Natural Dyes and Synthetic Dyes in Oriental Rugs

Wool Seeping Lahore
Wool seeping in a pot of madder dye in Lahore, 1998.

Oriental Rugs Today: Chapter 3 Part 2

We have seen that one of the ‘revolutionary’ aspects of modern rug production has been the return of natural dyes. Not long ago, shoppers who were interested in new rugs (or who couldn’t or wouldn’t spend the money to buy antiques or semi-antiques) had no choice but to buy rugs with synthetic dyes. Today, though, natural dyes are an option in new rugs and, in fact, you will have to decide between natural and synthetic dyes if you buy one. The choice is important because, aside from everything else, natural-dyed rugs cost roughly 30 percent more than synthetic-dyed rugs. Let’s look closely at synthetic and natural dyes and how they compare.

Natural Dyes in Oriental Rugs

You will find that I use several words for natural dyes: ‘natural’, ‘vegetal’, and ‘vegetable’. I prefer ‘natural’, but use the others simply because I get tired of typing out ‘natural’ time after time. ‘Vegetal’ and ‘vegetable’ are slightly misleading because one natural dye, cochineal, is made from an insect and is not vegetal at all. Once a manufacturer of Turkish kilims told me proudly that she makes her rugs from ‘organic’ dyes. I seemed to remember from high-school chemistry that ‘organic’ refers to any material that is carbon-based, and I questioned her closely about organic dyes. She admitted that she bought the dyes from a Swiss dye maker. I’m still not clear what ‘organic’ dyes are, exactly, but something tells me that they are not mixed from roots.

Rugmakers of the Middle East and Asia have used natural dyes for thousands of years. In the classic model, weaving is done most often by women and dyeing most often by men. In some important rug-weaving areas of the Middle East, dyers make reds from dried, ground madder root and (less often) from cochineal, blues from indigo, yellow from weld, green from sequential dyeing in indigo and weld, brown and camel from walnut husks, other colors from many other vegetal substances. Every area has its own indigenous materials from which dyes are made.

Some dyeing takes place in two steps. First, in a process called ‘mordanting’, yarn is dipped into a hot solution of alum or iron, which prepares wool fibers to bond permanently with dye. Then the yarn is placed in vats of hot dye where it is cooked for shorter or longer periods of time and at higher or lower temperatures, depending on the dye and the shade desired.

Natural dyes are expensive in the sense that they take a lot of time: time to pick or dig up, time to dry, grind, and finally seep. Some, like natural indigo, must be dyed repeatedly to obtain permanence. But when vegetal dyes have been handled correctly, the colors they produce are wonderful. Colors are usually saturated without being edgy or harsh. They seem to glow. Even in skeins of yarn not yet woven, naturally produced colors are simply beautiful.

One writer (Reinhard G. Hubel, The Book of Carpets, New York 1970) suggests that Persian weavers do not really deserve their reputation for having a wonderful sense of color, because, with such gorgeously colored, naturally dyed yarns at their disposal, no weaver could possibly go wrong using any combination of colors in a rug! Dr. Harald Bohmer, the father of the natural-dye revival in the 1980s, puts it this way: “Out of yarn dyed with natural dyes, it is impossible to create color combinations that seem grossly disharmonious.”

Variegated Green Dye
This variegated green shows specks of blue and yellow, ordinarily a sign of natural dyes. The other colors are variegated too, but more subtly.

But why should this be true, and not true of synthetic dyes? While the primary synthetic dyes are absolutely monochromatic, each natural dye has elements of all the primary colors. Madder, for instance, besides its dominant red hue, also reflects blue and yellow. This has two important effects, one of which is that natural dyes—madder, indigo, onionskin yellow, etc.—all look good together. “The integration of neighboring colors within each dye has a harmonizing effect; natural colors are already harmonized in and of themselves,” Dr. Bohmer says. The second effect is that the presence in each natural dye of all three primary colors inclines them toward black, which would result were they all mixed together. “The presence of all three primary colors in each natural color brings about a shift toward black that, in turn, softens the color’s intensity.” So natural dyes harmonize and soften, and that, in the main, is why they look so good.

