Alchemy was the dyers’ magic prior to our modern knowledge of chemistry. "Today a turquoise from your plain wool, tomorrow pure gold from your old coppers." Englishman Richard Hakluyt belonged to a "Middle Temple" and sent a dyer to Persia in 1579AD with the written instructions..."In Persia you will find carpets of coarse thrummed wool, the best in the world, and excellently coloured: those towns you must repair to, and you must use means to learn all the order of dyeing those thrums, which are so dyed as neither rain, wine nor vinegar can stain."
The vast and glorious kaleidoscope of colour found in oriental carpets came from dyeing traditions now mostly lost, like the nomadic horsemen themselves, cultural victims of the Industrial Revolution and 20th century imperatives. The trail of evidence has been picked up in various areas and disciplines.
The published work of Bruggerman and Boehmer identifies dye flora growing today in West Asia and then matches constituents to the colouring compounds in old rugs. Exact recipes, however are more difficult. Scouring old Persian texts has been an interesting if sometimes puzzling source, coming up with descriptions like this:- "Rose Colour: Take ratanjot, a thought of cochineal, madder or Lac colour a very little, add cinnabar and water and soak for 12 hours. Add the wool and steep for 36 hours, boil for 3 hours, then bathe in alum and wash well. Afterwards dry in the shade."
Like the colour of wine, regional variations occur even within the same recipes. But each village area and especially each tribe had their own palette. This greatly assists tapetologists detect the origins of particular carpets but does not help to find and reproduce particular dye recipes. Compounding this was the secrecy that protected the dyers guild. Weird and wonderful ingredients and transmutation processes were included to obscure the important steps and preserve the dyers’ standing as a magician in the community.
The Dyes - Traditional Organic
Reds were produced from the roots of the madder bush but a skilled dyer could conjure shades ranging from pale orange to deep purple with the same root. Blues are vat fermented and came mostly from indigo tinctoria although the Afshar and Belouch preferred the Anil and linifolia varieties. Yoghurt and pomegranate produces a bright orange regarded as the true Afghan colour by Afghans themselves but labelled synthetic by dilettantes. With every Mohan, Lal and Baksheesh entering the noble and historic carpet trade misinformation abounds! Both the leaves but especially the sour inedible pith and skin of the pomegranate could produce red through yellow hues by the judicious application of mordants and astringents such as alum, yoghurt, wild citrus, walnut galls, potash and rusted iron water. The mordant was used to fix the colour as well as to change the hue. For instance the West Persia wild delphinium produces yellow with alum and green with copper sulphate. Most greens, however, were double dyed yellow with blue and most yellows show safflower predominant. The beautiful shades once produced by these dyers were always a complex mixture of plants and minerals.
The dye, cochineal, a native of Guatemala, became popular in Europe during the English Georgian period and was imported in vast quantities into Turkey then Persia and later via Russia and India. This bullish trade died overnight, eclipsed by the discovery in Germany of aniline dyes - red, blue, brown and black at first and others later. By the 1870’s these inferior dyes were widespread, appearing in rugs from even the remotest communities like the nomadic Tibetans. Azo dyes were the second generation of imported synthetic dyes, and were, unfortunately, light fast. Bright apricot and orange colours were most popular with the weavers. The advent of synthetic dyes in the East was coupled with advances in weaving technology in Europe (invention of the jacquard loom etc.). Almost overnight tens of thousands of shawl and brocade cloth weavers and fabric printers, all traditional male occupations, became redundant. At the same time the carpet weavers, mostly women, at home, were released from the tyranny of the dyers, and, a more titanic change could not have been forecast - women could use the dyes themselves! Many took on the role of principle breadwinner in many households. This improvement in status continued throughout most of the 20th century. The emergent wealthy Trans-Atlantic middle classes had already deemed oriental carpets the height of fashion. There was public brawling at Liberties’ carpet openings and shady types profiteering among the Virginian plantations. Carpet making revenue in the east rose accordingly.
We are swimming in a vast sea of family. Come in, the water is fine.