Persian and Oriental Rugs: Back to Natural Dyes


For the past few decades, the vast majority of so-called Persian and Oriental rugs of “commercial” grade, have been woven with chemically dyed wool. In fact, the significant cost of preparing natural dyes has made the use of chemical colors somewhat tempting.

Natural Dyes

Natural Dyes

However, master weavers and producers of higher quality Persian carpets and Oriental rugs have come to the conclusion that natural dyes are a “must” if they are to achieve desired levels of quality in their production. They observed evidence that natural colors simply improve with time, whereas chemical dyes stay the same in soft light, but fade or are dulled by prolonged exposure to sunlight. A rug by a master weaver can often be authenticated by its colors. The time-consuming process of preparing natural dyes, resulting in the relatively higher cost of preparing them is briefly explained below.

Natural dyes, first discovered by shepherds and farmers many years ago, are extracted from plant or animal materials and fall into two categories. The first are naturally colored , the second need to be put through an elaborate process in order to reveal their coloring properties. Producers and master weavers of high quality rugs still use natural dyes, mixed by themselves or by working closely with a selected master dyer attached to their workshop. The ingredients, doses, and quantities used for the range of dyes are a closely guarded secret. It is extremely difficult to copy a color. As a new batch is needed for the continuation of the weaving, it is almost never going to be of the exact same shade produced by the previous batch. This results in variations of colors in hand-knotted Oriental and Persian rugs, and not at all considered a defect.

Master dyers use colors extracted from bark, roots, stalks and dried leaves, ground to a powder. For example, the dried skin of a pomegranate, a cream color in powdered form will produce a matt yellow color. Powdered walnut hull will color from a range of browns to black. Dried vine leaves will offer a range of colors from khaki to grey, and ground twigs of weld or sparrow grass give a strong, golden yellow that is particularly bright on silk. Also, the roots of the madder plant give a widely-known red or rusty red (Rounas).

Chemical Dyes

Chemical Dyes

The raw material in its powdered state is inserted into a bath of cold water which is then heated in order to release the coloring agents. It is then left to cool down to allow the color to dissolve. The hanks are plunged into the water at room temperature in order to avoid a thermal shock which would damage the fibers. They are then brought to simmering point for a specific length of time depending on the shade desired. According to the nature of the raw material and the color required, different mineral salts are added which alter the PH of the bath and allow the color to fix onto either the wool or the silk.

Unlike natural colors, chemical dyes are readily available, do not require difficult processing, and are therefore less expensive to work with. However, top producers insist on their use in their high quality products as no other substitute has yet been discovered. With the revival of natural dyes into the production of many Persian carpets and Oriental rugs being woven today, the future of the rug industry seems to be much more promising now compared to only twenty years ago. These rugs are sure to become heirloom pieces of tomorrow.

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