Learning about Rug Dyes and Dyeing Techniques Used In Weaving Persian Rugs
Persian Rugs Dyeing Techniques and Rug Dyes – Sheep wool may be either a light off-white ivory color, or a dark brown to black. Both may be used in Persian rug weaving, but it is the ivory wool that is most easily altered through the process of dyeing to produce polychromatic textiles and rugs. The earliest traditional dyes were those made from various vegetable sources. These were mixed with water in a liquid form to allow the fibers to soak, often for a substantial period.
After soaking, however, the dyes had to be ‘fixed’ with a ‘mordant’. The solution was made from various metallic salts that bind the colors to the fibers. This process will stabilize the rug dyes so that they won’t not bleed or run when rug is washed or wet, and so that they will not fade with time upon exposure to sunlight. The same vegetable dye can produce different rug colors by using different mordants. In this way, for example, the madder plant will yield a range of reds, oranges, and purples. Yellow is made from saffron or weld. Blue was traditionally made with indigo. Green was made by overdyeing indigo with weld or by mixing indigo or cobalt with saffron. Various shades of red or violet were also made from insect dye or lac, derived from the shells of beetles. An example would be the red cochineal bug dyes.
The production of Persian rugs had always favored a wide range of color and a taste for rich, saturated tones. The Persian rug dyers became famed for their ability to achieve these effects despite the challenges and limitations imposed by the vegetable dying processes.
Around the mid 19th century, the first chemical dye, fuchsine, was discovered by mistake during a chemist’s lab experiment. By the later part of the nineteenth century, European chemists had succeeded in manufacturing new synthetic dyes of aniline and azo type that produced various shades of red, yellow, and the magenta called fuchsine (named after the dye itself) and mauvine purples.
These first generation chemical dyes appeared to have the advantage of yielding vibrant jewel tone colors, that, at times, tends to come out harsh, within a relatively short time. But they proved unstable. These dyes have a tendency of running when wet and they faded a lot upon exposure to light, or both. Consequently, this early generation of synthetic dyes had a devastating effect upon late nineteenth and early twentieth century rug production across the Middle East. Also, through access to old stockpiles, such dyes continued to affect rug production even decades later.
In the 1930’s, however, a new generation of ‘chrome’ or alizarin synthetic dyes emerged. Mordanted with potassium bichromate dyes proved to be much more reliable. Their color could be better controlled, avoiding the harshness of the earlier synthetics, and they proved very stable in reaction to light and water. These more modern rug dyes also made it possible to produce larger quantities of dyed wool in consistent shades.
With vegetable dyes it had been difficult to control the tones uniformly so that weavers were compelled to use different shades of a given color within the design. In time this variegated ‘abrash’ effect came to be appreciated as a virtue or textile art element in and of itself, but it still remains a matter of taste. Chrome dies gave rug weavers a greater control over their palette. Starting in the period between and continuing after the two world wars, Persian workshops used them to make rugs whose color was a fast and durable as it was rich and beautiful.
During the last several decades there has also been a movement to revive traditional vegetable dyeing techniques, which are now used alongside the newer, state-of-the-art synthetics as seen in the more recent and finer productions of modern and vintage Persian rugs.