How to identify antique Chinese rugs of good quality?

Determining the age of a rug is a difficult skill to acquire. Since Chinese rugs rarely bear an inscription that helps to date them and the history of very few pieces has been recorded without gaps, we have to use other sources to date these rugs.

In general, the term antique refers to over 100 year old rugs. Old refers to rugs between 40 and 99 years old.

In the context of Chinese rugs, we only look at rugs made prior to 1937 when Japan invaded China and rug manufacturing came to a halt. None of the rugs made after this point reached the artistic quality of the older pieces and will not be discussed here.

Antique and old rugs will usually show some signs of wear but can be in pristine condition if they were looked after well by their owners. In contrast, newer pieces can show signs of wear so this is not a reliable indicator of age. To complicate matters even more, carpets can be professionally cleaned and it is easy to get confused here.

1) Handmade

A key criterion to understanding the quality of a rug is whether it is made by hand or not.

Therefore, have a look at the reverse side of the rug and closely look at the knots. Handmade rugs have an ever so slight irregularity in the knots, which can add to the charm of the rug. Even very experienced weavers will not be able to make every knot look the same as the next one. In addition to this, there are regional variations in weaving techniques and it requires a lot of experience to tell these apart. The reverse side of the rug will sometimes provide more information than the front to the trained eye.

2) Fuzzy back

The back of the rug will offer an additional opportunity to determine age. Newer rugs will feel fuzzy on the back since their yarns still have a fibrous surface. As rugs age, even if used carefully, the underside will become polished or abraded through pressure and friction, reducing the hairy texture. As this process takes several decades to become apparent, it helps to establish the rugs have not recently been finished.

3) Shine

With age, the pile develops a shiny lustre. The top ends of the wool become semi-transparent over time and reflect the light. This produces a shiny lustre. This effect takes time and cannot be created in another way. Attempts to make the wool shinier with chemicals will affect the entire pile and not just the ends. For example, a chemical wash can make the wool feel dry and brittle, which can be remedied with lanolin. A connoisseur will always be able to tell and prefer a natural lustre that comes with age.

4) Colour and dyes

Dyes are a good indicator of age in various aspects. Before synthetic colours became available in the 1860s, natural dyes made from minerals and vegetables were used to dye the yarn for rugs. Early synthetic colours deteriorated very quickly and left the yarn in shades of gray and beige. Only in the 1920s reliable synthetic dyes became more readily available and replaced most natural dyes. These synthetic dyes were easier to apply, considerably cheaper than natural ones and offered a completely new colour spectrum.

Antique rugs will be made almost uniquely with natural dyes, allowing the colours to mellow with time and develop more vivid hues. In some cases, the colours changed quite noticeably over time. Recent research shows that a particular group of imperial Ming dynasty rugs in orange and yellow tones were originally made in a vibrant red. By parting the pile of a rug with natural dyes and looking with a magnifying glass, you will see that the colour starts more intense at the knot and softens towards the top where it has been exposed to light and use. If you look closely at one colour, for example a dark blue, you will discover many different hues of blue creating a vivid field, which cannot be created with synthetic dyes. This carpet will most likely be made with natural dyes prior to the 1920s.

Another good indicator for age is oxidised brown yarn. One specific type of dye slowly absorbs the wool. This process starts very slowly after about 80 years and creates a relief-effect. The process continues very slowly until the wool will be completely gone some decades later. This process cannot be imitated artificially.

Example: Tianjin Art Deco rugs present a special case for the use of synthetic colours. The manufacturers used the colours to create unique designs by Chinese designers with Western influences. Between the mid-1920s and the mid- 1930s they used a full colour range with unique skill to create magnificent pieces, which would not have the same impact without these vibrant colours. Even though the colours have mellowed slightly they still leave a unique impression to this date.

It does take some time to become a carpet expert but the hints above will help you to identify older rugs. The more you speak to experts and ask them to explain the individual piece, the more you will learn and feel safe with your own judgement.