Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 03-26-2007 10:30 AM:

Historical Records

First, John, thank you for your interesting lecture.

I think it should be useful adding a few historical records on the use of red dyes, courtesy of Richard E. Wright.

The following is from the article “In Search of Turkmen Carpets” (published on ORR Vol. 9/5)

There is also information from the past concerning dyes. The list of Schuyler, one of the standard encyclopedic sources on Central Asia, is typical. He identifies the local sources for yellow and black and mentions both local madder and imported indigo. Concerning red he observes: "Cochineal is frequently used for dyeing silk red. It is chiefly brought from Bukhara, although the insect is found in abundance in the spring in Tashkent and the neighborhood, on the young leaves of the ash, mulberry and other trees. Since the introduction of fuchsine from Russia, the use of cochineal and of other native dyes have fallen off. For that reason in Khokand the Khan prohibited (in 1876) the importation of fuchsine, as being an inferior dyestuff."

Schuyler's treatment can be taken as typical; an equivalent source of the same period (1880s) would be Lansdell. Later (1902) Annette Meakin identified dyestuffs in Bokhara as indigo from India, cochineal from Russia, native madder, and sophora japonica for yellow.

Chemical analysis of dyes is an important research tool. But the historic sources reveal the messiness of reality: an apparent widespread use of imported dyes by the Turkmens, a concentrated effort to import Bokhara natural dyes into Turkmen territory circa 1910, and the apparent use in Bokhara of "Russian," i.e. imported, insect red as late as 1902. The trek from dye analysis to date is slippery, and any attempt to use synthetic red as an absolute dating method would be simplistic.

From “Caucasian Carpets & Covers” Appendix C, “The Dyestuff in Caucasian Textiles”:


DYEING THE YARN Alum is very often used as a mordant.
RED to dye fabrics this colour they use madder, red sandalwood, the leaves of the sumac plant (Rhus coriaria), sloes [wild plum] or blackthorn fruit (the juice boiled down in lye), cochineal [insect], fuchsine, ’beiia' and alizarin [dried madder root]….

THE DYEING PROCESS all colours, except for indigo, are usually dyed at home using the weaver's own facilities. To have something dyed blue it is usually given to the dyers (boikhian) who have their own small dyeing establishments.

DISTRICT, (1887)
RED the method used is the same as for black, except that red sandalwood ('kyrmyzi-angam agadzhi') is substituted for black sandalwood. When the dyestuff used is fuchsine (two zolotniks for every pound of yarn) [a zolotnik is 4.25 grams] the measured amount of fuchsine is dissolved in a glass, then poured into the boiling water to which the yarn is added last. To make the dye more colourfast, so-called ('turshu-lavashi’ a substance prepared from dried sour plums is added to the pot. In addition to this some mordant is added.

BURGUNDY for every pound of yarn take 8-10 zolotniks of cochineal and 6 zolotniks of tartar, both of them ground to a powder, and put in the pot with boiling water, then add the yarn. This recipe is extremely expensive, due to the high cost of cochineal.

The kustar dyeshops, or 'boikhiana' which now dye most of the yarn and goods in a variety of colours, previously only handled blue colours using indigo. Preparing the solution from indigo requires quite complicated equipment,
a lengthy process and great practical experience, which the average kustar rcould not cope with. In time the vegetable dyes were replaced by mineral [synthetic] dyes which also required specialised knowledge and skill to prepare, while the experienced craftswoman skilled in the use of the old vegetable dyes gradually died out, Almost all kustar dyeing came to be handled by the dye workshops…

