Rugs of Iron, Wefts of Stone
Restoring Bijars
by Holly L. Smith
  This article originally appeared in Oriental Rug Review Vol 12, No. 4 (April/May, 1992). Copies of this issue may still be available for purchase - please consult the Oriental Rug Review website.   


  When I am asked which type of rug I most enjoy restoring, my answer is Bijar. I am invariably met with frozen stares of astonishment as though I had suddenly presented my inquirers with Medusa's head.   

"But isn't that the rug of iron?" they ask, "the rug with a foundation tough as stone?"

Yes," I answer, "it is. That's why I love it."

To me the Bijar is a majestic rug, often using archaic patterns with clearly defined colors. Floral elements bound off fields awash in indigo blues, saturated yellows, and rosy, warm madders.

The character of Kazak foundations is meaty and open. The Kuba/Daghestan is rigid and delicate. The Turkoman is cerebral and forgiving. The Shiraz is light and supple. The Bijar, however, is tough as a board. Folding them is out of the question. A 9'xl2' Bijar can come delivered for restoration in a 12- foot tube which won't bend around doorways or stairwells. And it is heavy. To work on one when the requirement is to have one hand at the back of the repair while working on the front often leaves me with two alternatives: either give the rug a bear hug for hours at a stretch, or use an assistant under the rug to push back my needle.

However, like most things in this world which appear on the surface to be inflexible and unyielding, there is in the Bijar a soft spot. The challenge has been to discover and use it, encouraging it to respond to the manipulations of thread and needle.

To understand the unique characteristics of their weave, it is necessary to review the methods of rug construction. First, warps are strung onto a frame which holds them taut under extreme pressure so that in appearance it resembles a harp. Weft threads are then woven in, running under one warp and over the next. The second weft reverses by going over one warp and under the next. This makes the fabric. Knots are tied after the planned number of wefts. In the Bijar this planned number can be either two or three wefts. When there are two, the first is straight and the second is sinuous. When there are three, the first and third are straight while the second, or middle weft is sinuous.

The internal strength of most types of rugs is this tautness of warp. It is on the warp threads that the wefts and knots are dependent. The Bijar, though, is ruled by its straight weft; and this is the soft spot. It is an extremely fat cord (Z-spun and S-plied) composed of a grab bag of hair and wool. In some later Bid jars, it is of cotton. To compare it to the hemp twine used for hay baling is neither an exaggeration nor a condemnation. However, it is through this weft channel that I am able to insert new materials.

The extreme thickness of the straight weft keeps the alternate warp threads from even touching each other (Diagram 1, below), creating two distinct planes. To clarify this, think of it as a pencil lying between two pages of a book.

Diagram 1. The alternate warp threads are kept from touching one another by the extreme thickness of the straight weft.

The second weft is nothing at all like the first. It is of a much finer spin, usually rose or brown in color, and is at least as thin as the warps. In later Bid jars it may be of cotton. It is very sinuous, looping around the outside of the warps and holding them down (Diagram 2, below).

When the pile wears away, this sinuous weft is exposed and will easily break. The telltale sign of this sort of damage is indicated where long warp threads are seen uninterrupted by any sort of weft covering (Illustration 1).

Illustration 1

The full diameter of a tightly compressed straight weft cannot be ascertained by a diligent examination of the back of the Bijar. As any weaver knows, a thread of such composite and resilient materials as this Bijar weft is very hard to beat down with a typical weaver's comb. So an interesting trick has been discovered by the weavers of Bid jars. They found that by dampening the weft it compressed more readily. Knots could then be put in on top and, as the weft dried, it expanded to its greatest capacity, squeezing the knots above and below it. This produced the finishing touches of the Bid jar's straight and unyielding character. The weft will have expanded to the maximum point, filling in the channel between the rows of knots far better than could any exertion by weaver or comb. When the rug is rolled up, the warps on the outside of the roll will be stretched as  though they were wrapped around a  steel drum, and this is why it is easier to roll a Bijar from side to side than from  end to end.

