Chinese rugs normally use only natural fibres, and any rug containing synthetic materials will almost certainly have been machine-made. A small minority of old and antique items use metallic (gold, silver) thread interwoven with wool or silk.
Wool is the best and most widely used rug-making material. It is soft, durable, easy to work, and contains natural oils, such as lanolin, which resist dirt, making wool relatively simply to clean. Good carpet wool needs to combine softness with durability and a degree of springiness, otherwise the Chinese rug will wear out quickly or fail to return to its natural shape if creased or depressed. As a general rule, the best wool comes from lambs between eight and fourteen months old, particularly those from colder, harsher highland regions.
China proper is not a noted wool-producing country, but it has traditionally had access to Tibetan, Mongolian, Kansu and Sinkiang wool. The wool from these regions is considered amongst the finest rug-making wool in the world. It is normally divided into 3 grades: Sining wool from Tibet, a long-stapled wool known in the trade as ‘spinning’ wool; Mongolian and Kansu wool, a short-stapled wool, referred to as ‘filling’ wool; and Sinkiang wool, another short-stapled filling wool, which was traditionally ‘river-washed’ before being transported to the other weaving regions.
Handmade Chinese rugs, 100% wool
For much of this century the Chinese have also imported wool from such countries as UK, New Zealand and Australia. In addition to sheep’s wool, a number of older Chinese rugs also used goat, yak and Bactrian camel wool and hair. Most contemporary Chinese rugs are made with wool from various different countries and native regions, with each range (standard Chinese, Sinkiang, etc.) employing a specific wool combination. The quality of the wool also varies slightly between grades within the same range. However, the overall standard of wool in all Chinese rugs is good, and in general the higher the grade of rug, the better the quality of wool employed.
Art Deco rug, hand knotted wool, China, c.1930’s
Cotton grows in China and has been in plentiful supply for centuries, providing a natural resource for the textile industry. It is normally only used as a foundation material in Chinese rugs. There are a handful of old items with a cotton pile, but the vast majority of contemporary Chinese rugs have wool or silk piles. Cotton has numerous advantages as a foundation material; it is stronger, more vermin-resistant, and keeps its shape better than wool; and because it is thinner, it can also be used for finer weaving. It is, however, susceptible to mildew.
Silk is produced by a species of moth (bombyx mori) commonly known as the silkworm. It is native to China and has been employed in Chinese textiles and rug-making for centuries. Two kinds of silk are used in weaving: raw silk, also known as ‘drawn’ or ‘reeled’ silk, because it is drawn directly from the cocoon; and waste silk, derived from damaged cocoons, which has to be carded and spun like wool or cotton. Most Chinese silk rugs use waste silk.
Making a silk rug
As a pile material, silk has the advantage of combining durability with wonderful aestetic and textural qualities. It is extremely strong and can be spun into the very thin strands needed for exceptionally fine knotting. In many ways it embodies the opposite properties to wool, being cool as opposed to warm, yin as opposed to yang, reflecting rather than absorbing light. Silk garments traditionally protect the wearer from spells, and strategically placed silk or reflective objects are used to ward off evil influences.
Chinese silk rugs
Silk is more expensive than wool and has the disadvantage of scuffing more easily and melting if it comes into contact with flames or excessive heat. Silk rugs therefore require more care to protect them from damage, and should always be rolled rather than folded, as they tend to retain creases in the pile (read also about Chinese rugs care & repair).
Mercerized cotton, which is occasionally used as a pile material, is normally referred to as ‘artificial’, or ‘art’ silk.