Considerations of Natural versus Synthetic Dyes

At first there were only natural dyes. Natural dye is any dye derived from nature through organic and inorganic materials and sources. Weavers used these dyes exclusively for thousands of years, and artists used these prehistoric dyes in 1850s and 60s. Before 1865, no one would have asked for any type of dye on a given oriental carpet. This is because there are only natural dyes, colors made from plants or sometimes insects. No one would ask if the yarn was hand-spun, there was no other type. It turns out that all high-value antique carpets have one thing in common: natural and vegetable dyes.

The influence of the industrial revolution on oriental carpets was the invention of synthetic dyes, and machines to card and spin wool. Chemical dyes and automatic yarn almost replaced the old methods in 1920, and the innovation in oriental carpet weaving was in decline. Combing and spinning the wool by machine produces a uniformly shaped wool that would take on a stable and solid color. The use of chemical dyes ensures that the color is always the same. Red dye number 3 always resembles red dye number 3. Primary chemical dyes, such as aniline dyes, were very poor, almost destroying the carpet industry. Many of the artificial dyes bleed early, the wool melts, fades and changes color over time. In 1970, the use of natural dyes in carpets was almost a lost art.

Natural dyes are organic, vibrant and living, while synthetic materials are inorganic, flat and dead. Most modern garments are artificially dyed and when seen, their palette is flat and unalterable. Natural dyes have chromatography, sparkle and depth. When combined with handmade wool, with old tools, the carpet becomes almost three-dimensional. This is because each piece of hand-covered fabric is different in size and shape. Each one absorbs the vegetable dye in a slightly different way to produce a discoloration plate with a shimmering quality called abrash. The effect of this irregular color is vibrant, full of life, and character, with a visual texture that does not tire the eye.

Natural dyes are decorated and develop a patina over time as a favorite pair of blue jeans. The color will not change exactly the same over time, but will become lighter and softer version of the same color. Synthetic materials never improve with age and the expression that comes to mind is “accelerating like aniline dye”. Natural dyes are a kind of wool. For example, indigo actually coats wool fibers. Synthetic dyes generally require bleaching materials and remove lanolin from wool. Natural and organic pigments respond to the human eye for allergies and nuances. The result is that carpets made of natural dyes accumulate safely and become antiques for the future. The 1980s saw a resurgence in the oriental carpet industry, where a small group of “new pioneers” tried to reactivate the use of handmade wool and natural dyes. Efforts have been made to find older people who still have the knowledge and recipes of natural dyes in their heads. The result is that today you can decorate your home with a beautiful carpet of natural pigment like any invaluable artifact.

So, in the end, are natural dyes better than synthetic ones? Today modern dyes are with potassium dichromate, therefore known as chromium dyes. It has been used for more than 60 years and is an important improvement of synthetic dyes from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century. The options are quite aesthetic now. If a person likes the slight irregularities of tribal rugs, he may prefer the varied appearance of handmade wool rugs and natural dyes. If you like the more formal or what is known as the city carpet, with complicated and intricate curved designs, you may prefer finely washed wool and chrome dyes.

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