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To Dye For... by Ian GrantBaluch Tribeswomen

In the past few years, the rug industry has seen a swing towards the use of vegetable dyes. This renewed use of vegetable dyes has arguably been the main spark in an industry-wide increase of quality and variety in handmade rugs over the last eight years or so. Unfortunately, some questions seem to get left by the wayside when rug merchants espouse the glories of natural dyes versus chemically dyed rugs. Statements like "Well, this is a naturally dyed rug" are rarely followed up with why this is so obviously a better way of dying rugs. Today even machine made rug manufacturers try to emulate the effects of natural dyes by drastically altering the shades of individual colors to achieve this natural dye look. Why are natural dyes so much better than chemical dyes, or better yet, are natural dyes better than chemical dyes?

Up until this century, natural dyes (also called vegetable dyes) were the only thing going for the 2000 years or so of rug weaving. Comparably, the issue of natural vs. chemical dyes in the 1860's was shaky at best. So many of them bled or faded in a matter of months that it seemed these new manmade dyes wouldn't last much longer on the market then they did in the rugs. In the late 1800's the chemical dyeing process stabilized. As things settled down in this new business, rug manufacturers soon realized that the cost of producing chemical dyes was much lower and less labor-intensive than producing natural dyes. As a result chemical dyes were a hard option to pass up. Color consistencies seemed to be much better and easier to control in manmade dyes, and it appeared that the same colors that natural dyes achieved also came out in the manmade ones. In fact many of these new manmade dyes' chemical compositions were identical to their vegetable counterparts.

The new dyes slowly made their way to the more remote weaving areas as the turn of the 19th century came and went. Some of the tribal weavers found it hard to get their hands on the new dyes. As a result of this scarcity, some tribal weavers prized the man made dyes. In a few of their ceremonial carpets, tribes like the Baluchi would use a little bit of these dyes to accent an important area of the rug. Today, one hundred or so years after these rugs were woven all of the natural dyes have settled down to pleasing soft tones while the lone chemical dye still shines like a neon sign.

To give an example of how far removed the look of natural dyes is from the public's mind today, it is still difficult to explain to some discriminating customers that the variation in color they see in natural dyes is not a flaw and was actually the way things were done for two millennia... and if these same discriminating customers weren't brought up on green '50s wall-to-wall carpeting, maybe they could appreciate such subtlety! (OK, maybe I'm venting a bit.)

Today's rug merchant often has a habit of saying "These are vegetable dyes" then stepping back, crossing his arms and standing silently with a smug, triumphant look on his face. I think a further explanation is needed as to why natural dyes are so great. The first point is that natural dyes are not great because they are better than manmade dyes. On the contrary; they are just different. Assuming we are discussing comparable quality dyes from each group, manmade and natural dyes will have the same longevity and they will bleed as little or as much as their counterpart.

What chemical dyes have over natural dyes is their perfect consistency. Chemical dyes are made in large batches. This means you can dye a particular red or blue in such amounts that it will last a weaver not only through one rug but through a whole series of rugs. Not only can they do "large batch dyeing" (dyeing large quantities of one color in one vat), but because of the exacting qualities of chemicals that go into good quality chemical dyes, even different large batches that come from the same recipes (for the same color), are virtually identical. For the person that sees variation in one color (known as "abrash"), as a flaw or an annoyance, only chemical dyes will do.

What natural dyes have over chemical dyes is also based purely on one's own personal aesthetics. The look of natural dyes gives every rug its own individual character. The abrash is completely random. Even in so called program rugs (rugs that are purposely woven to be identical in design and color and are available in a variety of sizes), when they are woven with natural dyes they will still have an individual character. With natural dyes as the years go by, the colors soften to an appealing patina. Today's good quality manmade dyes are too young to know what they will do after a century or so of life. Natural dyes speak of a time-honored tradition of individuals passing on secret family recipes from generation to generation, out collecting what they needed from the land they lived on, dying just enough for the rug they were weaving. Natural dyes produce not only emotion for the eye but also a sense of historical emotion for the soul.

Opie, James. Tribal Rugs. The Tolstoy Press, Portland, OR 1992.
Eiland, Murray. Oriental Rugs, A New Comprehensive Guide. Bulfinch Press, USA 1989.
Boucher, Jeff. Baluchi Woven Treasures, pub. Boucher, Alexandria, VA 1989.
Thompson, Jon. Oriental Carpets. Penguin Books, New York, NY 1993.


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