The use of vegetables, roots, shells and other natural items to make dyes has been a well known art for many thousands of years. This ancient practice continued unchanged and untouched until the mid 19th century when synthetic des were invented. The findings at a Chinese spring dating from about 3000 B.C. indicate that the science of dyeing was initially developed in far east. On the other hand, in Europe, the first dyers were most probably people who lived around Zurich lake in about 2000 B.C. we also know that the art of dyeing belongs to old times in India. Marco Polo in the chronicles of his travels tells us how indigo was cultured before it was exported to Europe by Portugese merchants.
Why are natural dyes so important? Is ıt because some shades of colour can not be found in the various synthetic dyes? Or is it because the natural dyes are cheaper or easier to obtain? Actually it is none of these reasons. The synthetic dye catalogues are quite thick and rich in the kinds of dyes and shades of colours that are available but the natural dyes comes from mother nature's own harmony and they reflect the preferences of the various peoples through the years and centuries. Plus, natural dyes will mellow with time and if left under the sun, unlike synthetic dyes, they will shine and radiate the most pleasing shades of colours.
In many areas it is common practice to expose naturally dyed rugs to the sun so that the colours fade gradually and gracefully to their ultimate harmony and beauty, but the synthetic dyes don't have this pecularity. If the dyes used is of the chromatic type, the colours are fast to light, as well as moisture which in itself can be considered as an advantage, but if the synthetic dye used is of a lower quality, with the time the colours will fade and various shades will probably be dull and lifeless. We can see with our naked eyes all the differences in dyes, understand the advantages and disadvantages of each type and easily discern which ones are more harmonious and eye pleasing.
Fine rugs recognized for their value and beauty are made with natural dyes obtained from plants, berries and trees. Chemical dyes are also used but to trained eye they do not have the beauty or lustre of natural dyes.
Now let's learn about some main natural dyes;
- WOAD > BLUE
From this plant, dark or light blue tones are produced by the lenght of time which the plant is boiled. Woad and some other plants are used to yield indigo which is the oldest and most important blue dye.
- MADDER > RED
Madder was a standart colour on the palettes of the old masters of the Rennaissance and today. Many expensive Italian and English neckties are known as madder ties because of the rich deep toned red colour.
- CAMOMILE >YELLOW
During the spring, one finds this plant all over the green areas. It's flowers, fresh or dried used along with an alum mordant, produce a bright yellow
- WALNUT > BROWN
The fruit is covered with a thick green rind which along with the leaves often used for a green or blackish brown dye. In ancient times, the walnut pods were used in medicine and for the dyeing of hair.
- POMEGRANATE > BROWNISH YELLOW, DARK BROWN, BLACK
The fresh or dried skin of the fruit is used for dyeing. If an alum mordant is used along with the skin, a brownish yellow shade will result. If an iron mordant used, a brownish black shade will result. In Oriental carpets and kilims pomegranate is a symbol of fertility and abundance because of it's many seeds. We can see pomegranate figure often on Oriental rugs.
- HIBISCUS LEAF
Boiling Hibiscus leaves will result different shades of green by the lenght of time which the leaves are boiled
As we see, nature provides its own store of colours. Trees,flowers,plants and even certain types of soil supplies incredibely beautiful natural colours, but producing these beautiful natural dyes is not an easy job. The craft of using natural dyes involves a rather percise and complicated process. Degree of maturity of the plant to be used, boiling, temperature, dosage of pigment and composition of the water largely affect the shade of colour to be obtained.
Dyeing process is one of the important steps of rug producing but it is just the beginning and the rug has a long way to go to be fully woven with those dyed fibers with the patience, labor and mastery of the crafter.
I believe the more you learn about the details of handmade rug producing the more you will admire them as i did when i was introduced to them by my rug expert grandfather when i was a teenager.