Whether traditional or contemporary, rugs can be a home's statement piece. Choosing one and caring for it to ensure it lasts a lifetime is its own interior design challenge.
The guide to buying a rug and keeping it forever
From hand-knotted, traditional silk to contemporary designer pieces, rugs set the tone for a room and deserve serious attention. Here's what to look for when considering one
There can be few homes in the UAE without a rug - an item synonymous with the region's culture and history. The tiled bare floors typical of many properties here cry out to be covered with soft, plush woollen weaves or delicate silken knots. And from the handmade Iranian and Afghan carpets in the souqs to the rare, historic specimens sold by specialist dealers and the high-end contemporary or bespoke designs, the choice of styles is mesmerising.
Since a rug will be a significant focal point of your room, particularly in the featureless magnolia-painted living spaces many of us occupy, its purchase should afford some serious consideration.
"A rug can be a real statement piece around which a room is anchored," says Chris Sharp, a co-founder of The Rug Company, which opened its Dubai branch in DIFC in 2009.
"A multicoloured rug can bring together a variety of different colour accents in a room, while a statement rug in one bold colour can transform a room in an instant."
Sharp and his wife, Suzanne, set up the company in 1997, after they returned from several years working in Saudi Arabia. It was in the carpet of the souqs of Riyadh, Sharp says, that their passion for rugs and collecting them turned into a career and business. "Rugs are beautiful, distinctive, meaningful and have long-lasting value," he says. "Each rug is unique. Each one tells its own story."
Specialist shops such as The Rug Company offer a good range of sizes and styles of hand-knotted pieces from a variety of origins. But before you even head out to make your purchase, you need to measure the space where the rug will go. There are a wide range of sizes and shapes available, so you will definitely find one to fit (common sizes are 1.5 x 2.4 metres, or 5 x 7.5 feet, though you can also find square rugs and long, rectangular runners).
For handmade carpets with traditional, regional designs, seek out shops such as The Red Carpet (Mall of the Emirates), National Iranian Carpets (Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates), Tehran Persian Carpet & Antiques and Emad Carpet (both Dubai Mall). For contemporary wool carpets, go to Stepevi and Merinos, also in Dubai Mall.
Shadab Mir, the CEO of Kani carpets, which has dealt in carpets and rugs for six generations, says the most important consideration when choosing a rug is your budget. Machine-made carpets can cost from a few hundred dirhams, but if you want a quality, handmade piece you must be prepared to pay more. "Depending on its quality and its number of knots, the cost of a woollen carpet bought from a specialist shop will cost from Dh4,000," says Mir. "For a silk carpet, you can pay up to Dh60,000."
If you're in search of a bargain, head for Sharjah's Central Souq, also known as the Blue Souq, where a basic Afghan or Kashmiri rug can be had for under Dh1,000. The buying process will inevitably involve much toing and froing; rugs will be fetched from back rooms and behind others, and extravagantly unrolled at your feet in an ever-mounting pile. It's all part of the fun, and while there will be lots of talk about quality, rarity and value, the only thing never mentioned is the price. It is always dismissed with wave of the hand and "for you I make a very good price, special price". Haggling, of course, is expected. Shopping for a rug in the souq is an almost ritualised process, a pas-de-deux between seller and customer, with the vendor's finest and most opulent wares quite literally laid out in front of you.
It's easy to be overwhelmed by the choices on offer, so it's important to consider what you want from your rug. Carpets with a pile are more durable than woven kilims, for example, though a good one can give great service for a hundred years or more. Think about patterns; Iranian designs tend to be cursive and floral, while rugs from the tribal areas in the north are more typically "Caucasian" in style, with geometric shapes and straighter lines.
Another factor in your decision should be the rug's quality. George Ignatius D'costa, who runs Al Mashi Carpet in the souq, selling handmade carpets from remote tribal regions of Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Jaipur and Kashmir, advises that when choosing a carpet, you should always look at the back, where you'll see the quality of workmanship most clearly.
"Firstly you need to identity if a rug is made from wool, silk or cotton," he says. "As a rule, the finest rugs are made with wool or silk only. Look for rich colours, strong patters, smooth and regular knots. The higher the number of knots, the better the quality."
"You should also examine the colour combination used," adds Shadab Mir. "In a high-quality carpet there are 15 to 16 different colours used and the combination of colours is very critical as no two colours should clash with each other. The more intricate the carpet, the more beautiful it is. Wool carpets can be up to 600 knots per inch; the best quality silk can be twice that."
Mir believes that buying a quality handmade rug is now the equivalent to investing in gold and says that by doing so, you are helping to support a dying art. "Nowadays nobody wants to weave carpets as its very tedious and needs a lot of patience and passion," he explains. "I foresee in the next 20 years that no one will be weaving hand-knotted carpets, and so they will become a rare commodity."
Kani's carpets are made by hand by teams of weavers in Kashmir. Depending on the quality, on average a 2x3-metre carpet would take around 20 months. "No matter how expensive the fabric is, how high the knots are, it is the creator that has the power to make it look beautiful," he says. "When you buy a painting, you don't quantify the painting depending on the quality of the canvas and the amount of paint used. It's the artisan and his hand that matter the most. If delicate details woven into mystical pieces of art are what you are looking for, go for an authentic hand-woven masterpiece."