Beyond that, natural dyes produce colors in Oriental rugs that are charmingly variegated. This is most easily seen in natural greens, which show flecks of blue and yellow (from which green is composed). But a close look at most rugs with natural dyes will show you that none of the colors is quite unifonn. Why is that? Part of the phenomenon is due to the irregularities of handspun wool (as we shall see), which is often used along with natural dyes; and partly to the association of natural dyes with small productions in which only tiny lots of dye are mixed at any one time, each of which is slightly different from the others. Furthermore, natural dyes are a bit transparent because they are not absorbed by wool as thoroughly as synthetic dyes; hence the color of the wool shows through the dye and adds to the variegated look. The net effect of all this pleasing irregularity of color is a rug that is vibrant, never mechanical-feeling: it gives an impression of character.

As far as practical considerations are concerned, natural dyes are phenomenally stable. Museum collections contain 400-year-old pieces whose colors are almost unbelievably vibrant. They resist fading in sunlight and they resist running when exposed to water. In other practical respects though, natural dyes do have drawbacks. They are expensive, hard to work with, and time-consuming. For rugmakers wishing to produce rugs ‘in continuity’ (that is, a number of different rugs in all sizes, with absolutely consistent colors) natural dyes are impossible, because results are inconsistent and unpredictable.

Synthetic Dyes in Oriental Rugs

Synthetic Dyes
Synthetic dyes. These are especially bad synthetic dyes, but they serve to make a point.

Synthetic dyes were invented in the 1860s, and a class of dyes known as aniline was in use in the Middle East in rugs by 1900. The early synthetics were wretched things that nearly ruined the Oriental rug industry. A perhaps apocryphal story, repeated in probably every rug book written in the last seventy-five years, has it that at one time a law was made in Iran banning the use of synthetic dyes at the cost of the miscreant’s right hand. But the use of anilines continued. Some early synthetics bled when exposed to water, others faded radically, some changed colors with age, and certain colors (notably a harsh orange) never lost their hard-as-nails edge. We would all be better off, I suspect, when considering synthetic dyes in new rugs, if we could simply forget about the failures of these early anilines. Our dislike for them should never extend to the next generation of synthetics, which are far superior. We would also be better off if we could forget our almost universal prejudice toward anything ‘synthetic’. The word carries a pejorative connotation unfair to the synthetic dyes currently in use.

Better Synthetic Dyes
Synthetic dyes, but pleasant. These are modern chrome dyes tastefully chosen and expertly used. Sometimes it is impossible to distinguish between good synthetic and natural dyes.

This new class of dyes was in use in the Middle East by around 1940. Mordanted with potassium bichromate, they are known as chrome dyes. They have now been in use for more than fifty years and are nearly perfect. They are cheap and easy to use. They produce an enormous range of consistent colors that are fast in water, resistant to fading, and non-corroding to wool. It is often said (especially by old-rug fanciers) that chrome dyes are too good — that they are so unyielding to light and time that they will never soften and acquire the mellow patina so esteemed in antiques. As a dealer who has washed rugs for the past thirty-three years, I have had an excellent opportunity to observe how rugs of all kinds, including those with chrome dyes, have aged. The news is good. I’ve been surprised to find that almost all those made with chrome dyes in the past fifteen years or so come back from washing looking very lustrous. Their colors have softened in a pleasant way. I would single out Indian rugs as aging especially nicely, and Romanian rugs as well. Nearly all rugs with chrome dyes are growing older just as we like them to. (I am less happy with chrome-dyed rugs of a slightly earlier period. Certain Persian rugs of the ’70s have shown disturbing tendencies to fade even in weak, indirect sunlight.) One complaint natural-dye enthusiasts voice about Oriental rug colors crafted from synthetic dyes is true, though. They do not have the variegation natural dyes impart. For instance, no synthetic green has the ‘flecky’ character of a natural green. Is that important? That’s a call you will have to make.

Now, having spent some time pointing out the differences between natural and synthetic dyes, I have to admit that quite often it is impossible even for an expert to tell the difference between them without chemical analysis. Yes, there are certain colors from early dyes that are clearly synthetic: I have mentioned a particularly irritating orange. But modern chrome dyes are another matter. How can you tell the difference between them and natural dyes? Sometimes you can’t, short of sending samples to a laboratory for analysis. Even experts often disagree as to whether a particular dye in a rug is natural or synthetic.

