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Oriental Rugs: Dyes

By Charles W. Jacobsen

( Orginally published 1951 )

[Rug Designs]  [Rug Materials]  [Rug Dyes]  [Semi-Antique Rugs] 

The three types of dyes that have been used are the vegetable dyes or colors, aniline colors and the so called chrome colors (synthetic or the alizorin dyes). Vegetable dyes were used exclusively until the latter part of the 19th century. They date back to the early origin of rugs and were derived from shrubs, plants, trees, flowers, roots, bugs and even earth.

For a good number of years, many of the rugs have been using the synthetic or chrome dyes, and these should not be confused with aniline dyes. In a general way, dyes must be reliable in that their chemical behavior is stable and they must be reasonably cheap. They must be permanent, or fast, in their resistance to light: in addition they must resist the action of acids, alkalies, soaps, water and the gases of the atmosphere, especially in the cities and finally they must resist wear. Of these, fastness to light is the chief test of durability. The result obtained depends not only upon the nature of the dye used, but also upon the manner of its applications. The chrome or synthetic dyes have proven most satisfactory.

The old vegetable dyes used in Oriental rugs was a long process. When the Germans came down into Persia and Turkey some fifty years ago and offered them cheap aniline dyes, they were used as a short cut for a very few short years in Persia. However, the Government soon put a stop to this practice and outlawed the use of aniline dye with very stiff penalities. So, it was only Persian rugs made about fifty years ago that the question as to whether the objectionable aniline dyes were used instead of the very desirable vegetable dyes.

The objection to these aniline dyes was they were loose, would bleed when wet and some of the colors would also fade out badly. Anyone who ever saw the aniline red in an Oriental rug and had it pointed out to him, could never fail to recognize it the next time he saw it. It was a bright Turkey red and I have always wondered how anyone could select a rug in such an ugly red.

The question of dyes is not a real issue today. Not one customer in a thousand today asks anything about dyes. Twenty five years ago we were often asked if we could assure the prospective buyer that the rug had vegetable dyes and not aniline dyes. It was not a very important question then, though at the time I, too, placed a good deal of weight and study on this dye question and took it seriously.

I often wondered why people who knew practically nothing about Oriental Rugs would bring up this point. At the very time they were asking this point, not one Persian rug in a thousand was dangerous because of aniline dyes, but the vast majority of the rugs that were being offered were both treated and painted. They knew little or nothing about the greatest evil, and yet were talking about the remote danger of aniline dye.

These people had read the rug books which warned against the aniline dyes. At the time the books were written it was a more serious problem, but not nearly so important as the books made out. Remember that MUM FORD'S first edition was published in 1900, and all who wrote rug books during the next twenty five years followed pretty much what Mr. Mumford said. Mr. H. G. Dwight in his "Persian Miniatures", published in 1917, gives Mr. Mumford full credit and goes on to point out that Mr. Mumford was not infallible. He says, in speaking of Mr. Mumford's book, " If he pays the penalty, so does he deserve the glory of the pioneer. And I hereby offer him a humble tribute of respect for having blazed out a way which many followers have done almost nothing to widen." In speaking of others who wrote during the next seventeen years after Mr. Mumford, Mr. Dwight says, "But it is hard to escape the conviction that without Mr. Mumford, names of few of these ladies and gentlemen would ever have seen print." He goes on to say, "Their method, one gathers from their books, is to sit down with Mr. Mumford in one hand and a school geography in another. " So, fifty years after Mr. Mumford wrote his book, people were still asking about aniline dyes, and he did not make that great an issue of it.

But the idea that vegetable dyes were all fast is incorrect. In 1917 in his "Persian Miniatures" H. G. Dwight said, " As for dyes, ancient and modern, the rug book people beat their breasts a little more vehemently than they need. They mourn the growing rarity of old vegetable dyes and they do well. They omit to add, however, that as garish horrors have been perpetrated with vegetable dyes as with mineral. Nor are the for mer so fast as the rug books contend. On the contrary, the beauty of vegetable dyes is that they will fade. But in Persia and in Turkey, at all events, aniline dyes are employed by no means so generally as the rug book people imagine. Not only are there in Persia penalties against their importation and against their exportation, but there is the growing employment of alizorin dyes." I believe that Mr. Dwight stated the case correctly.

Here is what Mr. Walter A. Hawley said in 1913 in his excellent book "Oriental Rugs": "On the other hand, not all vegetable dyes are fast, but as they fade they mellow into more pleasing shades."

Therefore, the question as to whether or not a rug will fade is unimportant because, if it is a new rug, the owner should want it to mellow.

Having seen a few hundred thousand Oriental rugs cleaned in my own cleaning plant, I would say that the question of loose colors or bleeding, or of any rug fading is far fetched. Even the least expensive Orientals that were bought twenty five to thirty years ago have mellowed but have not faded. I am talking about the natural colored Oriental rugs, and the same will hold of the Persian washed rugs and those washed with a light lime solution. THE RUG THAT WILL FADE IS THE PAINTED RUG AS DISCUSSED UNDER THE CHAPTER "Beware of the Chemical Treated Rug." That has nothing to do with dyes.

The only time the aniline dye question is an issue is when buying any antique Oriental rug which might happen to have that bright Turkey red. Not one antique Persian rug in a thousand will have that red. These have worn out and seldom available even in our homes. When that red is present, examine it for red stains on the white and blue. If none are present-if the rug has not bled during the many years since it was woven and the other colors are still pretty -- then the rug is all right.

There is little danger of the aniline dye in rugs made in Persia since World War I. Certainly any aniline dye, or at any rate loose colors, are few and far between. It is apparent that the synthetic dyes are here to stay in spite of their increased cost. It is the method of applying these dyes that have made them so good and it would require numbers of pages of detailed and tech nical discussion to fully cover the subject.


At the risk of shocking the hobbyist and collector everywhere, I wish the Persian would discontinue using these vegetable dyes altogether and use the chrome or synthetic dyes. These vegetable dyes are very bright and colorful; too colorful in their new state for the average American home ( hence the chemical treatment of most rugs to soften the colors ). Witness how Chinese rugs and the rugs from India have improved their colors and have brought out softer colors. If the brilliant vegetable dyes could be discarded in favor of the soft synthetic dyes, we would not have such sharp colors in our new rugs from Persia. I am quite sure that the Kirmans are doing just this. Of course, for the antique rugs and the museum pieces, we are glad that only vegetable dyes were known one hundred years ago.

But unless we want to buy our new Oriental rugs with the idea that they will be valuable rugs fifty to one hundred years hence, and we are willing to take the brilliant colors and live with them just to have vegetable dyes, then anyone buying a new rug for their own use during their lifetime will want the synthetic dyes, which are much more pleasing in a new or semi-old rug than the vegetable dyes.