Real Silk Rugs

We know the prospect of buying an oriental carpet can be a daunting task. There are so many options and such a wide range of styles and prices that the whole process can feel overwhelming.  On top of this many people are rightly concerned about a rug’s authenticity.  This is especially concerning if you are trying to purchase a real antique (not just some beat-up looking, acid-washed 40 year old rug), a real Persian rug (and not a copy made in Turkey, India, Pakistan or China) and a real silk.

Real or Mulberry Silk

Real silk is produced as the cocoon covering of the silkworm, the pupal form of the Asian or mulberry silk moth, bombyx mori.  Amazingly, the cocoon is spun of a single fiber that can be up to several thousand feet in length. Harvesting silk is an ancient and laborious practice, which typically involves boiling the cocoon to kill the silkworm and then unwinding the fibers which are later plied together and spun into silk yarn.

silk kettle persian rugsMulberry silk, though delicate looking, has remarkable tensile strength and offers very good durability when woven into a carpet. Silk rugs are also quite stunning. Silk offers a rich depth of colour while also providing an ethereal, translucent luster. The beauty of a real silk rug is not just in the material; the best silk rugs are also superbly woven.  All of this finesse comes at a price: a fine silk can easily cost 20 times more than an entry level wool Oriental carpet.  If you are considering that kind of investment, you want to know that the rug you’re looking at is exactly what you think it is.

Artificial or Art Silk
Artificial silk (sometimes alluringly called art silk) is everything billed as silk that doesn't come from the silkworm cocoon. Most often this means mercerized cotton (cotton fibers treated and polished to a high lustre) or rayon. It’s not that artificial silk is intrinsically bad; it’s just that the whole point of using artificial silk in a rug is that it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than real silk. This is not a problem if you know that the rug you are considering is made of artificial silk. But it’s not nice when a cheaper, artificial silk rug is misrepresented and sold as a real silk rug.


How to Identify a Real Silk Oriental Rug
With so many artificial fibers around, how can you identify a rug woven with natural silk?  
First of all, the problem of fake silk carpets happens most often with rugs sold in tourist markets in Turkey and India, and at travelling close-out auctions held in hotels (you know, the guys that advertise a bankruptcy sale and “creditor mandated liquidation”).  If you want the real McCoy, only buy from a reputable dealer (for instance, there are these guys called Boft in Inglewood) who will guarantee in writing that you are purchasing a real silk rug.

Persian Silk Carpet 5160 thumbHowever, if you are trying to buy a “silk” rug from a questionable source (tourist hawkers, hotel liquidation sales, etc.), how can you know what you’re looking at?  Forget for a moment what the fibers may be made of.  Any decent real silk rug will be tightly knotted (at least 500kpsi), with a closely clipped (i.e. low) pile, have a silk warp (which means silk fringes at each ends) and have exquisitely fine details and workmanship (no crooked patterns). 

ResizedImage275233 IMG 5160 closeKnow too that the top producer of silk carpets in the world is the city of Qum in Iran. If what you are looking at is a Qum silk, the dealer will call it just that.  If the dealer calls the rug a Qum-design that means the rug was not made in Qum, but is a copy of a pattern originating from Qum.  The rug may be a copy made of real silk or artificial silk.  

For the sake of argument, let’s say you’re looking at a tightly woven, finely detailed, “silk” rug with what appears to be real silk fringe. Are you looking at a rug made of artificial silk? Here are three tests that might help you distinguish real from fake.

Rub it! It is claimed that you can tell real silk from artificial silk by vigorously rubbing the pile with your open palm. The real silk warms up, the artificial silk rug stays cool to the touch. Of course, it helps to have a real silk rug with you so that you can compare a known quantity!

Burn it! This is at least good theatre, and can be helpful. Clip off a small piece of fiber. Hold the sample with scissors and burn it with a lighter, not a match. Look at the ash and smell the smoke. If the material is rayon, the ash will be soft and chalky, and the smell will be like burning paper. If it is real silk, the burning sample will ball to a black, crispy ash, and the smell will be of burning hair (you're burning protein, the same stuff your hair is made of). Please do not ignite yourself or the rug dealer’s shop!

Dissolve it! The most accurate test is one that chemically differentiates protein from cellulose or petrochemicals. One such test: at room temperature, mix a solution of 16 g copper sulfate and 8g glycerine in 150 cc of water. Add caustic soda until a clear solution is obtained (about 1 tbsp). This solution will dissolve a small sample of natural silk, but will leave cotton, rayon, and nylon unchanged.