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Chinese RugsBy Charles W. Jacobsen
( Orginally published 1951 )
Chinese Rugs are entirely different from those of other countries. Their color effects and designs are different from other Orientals. In Persian and other Orientals, the standard of weaving is so many hand tied knots to the square inch; but in the Chinese Rugs, texture is, or was, stated in the linear foot-a rug would contain a certain amount of knots to the foot. India is beginning to copy some of the Chinese Rugs. With no Chinese Rugs being imported today, and all trade broken off with China, this chapter will deal briefly with the past -- with careful speculation as to the future of Chinese Rugs.
Today, there are only a handful of new Chinese Rugs in two importers hands in New York. Perhaps there are fifty carpet sizes and one hundred small sizes about 5 x 3 feet. That is the full extent of all the new Chinese Rugs available.
The only other Chinese Rugs available are used Chinese to be found in the hands of the small jobbers or dealers (wholesalers) in New York City. These have been bought from estates and from private homes. Most of these are somewhat worn, but some few can be found in good condition. A careful search any week through the thirty or forty small dealers might produce a total of a dozen 8 x 10 feet and 9 x 12 feet Chinese Rugs in good condition and some fifty rather worn ones.
Since World War II there have been very few Chinese Rugs coming to America - a few thousand at the most. They have been of two different types, both excellent in qualities but one much better and more expensive than the other.
Compare this dribble over a five year period to the output of over six hundred factories making Chinese Rugs up to about 1932, and producing some 9,000,000 square feet per year for America, in addition to footage sent to London for European trade.
A new factor also arose since World War II and up to the Korean War. Literally a million square feet of the hand hooked Chinese Rugs came to America. One large Fifth Avenue store sold (I am told) many Hundreds of Thousand Dollars worth of these as late as 1950. They were very in expensive. 9 x 12 foot sizes selling for from $75.00 to $150.00 with the hugh ones for $180.00 to $300.00. The 5 x 3 foot size sold for as low as $12.50. The wool quality was rather poor. Many used cotton. When these will come from Communist China is another guess.
CHANGES - CHANGES AND MORE CHANGES
Very few Chinese Rugs came to America prior to World War I. If you have seen a few antique Chinese Rugs (and there have been very few imported to America at any time And none have come for thirty years), you will note that they have a great deal of design. Many people, who have seen only hundreds of modern Chinese with the plain effect or much open field, would probably not even recognize the antique Chinese as being a Chinese. One glance at plates of antique Chinese Rugs tells the difference. Old Chinese and new Chinese are radically different.
Having seen comparatively few antique Chinese Rugs, and personally never having liked many of the old Chinese as compared to the new ones, I am not going to set myself up as an expert of antique Chinese Rugs. I should add that I have probably seen more antique Chinese rugs than most authors of rug books. I have seen those in the museums and in private collections. At the risk of showing bad taste, I must admit that some of the modern Chinese (not the completely plain ones), but especially those that copy the French Aubusson designs, are moee beautiful. I have seen and have had a few old Chinese Rugs that were indescribably beautiful and I have in mind a large light blue one that I sold to a doctor's wife in Troy, Ohio. It is the most beautiful Chinese I ever saw; and if all the old ones had its beauty, I would be an antique Chinese Rug enthusiast.
I could write in detail about antique Chinese Rugs, but if I discussed the Ming period - 14th to 17th Century rugs - or the Ching rugs from the 17th century to late 18th century (which includes the Kang Hsi, the Yung Cheng and the Ch'ien Lung rugs), I would have to take much information from the rugs in the Japanese Imperial Household, Japanese Museums, Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. I have seen the ones in other museums, except those in Japan, but again do not find the interest in them that I do in the other types of Orientals. There have been a few that had great appeal.
Old type Chinese were from quite finely woven to very coarsely woven (many of those in museums are very, very coarse), and they had the short pile but never the heavy, tight, compact nap of the best of the mod ern Chinese. When you think of the antique Chinese, you must think of the Chinese with the field well covered. The Chinese have always used blue and tan, but many of the old ones used cherry, apricot and yellow.
1920 - 1931
This was the period of greatest transition and most confusion. Still to be had were the Peking quality of Chinese Rugs in old designs and a limited number of semi old Chinese Rugs, all highly figured. The Peking were, as a class, much inferior to the factory made heavy Chinese Rugsof Tientsin. Many of the best Chinese rugs were still using the typical old Chinese weave, a rather finely woven rug of good wool but not the heavy, thick pile that began to appear about 1925.
There were Chinese rugs and Chinese rugs in many different qualities at that time, from the best to one of the very poor quality which I found everywhere in the market, and which one of the most famous stores on Fifth Avenue sold for $195.00. I often wondered how a great name store like this could afford to offer such an inferior rug. The nap was of very poor quality of wool mixed with jute. Anyone who felt the nap should have sensed the inferior quality. Of course, price merchandise meant volume, and all too many of the great name stores depend on price in rugs rather than quality.
