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Rugs And A Word About Dyes

( Originally Published 1914 )

Throughout these chapters on domestic rug-making, I have given the old and familiar recipes for the colors used in dyeing the materials for the rugs since there seems to be a certain poetic justice in the association of these old-time methods. The recipes are for dyestuffs known as natural dyes. Some of them, however, like the formula for peach-leaf yellow in the chapter on the crocheted rug, might be more specifically classed as " hedge row dyes." Natural dyes consist of coloring matter which comes directly from animal, vegetable, mineral and metallic sub-stances. These pigments are often mistakenly classed together as vegetable dyes. The term natural dye is more inclusive and stands op-posed to all pigments produced by artificial means. Artificial dyestuffs are mostly derived from coal-tar and aniline products by analyzing the component parts of a natural dye and by reproducing them chemically.

In recommending the use of the older methods of dyeing I do not wish to ignore or criticize the progress made by the chemist in mod-ern coloring matters. But for the handicrafter the natural dye seems to me to have some ad-vantages. First of all, the colors can be used without modification whereas the artificial colors are crude and must all be toned down. A color-blind handicrafter could get good color with natural dye, but one often thinks that the user of artificial pigments is by nature color-blind.

For example, there is a series of artificial dyes called sulphur dyes because they are chemically derived from the action of sulphur and caustic alkali on organic matters. This is perhaps the most useful series of artificial dyes there is for the handicrafter, consisting of permanent colors but raw and crude unless toned down. Sulphur blue, for instance, must be modified with its complementary color, orange yellow, as there is no red in this series, before it loses its crudeness. If the natural dyes were used the fabric would first be dipped in blue and then on top of that the orange yellow would be overlaid. The artificial dyes must be mixed together in a powdered state and then used as a single color. It is exceedingly difficult to know what proportion of each color will produce the desired composite. I doubt if these dyes were intended to be modified in this way else the chemist who discovered the series would have provided a more exact recipe for toning them down. However, since they must be toned down, it is better to tone them down by guess-work than not at all.

When sulphur dyes are toned down by over-laying, they strip; that is, the first coating of the dye comes off when the second one is dyed and the fabric remains the second color. There are many artificial dyes which do not strip, such as the artificial indigos and acid dyes for silk and wool. But when these are overlaid the results are not satisfactory, for the composite colors are apt to turn a muddy gray under artificial light. The three complementary colors, orange, green, violet, must probably be produced in the same manner as the primaries, blue, red and yellow.

The dyer in using the natural dye can work as a painter does with a color palette beginning with the three primaries, blue, red and yellow, and from them producing their complementaries, orange, green and violet, and then their further modifications. Natural dyes act ac-cording to the accepted theory of color mixing, and when applied to handicraft can be depended upon to correspond to this theory. As far as I know no one has evolved the theory of color for artificial dyestuffs, so their contrary way of acting has not been scientifically explained. Being artificial they must of course have a code of their own which differs from the theories and laws of natural pigments. They all do extraordinary things under artificial light; most of the blues and greens look so much alike that it is difficult to tell them apart. Some of the acid dyes also get much cruder under artificial light. The sulphur dyes all get duller except the yellow which stays as strong as in daylight. And red, which in the natural pigment gains a finer quality of tone, often turns a dull and uninteresting brown. For this reason it is so difficult to match commercially dyed fabrics. This is why all the large dry goods stores have a gas room where samples may be examined by customers under artificial light. In different materials, as for ex-ample silk and wool which match in color in the daytime, there is a change at night, and they do not match at all.

Indigo blue which is the most important of all dyestuffs and the most beautiful blue dye there is, being a natural pigment, can be depended on to keep its pureness of quality.

Indigo blues, and greens with an indigo base do not change under lamplight, gaslight or electric light.

Most yellows in natural pigments soften somewhat at night except under candlelight which is itself almost a yellow light. In fa-ding the artificial dyes are also apt to lose in quality of color, while the natural dyes fade into softer and more agreeable tones. All dye-stuffs eventually fade somewhat. Permanency of color is a relative term, for all colors are effected by long exposure to light and even if the degree of color is not noticeably lessened, a certain grayness comes on it after a time. The natural dyes fade in this way and what they lose in degree of color they gain in quality of tone.

The handicrafter can always test a dyed fabric by thoroughly washing and hanging it, while it is very wet, in the sun to dry. It can be re-wet and hung out again or left in the open for about two weeks and be submitted to all the changes of the weather. By this severe test all the loose dye particles fall off and the color is reduced to the barest possibility of later changes.

While most of the cotton cloth which is used in making the old-time rugs is hand-dyed, some of it is to be bought already dyed. All colored cottons and cotton prints dyed by commercial processes with artificial dyestuffs, must be faded before they can be used. This tones down the colors and gives them more of the appearance of old material. The commercially dyed cottons, however, are not originally as crude in color as wool or silk fabrics. Cotton fiber is dyed with more difficulty than either of these because its physical structure has less affinity for coloring matters. The commercial cotton dyer and printer has special appliances for fixing dyes on cotton fiber; the most important of these is a steaming room where the cloth is kept at a certain temperature in order to assist the dye to attach itself to the fiber, but the amateur dyer does not command these complicated mechanical conveniences for methods of artificial dyeing.

All old cotton and woolen materials which have seen long service from wear, and which have faded as much as they possibly can fade, are most desirable from the artistic standpoint for handicrafters; but the supply of these is apt to give out when rugs are made for sale. Consequently goods must be bought to take their place. Some of our old-time rugs are to be made of commercial cottons, some of hand dyed cotton and others of old materials. Thus the handicrafter will get a new experience from making each kind.

In Colonial times when rugs were made entirely for home service, they were made of the only kind of materials then available, which were hand-woven woolens and cottons. I have heard some criticism on using new material for our rug-making. Some people seem to think that it is artistically unsound to re-weave materials which have already been woven. They do not object, however, to the use of old homespuns by the Colonial rug-makers; they say that was an economic necessity. If rugs are to be made for sale now, it is just as much an economic necessity to buy commercially woven and commercially dyed materials to make them with if there's nothing else to use.

If the objection comes wholly from an artistic standpoint I think it should be applied as a more general criticism to our modern and less artistic ways of living. The Colonial handicrafters raised sheep, spun and wove both cotton and wool. Our amateur handicrafters living and working under more modern and more commercial conditions cannot be as fundamental in this respect as their ancestors. On this account it does not seem to me as if they must give up humbler kinds of craft which might be a profit and a pleasure to them. If this were true then the only sound standpoint of rug-making is that of the Oriental and of the native American Indian since their rugs are the only ones hand-woven directly from a thread.

The same objection would apply to the mod-ern English appliques, for to be logical these ornamental figures of silk and wool cut out and sewed on either a background of silk or wool are also unsound; they should be figures woven into the body of the fabric as it was originally made. The use of applique could not be justified on the ground of diversity of texture by combining different materials. With the improved hand loom and Jacquard loom the most wonderful mechanical skill is used in weaving fabrics. But alas, these are not always beautiful. It is wise to work fundamentally and thoroughly, but if we cannot do so with absolute thoroughness we must do as conscientiously and as well as conditions will let us. In this way we may learn to do better.

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