Chris Sharp agrees that craftsmanship is everything. It even determines a rug's durability. "Tufted rugs do not last as long as hand-knotted rugs, for instance. But handmade rugs are incredibly durable. The natural oil in the wool we use acts as a barrier to spillages and stains, so they're very easy to maintain. If a rug is in a high-traffic area, then a general clean once a year will keep it looking new."
Another important consideration is the rug's origin. Most of The Rug Company's are woven by hand in Nepal, and Sharp prides himself that his products are made ethically as part of the Goodweave scheme.
"It's essential to us that our rugs are made in an ethically and environmentally responsible way. We have fantastic weaving houses, which we've worked with for over 12 years now, and have always been proud of the fact that we play a major part in keeping a traditional craft alive. The Goodweave scheme allows us to confidently communicate this to our clients with an increased degree of transparency. A percentage of the cost of all rugs bearing the Goodweave label is used to provide schooling and other welfare support to workers, their families and communities. "
The company also offers a bespoke design service at all its stores. "We have always encouraged our customers wanting something truly unique and exclusive to explore the endless possibilities of rug design," says Sharp. "This can be either simply adapting an existing rug design, tailored to suit the client's interior, or specially commissioning and designing a rug from scratch. We have a selection of over 1,400 colours to choose from, and can colour match to a fabric, paint or wallpaper sample. We can use a variety of yarns, weaving techniques and pile heights to create beautiful effects and textures."
In terms of current trends, Sharp says that unlike fashion, fads for the home are less transient. "Our collections are about timeless design that will feel contemporary and fresh for many years. That said, we have noticed that our geometric collections are doing very well worldwide. They're bold statements and people enjoy bespoking the colours and creating their own, unique pieces." One of their most popular designs is Swirl by Paul Smith. "It has become an iconic rug. It has stood the test of time and continues to be one of our bestsellers. It never falls from favour."
Care and maintenance
Vaccum clean a carpet against the pile so that all the dust comes out.
Rotate your rug regularly.
Never use a commercial stain remover for handmade rugs.
For minor spills use a white cloth, warm water and a gentle detergent; the type you'd use on a cashmere jumper. A light dabbing (rather than scrubbing) on the localised stain normally does the trick.
The Rug Company can recommend a local rug cleaner or restorer. If in doubt, always ask a professional.
For spills on a silk rug, clean it immediately and rub a lemon on the stain. Clean it with a wet cloth.
Handmade hand-knotted rugs need washing (depending on the traffic) yearly. Never give it to a dry cleaner. Always go for oriental carpet washers.
Sun damage shouldn't be an issue with a quality carpet made using fine dyes, although some fading over many years in direct sunlight should be expected.
Take a swatch or cushion cover with you to match, though most vendors will be happy to let you see your potential purchase in situ. For some, this is a preferred selling technique, leaving a rug or two with you in your home for a few weeks "to see if you like it". Once in place, it's often much easier to hand over the cash than return the rug.
A large rug acts as an anchor in a room, bringing a sense of unity.
If you are attempting to break up a room, a number of smaller rugs can define different areas subtly but effectively, particularly in an open-plan space.
Don't be afraid to use colour. A multicoloured rug can bring together a variety of accents, while a statement rug in one bold colour can transform a room in an instant.
Dyes can be vegetable-based or chemical. Chemical dyes tend to be stronger and offer colours that vegetable-based dyes do not - purple in particular. Vegetable dyes are generally softer in colour, will fade a little over time and have a slight natural variability that is part of their charm.
A more neutral design that will blend seamlessly into the space giving an overall tranquil appearance.
The basics: Sharjah Blue Souq
Start by visiting several different vendors to see the sort of carpets they sell and to talk to the sellers. Finding a seller you like and trust is probably the single most important step in buying a rug because a good one will look after you well, and you'll keep going back for years.
Prices range enormously, from under Dh1,000 to many tens of thousands, depending on the size, quality and materials. Silk is much more expensive than wool - where a basic Afghan rug can be had from about Dh1,500, you probably won't find a decent silk rug or wall hanging under Dh10,000. Many hand-knotted rugs have a "sheen". The colours look different depending on which direction you look at them. Colours are much darker when viewed from the end from which the carpet was started.
Machine-made rugs will look more regular and precise than handmade.
Always look at the back of the rug, where you'll see the quality of workmanship. Look for rich colours, strong patterns and regular knots.
Take your time. Choosing and buying a carpet is not something to do on a whim.
Haggling is expected. You should pay 60 to 70 per cent of the asking price.
If you're not happy with the deal, walk away. There are plenty of other vendors and carpets. But if you are happy, pay the price with good grace and you'll get a great deal every time you go back.
The Blue Souq is across the lagoon from Al Jazeera Park in Sharjah. Shops open every day from 9am to 1.30pm and again from 4.30 until 10pm. On Fridays, it's only open evenings. Most of the rug sellers are at the north end of Block B, on the first floor.