RED is one of the colours most beloved by our kustary. The root of the madder plant, Rubia tinctorum, is used, and produces pleasant fast shades. In the early I870s madder was still cultivated as a dyestuff in Baku Province, especially in Kuba District for export to Western Europe. The yearly export came to four hundred thousand puds [7,222 tons].
In the 1870s, after the discovery of aniline dyes, and then of fast alizarin [madder red] dyes, the cultivation of madder in Transcaucasia disappeared once and for all. However, even to the present day our kustary are unwilling to part with this marvellous dye, and use the madder thickets that have been preserved from former plantations on the coastal plains of the Caspian Sea.
In some regions of carpet production madder is imported from Persia. It can be found in its wild state everywhere in Eastern Transcaucasia in the lowlands and the hilly region, but it is significantly inferior to cultivated madder as a dyestuff.
COCHINEAL Goccus cacti (kyrmyz to the natives) is far superior to madder in the beauty and softness of the shades it yields... Despite the success of chemical dyes, cochineal is an extremely precious [expensive] dye and beyond compare. According to M.G. Believ, cochineal is found in the barren steppes of Ganja Province and in the swamps and salt marshes of the Republic of Nakhichevan, in the Araz Valley, where the rural population in peacetime collected up to 500 puds [9 tons] a year. (M.G. Believ ('Bakharia') Azerbaijan, Baku, 1921, p. 107).



Posted by R. John Howe on 03-26-2007 01:51 PM:

Hi Filiberto -

Interesting stuff, as the results of a great many of Dick Wright's researches are.

At the end of your post there is this section:

"...COCHINEAL Goccus cacti (kyrmyz to the natives) is far superior to madder in the beauty and softness of the shades it yields... Despite the success of chemical dyes, cochineal is an extremely precious [expensive] dye and beyond compare. According to M.G. Believ, cochineal is found in the barren steppes of Ganja Province and in the swamps and salt marshes of the Republic of Nakhichevan, in the Araz Valley, where the rural population in peacetime collected up to 500 puds [9 tons] a year. (M.G. Believ ('Bakharia') Azerbaijan, Baku, 1921, p. 107)."

Most of the sources I consulted suggest that by the 19th century most cochineal came from sources outside the Middle East. But this seems to indicate otherwise.

Something I should have stated more clearly is that the term "cochineal" seems to be a kind of collective: that is a term used to refer to a number of seemingly similar insect dyes despite it being admitted that they come from different species of insects. So, although "Armenian" cochineal was listed, it may well be that there were/are other "cochineals" from other species of insects in other areas.

The character of cochineal was controversial for some time. A variety of fanciful seeming theories was offered. Even under microscopic study in the early 18th century, cochineal was often seen to be a "seed." Eventually, microscopic evidence that cochineal came from insects was provided that seemed irrefutable. But new equipment, such as microscopes, was distrusted in the 18th century and the issue was finally settled through a bet that resulted in the testimony of Mexican growers who knew first hand that cochineal came from the bodies of female insects and that the male cochineal insects were winged and flew from female to female performing their reproductive tasks.

The fact that there are different species of insects the bodies of which can be used to make red dyes, may have seemed like an unneeded pedanticism in a world that had only recently to agreed that cochineal was insect-derived. This may be the source of a seeming looseness of application of the term "cochineal."

Greenfield tells this story and others with a great deal of drama and zest, and her book is worth having, despite its rather journalistic presentation.

"Cochineal," by the way is not the Mediterranean "kermes," despite the native usage cited by Wright. Both are insect dyes, but the use of kermes declined sharply once cochineal was available, since it takes many more kermes insect bodies to produce a given red than it does if cochineal-type insects are used.


R. John Howe

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 03-27-2007 04:59 AM:

Hi John,

It seems that “Kermes” was a “kind of collective” name too before it was supplanted by cochineal.

I am from Florence and I still remember, when I was a small child, the red liquor “Alchermes”… Also called “Alchermes di Firenze”, it is believed that this "elisir" was a production of the MEDICI family who would jealously protect its recipe. Leon X and Clemente VII, both Medici, loved it and decided to call it "ELISIR OF LONG LIFE". In France, where Maria de Medici brought it, it was known as LIQUOR DE MEDICI". Its most striking characteristic is its scarlet color, obtained by the addition of Kermes— hence its name — or cochineal.

