New Natural-Dyed Rugs

Much of what was lost to the industrial revolution is back.

Natural-dyeing and hand-spinning gave way to mechanization in the 1860's. It was easier to use chemical dyes and machine-spun wool. These dyes saturated the yarn with out variation and there was a sameness to the texture of the mill-spun wool. The net result was a loss of individuality in handmade rugs. They began to resemble machine-made rugs.

Before 1865 nobody would ever have asked what kind of dyes were in a particular oriental rug. That's because there were only natural dyes - colors made from plants or, occasionally, from insects. Nor would anyone ask if the yarn was hand spun - there was no other kind.

But the industrial revolution brought aniline dyes and mill-spun yarns to the rug world.

As these products became cheaper and more available, the temptation to use them was overwhelming. You could create innumerable shades of colors on yarns that were of a consistent diameter. The uncertainty of what the final product would look like was eliminated and the results were entirely predictable. Red dye #3 was always red dye #3and the texture of a finished rug was without variation.

Chemical-dyeing and machine-spinning almost entirely replaced the older methods by the 1920'sand creativity in Oriental rug weaving was in total decline. There were few bright spots in the twentieth century until the mid 1980's. Then, ironically, as the cyber age was dawning with a significant impact on most of the world's industries, the big news in the rug world was that "progress" had been reversed. Producers were rediscovering recipes for making natural dyes and these dyes, with all their unpredictable subtleties, were being applied to lumpy uneven yarns spun by primitive methods.

The designs of choice were also a throwback with an emphasis on the tribal and irregular. Casual in mood and spontaneous in nature, these rugs revealed the soulfulness of their weavers who were no longer just hired technicians but, once again, skillful artists and craftsmen.

Natural-dyeing and hand-spinning were reborn in Turkey in the early 1980's and have spread to much of the weaving world (although accounting for only about 3% of today's production) with particularly exciting results coming from villages where Woven Legends created weaving facilities and from the Afghan refugee communities in western Pakistan. In the tribal areas of western Iran, those time honored techniques never quite disappeared and a renaissance of their use is in full bloom.

When first exposed to natural dyes, most rug buyers ask what their advantage is. This should be obvious - it is entirely visual. Natural-dyed rugs are both vibrant and subtle in their variegated hues.As they mellow with age they develop a three-dimensional quality that is totally absent in the saturated colors and flatter tones of chemical dyes which fade with age albeit, unevenly from color to color. In most cases, rugs made with natural dyes and hand-spun yarns are only a little more expensive than rugs of comparable quality and complexity that employ chemical dyes and machine-spun yarn.

Beware of the many attempts to imitate natural dyes. Rugs are often woven with fake abrash (the variation within a color). Since you cannot rely on your untrained eye, choose a dealer on whom you can rely. And remember, nobody can tell you what a rug will be worth in the future but your best bet for appreciation is a natural-dyed rug.

(Pictured Above, top to bottom; Madder Root used to make Red, Indigo Plant used to make blue, and Pomegranate Skins used to make Yellow.)