37 Comments

  1. generic user icon
    George Postrozny December 30, 2007

    Unfortunately not all natural dyes are so resistant to sunlight. It depends on, among other things, the quality of the dye source. For example, isparek is a natural dye source for yellow that is relatively inexpensive and easy to produce. Hence it is used ubiquitously by most rug producers. Unfortunately it tends to fade quickly — over 10 to 15 years as many of us have seen with the wl azeris.

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    Richard January 2, 2008

    Geez George. Get your own Blog. Happy New Year!

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    Edwina Cohen January 23, 2008

    My sister wants to buy a Persian Kerman rug supposedly from the 1920s. Part of it is lighter/faded. She doesn’t know about oriental rugs — she asked the owner why part of the rug is faded. He said: because it is natural dye. We don’t live in the same town. I need to give her a response soon. I told her — it is sunlight. I think the man wants to make a sale. What do you think?

    Please email me at Cohrun@aol.com

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    Richard January 23, 2008

    Edwina,
    It’s possible that what the seller is talking about is abrash. (See below.) It’s also possible that he’s giving your sister a line and it has indeed faded. One way to check this is to look at the back of the carpet. If the color change is the same on the back it is probably abrash. If the color change is not found on the back it’s likely sun fading. If you can send me a photo of the area, please do so and I’ll take a look.

    What is Abrash?
    Anyone who looks closely at the photographs of rugs in this web site will notice that, in many of them, colors change in horizontal bands throughout the rugs. A band of darker blue, for instance, may lie between larger areas of lighter blue. That kind of color-variation is called abrash. Most often abrash is caused by variation in dye lots and is most often encountered when rugs are woven in relatively primitive conditions where each dye lot may consist of only 20 or 30 gallons- as opposed to dye mixed in cities that may consist of 500 or 1000 gallon batches. But there are other causes of abrash as well. There can be large differences in the kind and the natural color of wool used in one rug, and each wool absorbs dye a little differently. Also, when wool is spun by hand, the tension of the spin varies and consequently so does the capacity of the wool to absorb dye. That band of darker blue that we cited above may result from a batch of loosely spun wool that absorbed a lot of dye.

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    Mike Mainen January 25, 2008

    If abrash is clearly present (visible change on the back, color change precisely along the new row), does that make it more likely the dye was natural, or is abrash found just as often in old aniline dyed rugs?

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    Richard January 25, 2008

    Abrash is found in both natural and synthetically dyed rugs. I find that in old synthetically dyed rugs using Analine based dyes the abrash is more pronounced. The color changes abruptly and is an obvious band in the carpet. In newer Chrome based dyes the change is often less abrupt. This I feel is due simply to better quality control. In naturally dyed rugs the abrash is more subtle and the colors tend to be very closely related so are less abrupt.

    There are several types of carpets on the market that are synthetically dyed but mimic the subtle abrash of a naturally dyed carpet. Often in Caucasian designs and on wool foundation (looks Grey) they are sold as Naturally dyed rugs. The runner pictured above is an example of that type.

    Hope that answers your question. If not let me know.

  7. generic user icon
    Mike Mainen January 26, 2008

    Thanks. It helps. The specific rug I’m looking at is not a new rug with simulated abrash. I’ve seen many examples of that. It is an old rug — said to be early 20th century. Predominantly red color. Persian. Significantly faded on the front side only, and it has easily seen abrash. I wouldn’t call it a subtle change. The vendor said it was aniline dyed. I don’t know how he can be sure. He also said it wouldn’t continue to fade==and there is my problem. If I buy it it will get heavy sun exposure.

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    Richard January 26, 2008

    One problem with Aniline dyes is that they often fade even when not exposed to sun. Here are two articles I found interesting.
    http://home.earthlink.net/~gordsa/page10.html
    http://www.presentltd.com/rugs/rug_dyes-tr.htm
    If you would like to send me a photo of the piece I’d be happy to tell you what I think.
    Richard@internetrugs.com

  9. generic user icon
    Mike Mainen January 27, 2008

    I will do that next week. Thanks for your help. The dealer has been in business a very long time–now into the third generation–in a very small city; and I will ask friends about his current reputation. I expect I will be told that it remains excellent. But he could be in error about this rug and/or about dyes. Nobody knows everything.

