The short answer is: Quality. An oriental rug is more akin to a work of art than a commodity, and making a hand-knotted rug is an extremely labor-intensive process. (All hand-knotted carpets may be generically referred to as “oriental” rugs, regardless of design. (Oriental means east and Occidental means west.)
Once a rug’s design and specifications are determined, the design is graphed out on paper (known as a “cartoon”) for the weavers to follow. Yarn is carded and spun, often by hand, and then plied to the appropriate thickness. Next comes the dyeing of the yarn in as many colors as required. Dyeing and drying of the yarn can take ten days or more, depending upon the weather; rain and/or high humidity extends the dyeing and drying times.
The most common material used in creating the pile of an oriental rug is wool. Some are made of silk, or a mixture of wool and silk, and sometimes other fibers as well. While the type of wool used varies from region to region in the rug-weaving countries, it is all derived from descendants of the same ancient breed of fat-tailed Asiatic sheep. Most of these sheep live at high altitudes and/or under extreme conditions, which produces some of the strongest and most resilient wool in the world.
Most carpets are produced on vertical looms, with the weavers sitting in front of the warp threads with the cartoon tucked behind or pinned above. The actual knotting of the carpet consists of tightly wrapping the dyed yarns around a pair of warps, cutting the yarn, then repeating this process horizontally, knot by knot, for the entire width of the foundation. After a row of knots is completed, a weft is passed in and out over the warps and tamped down to secure the knots. As a general rule, one weaver works on a portion of carpet 24”-30” wide; knotting of the carpet occurs at the rate of a few square inches to about 2/3 square foot per weaver per day, depending upon the fineness of the knotting.
When the carpet is completed, it is cut from the loom and sheared to an even pile length, then given a gentle wash to remove loose fibers and any dye residue. Washing and finishing is integral to the process of making a carpet, is again dependent upon weather conditions for the drying of the carpet.
The quality and durability of the hand-knotting process remains technically unsurpassed, which is part of the reason why there are surviving carpet fragments that are many hundreds of years old. The hand-knotting process results in a much denser pile than even the best quality machine-made rug, since the pile is actually knotted to the warp and secured by the weft, not simply interlocked through the foundation. Hand-knotted rugs wear much longer, are more soil- and stain-resistant, and will clean up better than any rug made by machine. When machine-made pile wears down, the visible result is a threadbare foundation. When oriental carpet pile wears down, over many decades, the color and pattern remain distinct because the “collars” of the knots, which form the base of the pile, are still secured to the foundation and conceal the warp and weft.
Oriental rugs have a pleasing imperfection, with each piece varying slightly from the next, one-of-a-kind. Sizes are not exact, and borders may not be perfectly straight. These are not flaws, but important indicators of a handcrafted product. A typical 8×10 rug contains 500,000 to 700,000 hand-tied knots.
A quality oriental rug will never be made by children. Regardless of the “small fingers” myth, children do not have the advanced skills necessary to produce finer-quality carpets. However, many inexpensive Orientals are being imported in bulk and sold in warehouse-style furniture stores. There is always a correlation between the cost of labor and materials, and the cost of the finished carpet. If a new carpet is being sold at an unbelievably low price, it is likely that it is either made with inferior materials, perhaps with child labor, or both.
In summary, the labor costs of skilled weavers, and the quality of the materials used, is what makes hand-knotted carpets more expensive than their machined or tufted counterparts. Hand-knotted carpets are simply the best available.
Many thanks to GuildCraftRugs for this informative article.