Rugged dealer: Local rug guru and adventurer sounds off on buying handmade pieces

Photo: Martyn Kyle Photo: Martyn Kyle

Do you want a handmade rug, or do want some commercially made rug?

When Saul Barodofsky, co-owner of Sun Bow Trading just south of the Downtown Mall, asks you this, it’s less of a question and more of a command. A frequent lecturer at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., and a 36-year veteran of the rug trade who travels the world searching for lost Old World treasures, Barodofsky’s earned the right to issue floor-covering commands.

If you agree with Barodofsky and you’re ready to purchase a high-end, hand-woven rug, remember a few of his most important tips.

Price

“Price does not necessarily indicate value.”

Never assume that the cost of a piece means it’s of high quality. The market for handmade rugs is highly variable, depending on your location, so you should get to know pricing in multiple markets before making a decision on a piece.

Supply chain

“Know your rug dealer.”

Many people come to Barodofsky knowing very little about rugs. The best rug dealers, on the other hand, have extensive knowledge of the rug trade and the different markets for certain pieces. Use their expertise to understand what you’re buying before you buy it. This is particularly important when it comes to determining authenticity, which is difficult for newbies.

Authenticity

“Before there were machines, people had to make things by hand.”

If you want to know if a piece you’re considering was actually made by a craftsperson and not mass-produced by a machine, reach down into the weave and pull up with your thumbnail. If your nail catches, you’re likely feeling a knot. Knots are unique to hand-woven rugs, as machines cannot replicate them (yet).

Appearance

“You don’t get handspun wool and hand dyed material in commercial rugs. It’s too expensive.”

Handspun wool looks richer than commercial wool, and it takes color differently. Look for high sheen and deep texture with a good deal of color shift, known as abrash or abraj. Variation in color is not a mistake on the part of the weaver, Barodofsky said. It’s a natural effect that adds interest and keeps the colors of the rug from “bouncing.”

Context

“You’re not designing a motel room, you’re designing a place for you to live.”

Barodofsky said too many of his clients come in obsessed with matching their new rug, which should last for a very long time, to their existing curtains and other decorations, which are far more short-lived. Instead of trying to match every little detail, Barodofsky suggests filling your rooms with pieces you love. If you’re too OCD for that bit of idealism, buy your rug and build the room around it.

Size

“The question ‘What is the right size?’ implies that there is a right size for every room no matter what you are going to do in it.”

While some people may want a wall-to-wall floor covering out of their rugs, Barodofsky said that’s often impractical. First, smaller rugs with more striking colors can appear to fill more space. And second, that idea ignores context. Multiple small rugs can be use to create conversation areas and allow people to use rooms for multiple purposes. Plus, smaller rugs travel better when you move to a place with differently shaped rooms.

Clean living

The first thing to know about caring for your rugs is to clean them only when they’re dirty, said Barodofsky. Regular maintenance and removal of particulates should be done with a suction vacuum, not a vacuum with beater brushes, which were designed for wall-to-wall carpeting.

“You don’t want to break your fibers,” Barodofsky said. “In the old days, they had rug beaters. But what they don’t tell you is that is the quickest way to ruin your rugs.” Another way to break your fibers is to set your rugs atop thick rug pads—that allows you to press into the rugs when you walk on them with hard-soled shoes.

The first thing Barodofsky does when he acquires a new piece of floor art is clean it thoroughly with a light, non-detergent soap and moth-proof it with a plant-based solution only toxic to insects. Over-cleaning or using a detergent soap will strip the lanolin out of your rug, he said.

Sunlight is also the enemy of a healthy rug, just as it is the enemy of your wood, drapes and book covers. “It’s not the same sun that was around 100 years ago,” Barodofsky said. “It does different things to people and different things to everything.”

What about pet owners? Should they be wary of buying a handmade rug? Barodofsky said dog urine can be completely removed; cat micturition is more difficult. “It depends on the pet and depends on the rug,” he said.—S.G.

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