Dyes and Spin: Final Considerations

New Persian Bidjar
For more than half a century it seemed as if the skills needed to weave great carpets were lost forever. But look at this new Bijar from northwestern Iran. In all respects it is equal to the 19th-century Bijars that are prized so highly by collectors.

Oriental Rugs Today: Chapter 3 Part 4

For all practical purposes, both natural dyes and modern chrome dyes are superb, and so are hand- and machine-spun wool. I believe that the choices one has to make among them are strictly personal and aesthetic. There are four ways in which they may be combined: natural dye with handspun wool; natural dye with machine-spun wool; synthetic dye with handspun wool; and synthetic dye with machine-spun wool. Let us consider each of them in turn.

If you like the homespun look of tribal and village rugs, with lots of color variegation and other elements that add up to an impression of character, you are almost certain to be attracted to rugs made with handspun wool. Once you have been shown the difference between it and machine-spun wool in a rug, you will have no trouble telling them apart. Most likely you will also prefer the look of natural dyes to synthetic, though the difference between them is not as apparent. Generally, natural dyes will add to the pleasant irregularities that attract those who prefer tribal to city rugs. The combination of natural dyes and hand-spun wool is time-honored—used for more than 2500 years (that we know of). The extra cost of each is worth the expense to some, if for no reason other than the mere tradition of their use together. But it is the unparalleled character imparted by natural dyes and handspun wool in combination that makes it my own clear personal favorite.

Tibetan Rug Ginkgo Leaf
A new Tibetan rug with handspun wool and synthetic dyes

However, handspun wool so greatly enhances the texture and appearance of most rugs that one may find that, for some, the use of natural dyes on top of handspun wool pile pays only diminishing esthetic returns and is an unnecessary expense. Both George Jevremovic and Teddy Sumner, important producers of handspun, natural-dyed rugs, have told me that, in their opinion, handspun wool is the more important of the two — and I agree. There are relatively few rugs made with handspun wool and synthetic dyes except for Tibetan rugs (many of which have this combination). Most people would agree that the colors and texture of the best of these Tibetan rugs look great.

This Pakistani ‘Persian’ exemplifies rugs with chrome dyes and machine-spun wool pile. It has a finished, formal look, with little or no abrash.

People who prefer the finished, formal look of city rugs are likely to be attracted to rugs with machine-spun wool and synthetic dyes. Certainly those who are meticulous about order and regularity, and who admire symmetry and perfection, will gravitate toward these rugs. Typically, they have colors and surfaces of great consistency. They lack abrash and other irregularities that are off-putting to some people. These folks are in luck, because good rugs in chrome dyes and mill-spun pile are in great supply and relative bargains.

This piece was woven from machine-spun wool that was dyed from natural substances. The natural dyes give it a pleasant irregularity, while the machine-spun wool gives it a uniform surface and a formal feeling.

There is one last combination to consider: rugs with machine-spun wool and natural dyes. These are among the most successful rugs today, and many sophisticated designers favor them together. In any case, those who weave rugs of this type, like Samad Brothers and Rugs by Robinson, often seem to have the decorative rug market in mind. In a way, this pairing has the best of both worlds: mill-spun yarn is finished-looking enough for the most formal of settings, while natural dyes and their attendant abrash and variegation lend character and personality.

Now that I have laid out the choices in such an orderly fashion, and you, the reader, have perhaps identified your own preference among them, I have to ruin everything by introducing some additional information. Clever people have learned to fake (or simulate, depending on the intention of the producer) both natural dyes and handspun wool. Machines that spin wool can be manipulated (broken, actually) to cause their speeds to vary erratically, causing the yarn they produce to be spun tighter in places and looser in others. That variation in spin, of course, is exactly what gives handspun wool its (up to now) unique advantage.

Fake Natural Dyes and Handspun Wool
Detail of an inexpensive Indian carpet in which both handspun wool and natural dyes are simulated. The illusion, though good, results in a carpet that lacks depth and liveliness.

Natural dye can be faked by dipping a large quantity of wool into a synthetic dye bath in stages. Imagine a large quantity of yarn wrapped around a wheel: the wheel is lowered into a dye bath of synthetic dyes a little at a time, so that at the end of the process the first yarn to go in has spent (let’s say) eight hours in the dye bath, and the last to go in has spent only two. In this way many different shades are produced from a single dye lot, and the natural variegation of vegetal dyes has been simulated. Clever — but confusing to us who thought we had sorted out the issues surrounding natural and synthetic dyes, and hand- versus machine-spun wool. Moreover, sometimes natural and synthetic dyes are mixed in the same rug. The green, for instance, may be vegetal and the red synthetic. Even more confusing, sometimes natural and synthetic dyes are mixed to make a single color! One knowledgeable traveler reports that in Iran he was puzzled to see a dyer working with madder-root husks almost drained of pigment. When he asked the dyer how he managed to get any saturation of color using the anemic-looking substance, the dyer cheerfully replied, “Easy. After we boil the wool in madder, we just add some of this” — holding up a can of Swiss synthetic dye.

So how can one tell the difference between what is real and what is faked? There are differences: the real thing simply looks better, but the differences are subtle and do not lend themselves to identification in a book. I hate to tell you this, but the best answer is that the price of the rug is probably the best indicator. Natural dyes and hand-spun wool don’t come cheaply, and when you see a rug that appears to have both but is quite inexpensive, watch out. Not that there is any tragedy in buying a rug made as I’ve just described. On the contrary, the price of these rugs is relatively low and they can look great. It’s just that you will want to know what you are getting. You may have to trust your rug dealer to help you sort it out.


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    Tom Faulkner October 9, 2008

    Three questions : Is there a good way to deodorize carpets without washing them ? I love them but my wife says they smell moldy or like deisel fuel ? They smell good to me!
    2. If a carpet has discolored fringes (obviously due to dye/washing) is that an indication of synthethic dyes ? 3. I notice with some carpets upon moving them there is a little trace of colored dust (the color of the carpet) in certain places on the floor. Is that an indication of dry rot and can a rug be revitalized ? Cleaning or treatment that would bring luster back to the carpet.
    Tom Faulkner

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    Richard October 15, 2008

    We use a product called Mister Max’s Anti Icky Poo to deodorize our carpets (Not a Joke though it should be.) The website is http://www.mistermax.com and the phone number is 800-745-1671.
    If the fringe is discolored it’s a pretty good sign that the carpet was woven with fugitive synthetic dyes. The fugitive dye can be set, and in some cases removed from the body of the carpet but usually not safely from the fringe. What many rug washers will do is say they can remove the dye and then use bleach to remove the staining. This of course destroys the cotton fringe over time. You can call our rug washers, Talisman at 831-425-7847 and see if they have someone in your area they can recommend.
    The dust particles you are seeing are completely normal. It is the fibers that are continually being broken off the pile of the carpet and migrating down through the foundation. The more hard core your vacuum the more particles you will see.
    Anytime a carpet is washed the rug washer should condition the carpet. This is essentially putting back the Lanolin that is lost over time and in the washing process.
    Let me know if you have any other questions,

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    Bob January 18, 2009

    What does luster wash mean, and can i do this to my kermann rug.