The Dyes

One of the most skilled arts that are employed throughout the creation of an oriental rug is that of the master dyer.  These skills are as important to the quality, durability, and beauty of the rug as are the materials, design, and the weave. If a rug is dyed properly it will age wonderfully and look better as long as it is maintained properly.  When a rug is dyed masterfully, it will increase in beauty and value every day of its life as the colors gradually change and develop a patina that finely handmade products do.

Unfortunately, dyeing processes are probably the most complex process in the entire rug creation. For centuries up until 1856, the only sources of dye were natural plant and animal substances.  These types of dyes were relatively expensive, hard to make, and required masterful skills to use.  Then in 1856, a chemical breakthrough took place that created easy to use and inexpensive synthetic dyes.  Of course, as is the case with everything in oriental rugs, both types of dyes had their strengths and weaknesses.

There are basically two different kinds of dyes.  Natural dyes are those that are taken from nature and are not man-made.  These dyes are essentially created through extraction from plant and animal sources.  Synthetic dyes are man made. These dyes are created in a laboratory using chemical processes.  In many cases, the structure and properties of these dyes are exactly the same.  But in other cases it is readily apparent that the properties of one dye outweigh the lower expense of another.  It is also very important to understand that there are a huge number of misconceptions about the different types of dyes.  Some people have gone as far as to say that certain types of dyes have no value whatsoever.  The fact remains that with the speed of change that goes on in the dye industry, it is nearly impossible to compare the different types of dyes on a fair and neutral basis.

Natural Dyes (Vegetable Dyes)

For many centuries, the only available materials to be used for dyes were natural.  These dyes required intensive skills and training to be correctly measured, formulated, and applied.  For these reasons, trade in natural dyes became a major economic boost for many rug-producing areas.  Many colors were so hard to produce with local ingredients that they had to be imported and were sold worth their weight in gold.  Other natural dyes were so essential and commonplace that their production became complete local industries within themselves.

There are many beliefs about natural dyes that exist even today.  Using natural dyes is a very labor-intensive process.  It involves careful and exact recipes, and requires the knowledge and patience of a skilled dyer.  Because each batch of vegetable dye produces a color that is nearly impossible to replicate, many of these color combinations are kept in family recipe books that are passed down through generations.

Primary colors (red, blue, yellow) are the most often used and produced dyes in oriental rugs.  With vegetable dyes, these primary colors are also necessary for the creation of the secondary colors (orange, green, purple, brown, black.)

Chemical Dyes (Synthetic Dyes)

With advances that came in the way of chemical production throughout the 19th century, it was inevitable that synthetic dyes would eventually find their place in the oriental rug industry.  Because of the skill required for use, and the expense involved in attaining natural dyestuffs, many chemists made special efforts to create dye processes solely for the purpose of use in oriental rugs.

Synthetic dyes may be described by two general terms- aniline, which refers to compounds based upon the benzene ring, and chromes, which require the use of potassium chromate as a mordant.  Each of these has different strengths and weaknesses dependent upon the properties being described.

In 1856 Sir William Henry Perkin became the first to develop a useful dye that was available for commercial use in rugs.  The financial success of this dye process and the demand that was apparent from oriental rugs prompted many other European companies to follow suit and begin development of synthetic dyes. These dyes offered properties that most natural dyestuffs could not; brighter, more vivid colors that were not affected by natural light.  Many colors that were previously impossible to produce with natural dyes quickly came into the market, becoming the main color palettes for many oriental rugs.  These new dyes were both cheaper and easier to use than their natural counterparts, but because of the speed with which they entered the marketplace, many faults were later found which prompted criticism.

As synthetic dyes improved, the market was slow to adjust to the changes.  For a long time, consumers demanded natural dyes, and many dealers resorted to lying to their clients about the type of dyes in their rugs. Today, synthetic dyes are used in the majority of all rugs produced.  These are still easier and less expensive to use, and this has caused the master dyer to slowly move away from natural dye and concentrate on the synthetic dyes.  For the rug industry itself, this may be a good change- preserving the customer base that demands a more modern product.  Sadly, this is killing the original art form of the master dyer.  The art of the natural dyes are slowly vanishing due to the mis-education of the consumer.