The warps of either wool or cotton are  about one quarter of the straight weft's  diameter and are quite delicate. Ofttimes the damage which I encounter is to the  warps. This is made evident by a careful  scrutiny of the back of the rug. Friction  can cause them to break, and they will  appear as loose tufts rising off the surface.

In the Bijar weaving areas, a change  in warp content occurred in the late  1800s. This change was from wool to cotton warp threads. Cotton is a fiber  which is more resilient to abrasion  created by ordinary wear or even by a  weaver's beating comb during construction. Being a less readily available  product to shepherding tribes, this  change occurred later in rural areas,  and rugs woven in 1920 and beyond may still be of wool warps.

How do these peculiarities affect my  methods of restoration? To follow the  common technique of inserting new  warps through or alongside the old warps can wreak havoc with the Bijar.  The sinuous weft holding them in can split with the added burden of encompassing both the old and the new, and  the warp itself is too delicate to allow  new insertions. In some instances, I  have found success by gently threading  a new sinuous weft over the existing  sinuous wefts to bolster them. This then allows me to insert new wefts while protecting the original structure.

But, in most instances, I have found | that looping my new warps and holding  them in with a finer thread is the most  invisible and least intrusive technique. This finer thread is anchored through alternating straight wefts of the rug so that the new area cannot be detected by sight or touch.

Inserting the new straight wefts into the original presents similar problems. It has been packed in so tightly that there is no room for a new weft of equal thickness. But here we are lucky. Because it is of such resilient materials, there are usually fragmentary sections of the old straight weft flapping at the edge of a hole. I make use of these by attaching the new weft directly to them, mitering them in and winching them tight, thereby avoiding a direct confrontation.

Illustration 2.  Bijar vagireh

One key in any successful restoration is to follow as closely as possible the materials and techniques used in each rug. So what about the slightly dampened weft used in the creation of a Bijar? Where does this figure into my restoration approach?

I found that, if I used a new weft of the exact same material as the original and built my knots of appropriate thickness  and ply on top of that, there would be  an increasingly small area in which to  work. Halfway through the restoration,  my warps would be filled with new wefting and new knots, and all of my force would not be sufficient to compress my straight weft.    

I had to abandon the typical restorer's  approach of maintaining pressure from  back to front with an occasional  compaction vertically, a method which  is perfectly successful for most rugs.  Instead, I found that dampening the  weft, as the weavers had, enabled me to  build an exact duplicate of the original structure.

There is one final quality of the Bijar which has proven to be the most  difficult to master. I often describe the feel of a good Persian rug to be like a mink in one direction and like a Labrador dog in the other. The Bijar feels like a Labrador retriever's coat in both directions: smooth, hard, bristly and comforting. As I have always opposed stripping one rug or fragment to restore another, when first attempting to restore Bid jars I had to choose from amongst the commonly available yams. This produced disappointing results. No matter how invisibly I had set in my new foundation, the knotted area looked dull and matted. The element of transparency was missing.

My searches led me to county fairs,  weaving studios, and to potential  sources overseas. I was fortunate to  find some high country wool which,  when appropriately spun and plied,  returns the light to the observer's eye.  This detail enables my repair to blend  in thoroughly. It is still my intention to  further improve the match by locating  wool with even more of the bristly  strength of that used in the Bijar.    

Hardness of wool, clarity of design  and color, resiliency to abuse... the Bijar has it all. Their unique and  seemingly unassailable structure  challenges the restorer to improve and  devise new methods. Years ago I rose to the challenge and have sometimes faltered, but now I feel confident that  the Bijar and I have an understanding.    

Is it any wonder that this rug of iron  has become the cornerstone of my love of restoration?   


Holly Smith is the owner of Holly L. Smith & Co.,  Boston, Massachusetts.  Her company  performs restorations (local and overseas) and cleaning, as well as providing rug brokerage services.  Her restoration work hangs in museums, private  collections, and in auction galleries.  You can visit her website at www.hollysmithrugs.com


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