Buying a Carpet in Istanbul

A guide to types of Turkish carpets and techniques that go into making them

Turkish carpets
A Turkish carpet could be the ultimate souvenir of your trip to Istanbul. Travel Ink / Alamy

If you want to buy a Turkish carpet, it’s worth knowing a bit about what you’re looking for--if only to avoid advertising your inexperience. For example, folding a carpet to check the knots will not only give you away as a novice, but can actually ruin the carpet if it’s silk. Rubbing a carpet with a piece of wet tissue to test its colorfastness is akin to licking a shirt before you buy it. And beware of shopkeepers who stress “authenticity” over quality. Authenticity is an important consideration when shopping for traditional wool-on-wool carpets. But for wool-on-cotton or silk-on-silk, it can actually be better to get a piece made with newer techniques, which produce tighter weaves, brighter and more durable colors, and more intricate patterns.

Carpets can range in price from several hundred dollars to several thousand or more, depending on the age, size, quality, and uniqueness. Merchants will ship them home for you, though many tourists find it cheaper and more foolproof to carry them back (the carpets can be folded and tied tightly into a squarish bundle).

Wool-on-wool carpets, which are made of wool pile on a wool skeleton (formed by vertical warp and horizontal weft threads), are the most traditional kind of Turkish carpet. Although becoming less common, these are still woven in countryside villages. Each region has its own distinctive, centuries-old, design-and-color combination. In general, wool-on-wool carpets cost less than other Turkish rugs. The best way to gauge the authenticity of a wool-on-wool carpet is to look for the natural, less-vibrant colors that come from vegetable dyes made from local plants. Density--the number of knots per inch--is less important to the quality of a wool-on-wool carpet. Fewer knots don’t signify a lower-quality wool rug, but they do mean that the rug is more likely to stretch over time.

Newer kinds of carpets, made of wool-on-cotton (wool pile on a cotton skeleton) and silk-on-silk, first appeared in the 19th century. The new materials allowed weavers to create more intricate floral and geometric patterns than traditional designs. (A weaver can fit more knots onto a cotton skeleton than onto a wool one.) Professional designers make these patterns with the exact thickness of the yarn in mind--so irregular hand-spun wool won’t work. Wool-on-cotton and silk-on-silk carpets are colored with chemical dyes, which can be as good, or even better, than natural dyes. If someone tries to sell you a new wool-on-cotton carpet by advertising that it’s “made with hand-spun wool,” “dyed with vegetable colors,” or that it “features a traditional design, passed from mother to daughter,” walk away. Unlike wool-on-wool carpets, density is important in assessing quality for wool-on-cotton and silk-on-silk carpets.

The towns of Hereke and Kayseri are each famous for producing a certain type of carpet. Hereke (heh-reh-keh) carpets are denser, require much more workmanship, and are more expensive. Authentic Hereke carpets are becoming rare, and cheap imported knockoffs are in the market nowadays, so watch out. Kayseri (kay-seh-ree) wool-on-cotton and silk-on-silk carpets generally have floral designs. Their wool-on-wool carpets are favored for their unique patterns and lively colors.

Kilims (kee-leem) feature a flat weave without the pile, similar to a Navajo rug. These also have traditional designs and natural colors. Used in the past as blankets and bedspreads, they’re mainly popular now as decorative items (and can be used as wall hangings). Kilims are generally inexpensive, but old and rare pieces can cost several thousand dollars. For a wearable, affordable kilim, consider a vest made out of the material; you’ll see these at the Grand Bazaar and elsewhere.

For more details, please see Rick Steves' Istanbul.

Excerpted from Rick Steves’ Istanbul.

Rick Steves ( writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at [email protected], or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

© 2010 Rick Steves

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