About 1925 factories began to multiply in China and a much heavier, tighter Chinese rug began to appear. The Chinese employed the double Persian knot, similar to the weave of Bijar Rugs from Persia. Immediately Chinese rugs became tighter woven with more compact pile and a very heavy rug. The factory industry was located chiefly in Peking and Tientsin, the latter being the seaport of the former. But the rugs made in these two cities were quite different in quality and design.
To describe the color combinations used in Chinese rugs of this period would be to picture every combination imaginable. The more conservative patterns had a blue or tan field with a rose, blue or tan border. But they also came with green, gold, rose and lavender fields.
Each succeeding year less designs over the field seemed to be used. Many continued to use sprays in the corners and in the borders, but the majority gradually went to a plain field with a different colored border without design.
One particular type of Chinese rug that I especially liked was the so called Fette Rug - from the name of Missionary Mrs. Fette who started her own rug weaving factory. These were very finely woven and never adppted the heavy thick pile of the other modern Chinese rugs that were made during this period. Nor were these ever lightly lime washed as were most of the other Chinese rugs brought to America. The Fette's were the most favorite of most of the Army Officers stationed in China. Most of these continued to employ old Chinese motifs with more design than most other Chinese rugs then being made in China.
1930 - 1935
The depression very quickly put most of the six hundred rug weaving factories out of business. There were perhaps less than twenty so called factories by the time the Japanese invaded China. The depression did one thing for the Chinese rug however. It eliminated the cheap, junky, jute like quality that had wholesaled for $1.10 to $1.25 persquare foot in the New York market. And the Chinese rug of the depression years became a very heavy article of excellent wool. The prices were ridiculously low. A good 9 x 12 foot Chinese rug could be had from about $225.00 to $375.00 (maximum). During this period many came with the completely plain fields without borders and without designs, except for three or four small Chinese sprays or motifs.
1935 - 1945
Very few Chinese rugs were made after the Japanese took over China. On each trip abroad I saw several hundred in the warehouse of the Port of London Authority up to 1940, but they were the Peking quality and not the fine, heavy quality that had come to America. The wool in these was seldom of excellent quality.
1945 - PRESENT TIME
Very few Chinese rugs have come to America since the close of the war. Most of the machinery for spinning wool, the looms, etc. were destroyed. American firms found it impossible to start up again for many reasons. But a limited number of Chinese rugs, mostly in the 9 x 12 foot size, did come to New York in two different types. Most of those in the 9 x 12 foot size came in almost completely plain fields with no designs whatsoever, or at least very little design, and most of them were cream, apricot and green with a very few in plain blue. They had good wool and were heavy rugs which wholesaled from $300.00 to $450.00 for a 9 x 12 foot size. My estimate is that not more than a total of five hundred of these have come since the war. There are perhaps a total of fifty such rugs on the entire market today.
THE VERY BEST AND THE MOST BEAUTIFUL OF ALL CHINESE
The above describes a new type of Chinese that has come in limited numbers since the war. These rugs discarded entirely the Chinese motifs and design and copied many of the lovely old French Aubusson and French Savonnerie designs. Most of these came with the tan or taupe field and the designs in pastel shades of rose, blue, green, lavender etc. They are one of the best quality rugs of any type I have seen with fine wool and the extra heavy pile.
The law of supply and demand applied and they were too high to sell in numbers. Originally selling at about $5.00 per square foot, the twenty five large ones remaining in the wholesale market plus the fifty small ones are now priced at $6.00 to $6.50 per square foot wholesale. This means that the retailer must get close to $1000.00 for a 9 x 12 foot size.
Even if available in great numbers, there would be few sold at these prices when so many excellent Persian Rugs are available for so much less.
If, and when, we again trade with China, I predict that a great many beautiful rugs will be made that will be readily sold in America. But for the Chinese rugs to sell in numbers in a 9 x 12 foot size in America, they must be sold for $500.00 or less.
The high price of the real Chinese rugs probably accounts for the hundreds of thousands of inexpensive hand hooked Chinese rugs that came to America since 1945. A hand hooked rug can be made in one fifth the time the real hand knotted Chinese can be made. Of course, the hooked rug is not going to last as the real Chinese rug.
When I first started in the rug business, I was uncertain as to the durability of the Chinese rugs. Practically all had to have a light chemical wash to take off the stiffness and to make them salable. I could not tell friends at that time what to expect of the Chinese rugs with the light lime wash. Today, I can say with a certainty that a good quality Chinese rug (good wool) will last as long as a good Persian rug. In our rug cleaning plant we have cleaned thousands and most of those sold during the period 1924-1930 are in very excellent condition with only a few of them showing much wear.
The dyes used in Chinese rugs are fast, being either vegetable or the chrome dyes. I prefer the latter, since softer and more beautiful colors are to be had from the chrome dyes. Both dyes are fast. I have seen no Chinese rugs with loose or aniline dyes, or with dyes that have faded during the past twenty five years. The only fading of any colors have been either the rose shades or the lavender shades on rugs sold in 1924 - 1930, and often they have become more beautiful by fading. The blues and tans are always good.
For a detailed study of Chinese Rugs we recommend reading Gordon B. Leitch's book "Chinese Rugs".