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The Role of Dyes in Antique Oriental Carpets

Some people believe that vegetable or natural dyes are better than synthetic ones, and that carpets made with natural dyes are always better in quality. This is not always true. For one, categorizing the dyes used in many rugs into “natural” and “synthetic” is not always possible. Also, the quality of vegetable dyes vary, and some may be more damaging to wool compared to a modern chrome synthetic dye that yields the same shade.

In general, “natural dyes” refer to traditional carpets produced in the rural areas using local vegetation and other items gathered from the surrounding environment. While the term is often used interchangeably with “vegetable dye”, there are some natural dyes that are made from other sources such as insects or walnut shells.

However, these definitions are not in anyway strictly followed. For example, synthetic azo dyes were available to many weaving centers between 1875 and 1890, and was already available to rural weaving towns by the turn of the century. The first synthetic dye was invented in 1856, and they were cheaper and easier to prepare and use than natural dyes. If synthetic dyes were available to carpet weavers, it is likely that they used it along side natural dyes.

Some synthetic dyes are better than others. The earliest aniline ones did so much damage to the art of weaving that at one time Iran (Persia) actually passed a law forbidding their use. Today there are some modern chrome dyes that work well with the natural fibres and fade in a more natural way. This was not true of earlier chrome dyes though and you will never get the lovely variegation in greens for example with any synthetic dye.

Hence, it is not always accurate to say that just because a rug is 50 years old, natural dye was used, or that rugs that use natural dyes are better and more durable.

Most experts will agree that well made natural dyes last longer and fade in a more pleasing way, softening and deepening rather than just disappearing.

Here are some examples of sources of natural dyes:

  • The roots of the climbing plant madder produces shades of red. This plant belongs to the Rubia genus, whose root contains three coloring items: alizarin and purpurin which are both red and xanthin which is yellow.
  • The female bug cochineal was used to produce a more vivid red.
  • Yellow was created using weld, saffron, turmeric, sumac or the fruit of Persian buck-thorns.
  • Shades of green were typically made by mixing indigo and yellow, although in China, weavers used the shrub rhamnus chlorophorus to create green dye.
  • The leaves on the indigo plant are used to make different shades of blue.
  • Purple dye is made from shellfish.
  • Orange dye is made from Henna.
  • Barley produces beige dye.
  • Shells of nuts and leaves and husks of nut trees make dyes in black, brown and gray.

The type of dye used will vary greatly in relation to the area that it was made in. It is important that any repair or restoration to handwoven textiles are made using the same materials as much as possible to the original.

Pick out a rug in various dyes and shades from Sharafi & Co.

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