The process of twisting together and drawing out massed short fibers into a continuous strand to constitute a pile of a rug is called “spinning.” It is known to be done by hand for the past thousands of years until machines were invented for that purpose. Spinning wool was almost an endless activity for girls and women in rug making cultures. Women would spin whenever they were free to do so, even while they walked. It completely makes sense that, when wool spinning machines were introduced, rug makers uninhibited their traditional methods.
We can assume that some village and tribal rug makers continued to spin wool by hand, but by the end of World War II nearly all wool used in rugs made in cities were spun by machine. Oddly, the subject of hand versus machine spinning was never spoken of or written about by rug experts during the 1970s and ’80s. The subject was introduced in about 1985 when a San Francisco rug dealer boasted that a new production of rugs he was carrying was made with hand-spun wool. That startled some people in the industry. Until then, people in the rug-making industry believed that all rugs were made with handspun wool. They were wrong. In fact, most Oriental rugs have been made with machine-spun wool since about 1945.
The distinction between hand- and machine-spun wool is far from academic. The wool we are speaking of is the fiber used for the pile of a rug, in fact, it is the rug. Handspun and machine-spun wool have different characteristics that crucially affect how a rug looks. Handspun wool yarn is usually asymmetrical in the tension of its twist; it is inadvertently spun looser in some points, and more compact in others. One practical effect of this irregularity is that, when soaked in dye, handspun yarn absorbs less where it is spun tightly and more where it is spun loosely. Unwittingly, the spinners have created yarns that, when dyed, never have a uniform color. Another practical effect of the lack of uniformity is a slightly uneven “nebulous” surface on the rug. Because both these factors — the asymmetry of colors, and the rug’s irregular texture — such rugs appear to be handmade.
We are now becoming aware of a complication that purchasers of rugs with handspun wool sometimes encounter. During the first months of using them, you would notice that loose ends of the pile are pulled up by vacuuming. Pieces of pile stick up a half-inch to an inch above the rest of the pile. Most rugs tend to have this problem when they are new, though it is clearly more noticeable in rugs with a handspun pile. Though it can be fearsome to rug owners, the phenomenon is harmless. The loose ends of the pile can be and should be clipped the same height as the rest of the pile. If the rug maker does not take proper care of the clipping, the situation can, on rare occasions, be annoying enough to be considered as a real complication — though one that affects the appearance of a rug, never its durability.
Even though handspun wool is much more in demand today than even a few years ago, it still is found in only a small proportion of new rugs. Although we are uncertain and have no source for hard information about this, we estimate that perhaps approximately 3 percent of all rug production today is handspun.
Machine-spun (sometimes referred to as mill-spun) wool in an Oriental rug looks quite different from handspun wool — at least in new rugs. Because the tension of its spin is so consistent, machine-spun wool absorbs dye uniformly, and colors are more sustained. And because of the uniformity of the tension in machine-spun yarn, a rug made with it will have a very disciplined and complete look. You will easily be able to distinguish the differences in handspun rugs and machine-spun rugs if you examine them carefully abreast, and look for the dissimilarities we have described.
Now, which one is the right choice for you, a hand-spun rug or a rug made from machine-made wool? The considerations are so linked to the considerations of natural versus synthetic dyes that it is best to discuss them together, which we will do in the next blog post.