Oriental and Persian Rugs: How Are Natural Dyes obtained?


The whole process of producing Persian and Oriental rugs consists of so many stages, each one of which is carried out by a specialist. Among all these tasks, dying the wool is perhaps one of the most difficult and sensitive as colors play a major role in determination of value (and of beauty) for these works of art. The best expression of a dyer’s skill is, without a doubt, found in different shades of red, a color so often used in hand-knotted rugs. In what apparently conflicting colors the yarns are dipped, to lay a foundation for the final shades of red, is a science in itself. Madder, the root of rubia tinctorum, ground and boiled, is a basis for a large number of the reds of Persian carpets and Oriental rugs. Its flowers, too, are soaked in water, and the liquid made from them fermented, to secure some extraordinary shades of this color. The red most common in Persian rugs is made by combining alum-water, grape juice and a decoction of madder, and drying the yarn in a sunlight of medium temperature. Many degrees of redness, from pale pink to strong and glowing crimson, can be made from madder alone, by different treatments, and in combination with other materials it plays a part in over half the hues which appear in Oriental and Persian carpets. One of the oldest dyes is sheep’s blood, from which, by a secret method, a rich and durable vermilion is achieved.

Natural Dyes

Natural Dyes

Another material for deep red is kermes, a variety of bacterium insects found upon oak trees around the Middle East. The normal color produced from it is a rich crimson. It is one of the oldest of natural dyes, but it has been replaced by the Mexican cochineal, which after the capture of Mexico, and the importation of its products into Spain and from there into the Orient, took its place as an Eastern dye. This is used for the strongest reds, as well as in combination with other materials to give quality to more subdued shades. It is sharper than the native kermes, but not as permanent, according to expert dyers. With the old vegetable mordant, it produces a comparatively  fast dye. Also, in dilution with madder it provides scarlet, cherry  and various degrees of pink. Rich pink shades are often obtained from the rochella or orchil, a lichen which grows on the rocks around the Eastern seas. Singular reds are also obtained from onion skins, ivy berries, beets and a vast number of other plants, of which only expert dyers know the secrets.

The great majority of blues contain indigo as the main basis, which for the hundreds of shades used is mixed with almost every other dyeing substance known in rug-producing countries. In Persia, dyeing with indigo is considered as high an art as is the science of reds in Turkey and Pakistan. The principal yellows are obtained from Persian berries, which although native to Asia Minor, attain a more noticeable yellow color in Persia, from turmeric, the extract of the East Indian root curcuma, and from saffron and sumac roots. The turmeric yellow is not by itself a completely fast color, but transmits a life to other shades when used in combination. It serves as a mordant for certain dyes, and owing to its instant change to brown, when brought into contact with any alkaline substance, is used in chemistry as a test for alkalis. Some yellow shades are produced also by combination of the wood dyes and saffron roots and flowers and a variety of ochra plants. Indigo, in combination with the yellows, furnishes most of the beautiful greens used by native dyers. With the buckthorn, or rhamnus, it produces the Chinese green, and with turmeric and the Persian berries, a wide range of intermediate greens, both bright and dull.

The deepest shades of brown are arrived at by dyeing with madder over indigo, and the deep Persian blue is obtained from applying indigo over pure madder. The darkest blacks, which are seldom used except for outlining patterns, and defining border stripes, are made chiefly from iron filings, with vinegar and skin of pomegranate and sometimes with the addition of Campeche wood. Gray shades are secured by the use of Smyrna gallnuts. The schedule of purples is one of the richest in the whole realm of Eastern dyes. The different red ingredients mentioned above are used in combination with indigo to create most beautiful shades of purple.

This article will justly indicate the honesty which dominates the traditional Oriental coloring. It can also suggest the great variety of materials employed , and the high level of skills required in the blending of substances. Vine leaves, mulberry leaves, laurel and angelica berries, artichokes, capers, ivy and myrtle – all things that grow within the reach of the dyer – have been tried to their fullest extend as possible color-makers and color-changers. Many of the vegetations are cultivated by the dyers on their own land, in the intervals of their momentous labor in weaving rugs.

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