  10. generic user icon
    Mike Mainen February 18, 2008

    Hi Richard. I am e-mailing some photos of the rug I have been writing to you about. I’ve seen it three times now, and have looked at several hundred other oriental rugs there and at six or eight other rugs dealers. We still like this analine dyed rug. It looks to me that probably only the large faded red area was dyed with analine. The other colors are well preserved.

    I thinks the rug is in very good condition. The wool is soft and show no localized wear areas. The pile is reasonably deep. If you have any questions about its condition, I might be able to answer them.

    Thanks.

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    Mbertent August 11, 2008

    Hello. I am an employee of a fairly new rug company with production in Afghanistan. We have been under the assumption that all of our rugs are made with natural dye, however, we now have our doubts. We would like to confirm that the dye is natural and not synthetic and are looking for an expert to perform dye analysis tests. If you have any suggestions please send an email to mbertent@hotmail.com

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    Danso Manu Emmanuel February 13, 2009

    Want to know more about the company fo some serious research work thank you

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    Paige February 17, 2009

    Hi, I recently purchased a new Turkish Sarabi rug. It is handwoven, but I’m not sure if the dye is natural or synthetic. I prefer the look of an antique or semi-antique rug, but I found this one for an incredible price and it was the right color for my house. That being said, it looks very new and I’m wondering if you know of any ways to antique the rug or fade it out just enough that it looks like it’s been around a little longer? Thanks for any suggestions!

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    James Colin Campbell September 29, 2011

    Wonderful write up on Dye’s in rugs- I can see that the question, Chrome or Vegetable better? Just depends on taste. If you are decorating a modern space but want a traditional element a chrome dye would be perfect, but if you have a lot of antiques, it make look silly.

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    Dorian Grey February 25, 2012

    Good article

  16. generic user icon
    Jillian Poette April 3, 2012

    I have a question about the toxicity level in artificial dyes. I have a little baby and interested in an artificially dyed carpet for her to play.
    Jillian
    Thanks.

  17. generic user icon
    KJ August 5, 2012

    Is it better to use synthetic or natural dyes I am unsure?

  18. generic user icon
    Yumi November 1, 2012

    I am interested in purchasing a rug for a play area for my toddlers. A pattern I really like turned out to be chrome dyed but should I be concerned about any health issues for my little ones’ using it?

  19. generic user icon
    Richard November 16, 2012

    There should be no problem with modern Chrome based dyes. The vast majority of the dye is washed out of the carpet after weaving.

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    JeNich November 24, 2013

    Hello – I’m in turkey now looking at some lilim. I like the darker more vibrant colors of the natural dyed rugs. however there are some lighter rugs (think soft, pastel tones of peaches, soft yellows, light blues….) that I’ve seen that are nice. Can natural dyes get these colors or should I consider them synthetic dyes (even if the sale man tells me they are natural)? Thanks so much!! Joellen

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    Anonymous July 15, 2014

    I have read that aniline dyes are sometimes turned into chrome dyes by knowledgeable dyers. Is this true?

  22. generic user icon
    Cy May 9, 2015

    Why is this blog abandoned?! The last question has gone unanswered since 2014!
    Nice article anyhow, very informing.

  23. generic user icon
    Richard May 9, 2015

    You’re absolutely right Cy. It got to be too much work to answer all the posts and the hundred e-mails I got every week. To be honest I got a little bitter about it. I’d spend a lot of time answering people’s email and rarely get a thank you(not that I did it for the thanks.)

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    George May 23, 2016

    Thanks for this post. Interestingly, you rather clearly point out where Christies is wrong: “A tell-tale sign of whether or not a carpet is woven with naturally dyed wool is if it includes tonal changes within a certain colour forming visible bands called abrashes. These occur as each batch of dipped yarn has a marginally different saturation of dye.” Seems logical, as you point out, that abrashes can occur regardless of the dye used.

  37. generic user icon
    Amr October 29, 2016

    Hi,
    I was looking into buying an old semi vintage Persian rug. Once I took it home, I could see that some of the spots (threads) had been painted beige. I took a wet white cloth and rubbed it against different colours and all gave a beige bleed on the white cloth. Please let me know if this is okay as some other dealer told me that some rug sellers spray a colour over the entire rug to hide any defections. Is that true, please help.

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