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Their goal: Get a great rug and not get walked all over

April 16, 2006|Deborah L. Jacobs | Special to The Times

BEFORE my recent trip to India, I asked two rug importers in the U.S. about reputable carpet merchants in the places I planned to visit.

One dodged my request altogether. The other tried to dissuade me from buying anything. "You would be wiser to buy in the U.S. from a merchant you trust," said an e-mail from John B. Gregorian, author of "Oriental Rugs of the Silk Route" and president of Arthur T. Gregorian Oriental Rugs, a store in Newton Lower Falls, Mass. "Choose your Oriental rug dealer before you choose your Oriental rug," he said.

I've bought various rugs that way, so I understood his advice, although I thought it self-serving. What's more, several rugs I had acquired from a New York store were made in India. Because my husband, Ken Stern, and I were planning a family vacation to the north-central part of that country, a rug-production center, it seemed logical to make our next purchases at the source.

Much of what I learned about buying rugs in India would apply to Oriental rugs made in Pakistan, Afghanistan or other countries. (

Having tried without success to get leads here, we decided to scout out places after we arrived in India. Our challenge, when we traveled there in December, was to find rugs of higher quality and lower prices than we could get back home. To do that, we had to avoid tourist establishments and seek out stores where affluent Indians shop. I lined up a carpet authority in the U.S. to evaluate our finds, for better or worse, when we returned.

We traveled through the state of Rajasthan, where massive fortresses stand testimony to the lavish tastes of the Mogul and Rajput rulers who once dominated India.

Examples of the gigantic -- at least 10 by 30 feet -- carpets that furnished their palaces are displayed at the City Palace Museum in the bustling city of Jaipur. The rugs we sought were postage-stamp size by comparison, about 5 by 8 feet, and 4 by 6 feet, along with a couple of runners to fit the irregularly shaped staircase landings of our three-story brownstone in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Nor could we expect to match the muted ruby reds, celadon greens and deep indigos of the 17th century relics, all of which were made of natural dyes derived from plants and insects. Modern chemical dyes produce much brasher colors.

Nand Kishor Chaudhary, the owner of Jaipur Carpets in Jaipur, an important rug market, relies on a network of weavers in villages throughout Rajasthan to produce the rugs he sells, mostly for export. We found Chaudhary through a photo credit in the book "Indian Carpets: A Hand Knotted Heritage," by Asha Rani Mathur, which we bought in a hotel gift shop.

There's no sign in front of the new three-story building his business occupies in the middle of a dusty industrial district, a 20-minute drive from the center of Jaipur. On the way there, we observed people toting rugs and skeins of yarn on the backs of bicycles and motorcycles, and the ubiquitous sacred cows, which share the streets throughout India.

Jaipur Carpets is a beehive of activity, with workers in a central atrium putting the finishing touches on carpets delivered from the villages. Designs are computer-generated versions of classical patterns, in the reds, blues, greens and golds that appeal to Western tastes.

In the showroom, Chaudhary offered us Indian hospitality -- tea, cookies and nuts -- without any of the hard sell, and he had an ideal solution to our quest for hallway runners: rugs made to our dimensions.

We chose two patterns: one a classic Jaipur design with flowers and medallions and the other in what looks like an American Arts & Crafts style.

Prices, based on the tightness of the weave, were $15 a square foot for the first rug, which had 140 knots per square inch, and $10 per square foot for the second, which had 81 knots per square inch. The total tab to cover about 64 square feet of floor was $937. The rugs would take about five months to weave.

As the pricing structure suggests, knot count is one indication of the value of a rug. Rugs with higher knot counts and a tighter weave (visible by looking at the back side of a rug) involve more work and are generally more expensive. Although there are no absolute measures of what an Oriental carpet is worth, one of moderate quality would typically have a knot count of about 300 knots per square inch.

To some extent, knot count depends on the pattern -- a more intricate one tends to require more knots -- and knot count alone shouldn't dictate a purchase. For example, although the runners we ordered had relatively low knot counts, we chose them based on other measures of value: the rugs' good-quality wool, colors, designs and overall attractiveness. We also liked the fact that they were durable enough for high-traffic areas and well priced for nonstandard sizes.

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