

Environmental & Aesthetic Concerns

Wool's structural advantages over synthetics:
  • Due to the spring-like properties of the wool fiber, wool offers greater bulk, density, elasticity, resilience and comfort and is able to retain its original appearance much longer than other carpetting materials
  • Wool is naturally both stain and soil resistant - making a wool rug easy to care for
Wool's safety advantages over synthetics:
  • The high moisture threshold and moisture-retention rate of wool fibers provides excellent natural resistance to flame, combustion and/or ignition
  • Additionally, wool's hydroscopic properties - which allow it to both absorb and release water vapor without any palpable wetness - help to modulate extremes in humidity and also provides natural resistance against static electricity
Wool's environmental advantages:
  • Wool is anti-bacterial as well as non-allergenic and non-toxic, and has been used for bedding, clothing and all types of insulation and floor coverings for thousands of years. It has been documented that the proximity of wool can actually reduce the human heart raten
Quality of Life Issues concerning Wool:
  • Wool, especially in a rug or carpet, absorbs sound and dampens echo - creating greater intimacy and the conditions for more efficient communication. Even the sound quality of TV and stereo speakers is improved by minimizing reflected sound waves.
  • Your wool rug is a natural insulator that helps regulate the effects of extremes in temperature: cooling in Summer, and warming in Winter - thus contributing to a savings in energy costs.
  • Wool carpet has been shown to absorb common pollutants i.e.: formaldehyde, sulfur dioxide etc., and to prevent their re-introduction into the environment. This process is ongoing over time and is one of the many inherent properties - and benefits - of wool.

2. Cotton

Cotton is generally used in the foundation of rugs. However, some weavers (such as the Turkmen) use it to introduce white details, creating a contrast in colour and texture. Mercerized cotton is sometimes used to create an "art-silk" appearance.

Although wool is the best material for the rug's pile, it is not a good choice for the foundation (warp & weft). A rug made with a wool foundation will not lie flat and will be crooked (especially after washing). Only the nomadic tribes still use wool for foundations, mainly because they do not own land nor stay in one place long enough to grow cotton. Cotton makes the best foundation. Silk makes a good warp thread if extreme thinness is desired.

A wool foundation can be recognized by its fringe which is darker and thicker than a cotton fringe (warp).

The Advantages of a Cotton Foundation
  • It is stronger
  • It is thinner
  • It has limited stretching
  • It has even shrinkage
  • The rug will keep its shape
  • The rug will lie flat

3. Silk

Natural silk is extremely expensive and therefore used less in rugs. Coming from the cocoon of the silkworms, which thrive on mulberry leaves, silk originally came from China before being brought into production in other countries. Silk has the advantage over other natural fibres of being both fine and extremely strong. If it were as thick as wool there would be no contest in durability however as the intricate detail, work and high expense goes into making silk rugs it is recommended that they are used as wall hangings or in rooms with low traffic. Some rugs use small amounts of silk together with an all-over wool pile to highlight details and add depth to the character. Under no circumstances should a wholly silk rug be cleaned at home! If the rug does need cleaned, it should be taken to a professional Persian rug specialist and dealt with on their recommendations.

A natural protein fiber, silk is often blended with other rug fabrics to produce a distinctive softness and sheen. The fiber's unique structure refracts light at different angles, giving it its shimmering appearance. Because silk is created from harvested larvae cocoons of silkworms, the production process can be tricky and time-consuming. Not surprisingly, even the smallest addition of silk can increase a rug's cost.

Iran ranks eighth in silk farming. China, where sericulture had begun four thousand years ago, on the basis of historical information, remains the main habitat of white cocoon while Iran has been the natural territory for the yellow cocoon, according to an Iranian news agency report. Over the past three years, silk farming has been growing in Iran.

Persian Rug Dyes

The wool or silk is treated and dyed prior to the rug knotting process. There are conflicting views about rug dyes with the more traditionalist believing only vegetable dyes should be used. The counter argument is that chemical dyes have been used for over 100 years and many shades and designs simply could not be achieved using only the natural dyeing process.

We believe both types of dye have their merits. Natural dyes often provide a more muted, and indeed natural, palette. Whereas rugs using chrome dyes can be brighter, more vivid and lively than their plant and vegetable counterparts. It really depends on the look you are trying to achieve.

Some chemical dyes are more colour-fast than vegetable dyes while some vegetable dyes are more colour-fast than chrome dyes. It really is a matter of opinion.

Natural & Vegetable Dyes

Some of the most beautiful colours are obtained from natural dyes, not only do these colours appear more natural but their durability tends to be greater than chemical dyes.

Oriental carpets made of natural dyes

Indigo, produced by fermentation of indigo plant blossoms, is the source for all shades of blue. After around one week in fermentation, the solution becomes amber in colour, when the wool is soaked in the solution and dried in the open air, it oxidizes turning blue in the process. Mixing different dyes creates various colours for example, mixing saffron with indigo produces green. Saffron, pear leaves, almonds, and buckhorn berries produce different shades of yellow. The most common dye made from plants is Madder, which creates a red colour and is quite prevalent in older rugs. Black is obtained by submerging previously dyed brown wool in indigo or by using dyes taken from the Logwood trees of Central America or the West Indies. Cochineal is a small insect, when the female is roasted and pulverized the resulting powder produces hues of violet. Many colours in the purple range resulted combining a red and indigo.

The most commonly used vegetable dyes are indigo (originally obtained by extracting and fermenting the leaves of the indigo plant and used to dye wool blue), madder (produced by boiling the dried, chunked root of the madder plant in the dye pot to produce a red colour), and larkspur (produced by boiling the crushed leaves, stems, and flowers of the larkspur plant). These dyes produce dark navy blue, dark rusty-red and muted gold. Expensive Saffron flower is used to create rare shades of yellow.

Long ago dyers realized that as more wool was dyed in a single dye pot, colours became weaker and weaker. Dyers use this notion of depleted dyes to their advantage. The first dyeing produces a deep, strong colour. Subsequent dyeing in the same dye pot produces lighter, softer colours. Dyers also quickly learned to combine colours to produce different hues. There is, for instance, no "vegetable" dye material that yields green, which is an important colour if you're interested in weaving a floral design. To produce green the wool is first dyed blue and then dyed again with yellow. If you look closely at the green colour in a vegetable-dyed rug, you will commonly see that the colour is uneven, blue-green in some areas, and more yellow-green in others. This is because of the double-dyeing technique.

So, by using the notion that depleted dyes produce different hues, and by combining some dyes through over-dyeing wool, dyers can produce a surprisingly large palette of colours from a very limited variety of materials.

Chrome Dyes

Aniline dyes were introduced into the Persian region in the late 19th century, early dyes proved to be unsuitable for rug yarns as they produced crude colors that were prone to rapid fading. At the beginning of the 20th century the Persian government banned the import of these aniline dyes and passed laws, which were strictly enforced, ordering dye houses found producing them to be burnt to the ground. Any weaver caught using the illegal dyed yarn could face severe punishment. Needless to say, these measures proved effective, and Persian weavers went back using natural dyes until the more reliable chrome dyes were introduced between the first and second World Wars. Modern chrome dyes are extremely reliable, color fast and made in a wide range of attractive colors and shades. Today’s rug buyers can be assured that the colors, will only improve with age.