In the fifties the drink was already out of favor, perhaps given the origin of its color, but I remember it was still used for coloring pastries.

I though the name “Alchermes” was of Arabic origin - just like “elisir” - but my “Book of the true Florentine Cuisine” (which has the Alchermes recipe if anyone is interested in it ) says that such appellation came from the Spanish “alquermes” which in turn derived from the Arabic qirmiz (scarlet). Fact confirmed by my authoritative – and heavy – Italian dictionary.
Further researches revealed that Arabic qirmiz came from Persian kermes and that one from Sanskrit krmija.
I also note that all of these words have a certain assonance with the Italian “cremisi” (English: crimson). It’s not surprising, because both (cremisi and crimson) came from Medieval Latin cremesinus that, of course, derives from qirmiz and so on.

In Caucasus it was called kyrmyz but the Armenians called their Ararat Kermes (or Armenian Kermes) Vortan Karmir. Again, Karmir has a familiar assonance, albeit I cannot be sure that it derives from krmija.

This is the demonstration of how “krmija -kermes” is deeply rooted in the history of a wide variety of languages and a testimony of a long and honored service.

Well, speaking about the Armenian Kermes, on the Armenian Rug Society Newsletter, August 2004

There is an article on it:
“excerpted from the recent book by Harald Böhmer, KOEKBOYA:Natural Dyes and Textiles, A Colour Journey from Turkey to India and Beyond, published in 2002.

Ararat Kermes or Armenian Kermes [known as Vortan
Karmir in Armenian]
Porphyrophora Hameli BRANDT (1833)

This insect is native to the area of Mount Ararat in Turkish
eastern Anatolia and in Armenia. This insect is a parasite on
the roots of two varieties of grass... [that] grow in the salt
marshes on both sides of the river Aras (Araxas), which
flows past the north side of Mount Ararat and forms the
border between Turkey and Armenia. At a certain time in
the fall, the female insects, which can be up to a centimeter
long, come up to the surface.
The traveler Parrot (Parrot 1834) writes in his book Trip to
Ararat that the sheep that grazed in the salt marshes on the
slopes of Ararat get red feet.
This story about the sheep with red feet fascinated us 20
years ago.... [Our] trip in 1990 was successful: ...we found
the right bugs. Before sunrise, they were crawling around on
the surface of the ground and let themselves be easily
gathered and put into Turkish tea glasses.

An hour later, the red animals had all disappeared
underground again. (207)
In additional discussions of Ararat and other kermes
insects and dyes, Böhmer says:
Kermes with an alum mordant dyes wool and silk a bright
red.... The origins probably go back to the Sumerians, that
is, to the 3rd millennnium BC. The Phoenicians were
masters at scarlet dyeing. Scarlet is a bluish red. The
Greeks and Romans greatly treasured kermes. (205)
[Polish Kermes] is native to Eastern Europe and probably
also farther east to Siberia.... The use of Polish kermes in
the Pazyryk Carpet proves, however, that this dye-insect
was used much earlier, more than 2,500 years ago.
Probably its qualities as a dye-stuff were known and used
even before then.... (206) Kermes dyeing was supplanted
to a great extent by cochineal dyeing centuries ago.
Cochineal [a dye-insect native to Central America] from
the New World is a far more effective dye than any of
the Old World dye-insects [Lac from Southeast Asia and
the four varieties of kermes]. (205) Soon after the
discovery of Mexico by the Spaniards in 1512, cochineal
began a worldwide conquest. There were whole fleets of
vessels transporting cochineal to Spain. Its qualities as a
dye surpassed that of the dye-insects of the Old World
many times, both in the volume of dye produced as well
as in the brilliance of the color. (210-11) [Both cochineal
and Ararat Kermes contain the same dyestuffs (Carminic
Acid and traces of Kermes Acid), according to the chart
on page 212. One difference may be that] ...the Ararat
kermes consists of up to 50% of lipids, fatty substances.
Apparently, these...impede the dyeing process. (208)”