Home Page Discussion

Salon du Tapis d'Orient

The Salon du Tapis d'Orient is a moderated discussion group in the manner of the 19th century salon devoted to oriental rugs and textiles and all aspects of their appreciation. Please include your full name and e-mail address in your posting.

Red in Rugs and Other Textiles

by R. John Howe

- Part 3 -

Let’s talk a little now about how rugs and textiles are colored with red: the process of dyeing.

The most frequent sources of dyestuffs used to produce red in the rugs and textiles we collect are:
Robert Chenciner lists a number of other dyestuffs that will produce red. 

They are:

Now I am not an expert on dyes and left my college general chemistry course in 1955 entirely delighted with my “gentleman’s “C”.  So, although the following discussion of dyeing for red is non-technical, there may be
readers who can correct the more obvious errors.

I have consulted what seem to be some useful sources.  There are two fairly recent treatments of the two most frequent sources of red dye used in the rugs and textiles we collect.  Both are included in the brief bibliography at the end.

First, there is Robert Chenciner’s “Madder Red: A history of luxury and trade,” 2000.

Madder is the most frequent source of red in the rugs and textiles we collect.

A second book on dyeing with red, is Amy Butler Greenfield’s “A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage and the Quest for the Color of Desire,” 2005.

Greenfield treats dyeing with cochineal, perhaps the second most frequent natural dyestuff used to produce red in the pieces we collect. 

I want to treat each of these four categories of red dyestuff (i.e., madder, cochineal, lac and synthetics) briefly, but before that just a word about how the dyeing itself is usually accomplished.

Although descriptions and recipes for dyeing vary widely, the process they describe usually reduces to the following four steps.

The mordant forms a chemical bond that makes the dye adhere to the stuff.  If this bond is strong enough the dyed stuff is both water fast and light fast. 
We begin our treatment of the natural dyes used most frequently to produce red with madder.

Here is an image of a madder plant.

This top part has no interest for the madder dyer, except for the signs it gives of how the plant is growing.  It is from the root of the madder plant that its coloring agents are taken.  Here is some madder root.

These roots are chopped finely for use in dyeing.

The handout contains an old recipe for dyeing for red with madder.

Chenciner gives some madder dyeing processes that are ten or more steps long and that sometimes seem designed to mystify.  Early dyers were working in part in alchemy and were often secretive and deliberately obfuscatory.

We move to cochineal.

Cochineal is an “insect” dye rather than a “plant” dye.  One source indicates that “The medieval Persian dyer had access to four types of cochineal…Indian cochineal, Armenian cochineal, Polish cochineal and in late period, Mexican cochineal. All of the above listed dyes come from different species of insects and produce slightly different shades of red.” The term “cochineal” is used to refer to all four of these insect dyes.

This illustration is of cochineal being harvested from a cactus plant in Mexico.

The cochineal is the white areas on the green cactus leaves.  These two workers are using sticks to scrape the cochineal off into baskets.  The worker on the left is Spanish, the one on the right is Indian.

And this a photograph of cochineal on cactus.

This is a drawing of an individual cochineal insect.

And, again, a photograph of one.

Greenfield, whose grandfather and great-grandfather were dyers and whose father is a scientist, describes her own dyeing with cochineal.  There is a summary of her description in the handout.

Sometimes the presence of cochineal is seen as an indicator useful in attribution.  For example, weavings from eastern Turkey often have cochineal reds.

Here is a 19th century kilim woven in Aleppo in southeastern Turkey the burgundy shade in which is from a cochineal red.

Now let’s move to lac.

 Lac is the other more common insect dye.  Lac was and is cultivated in Northern India and imported into other rug producing countries. It is obtained from an insect parasite found on trees.

This is an illustration of both lac and cochineal in nature. 

The cochineal is on the right and we can ignore it here.  The image on the left shows the lac insects growing on the branches of a tree (dark bulging areas)

To make this more explicit here is a photograph of the lac insects on the branch of a tree. 

The insects are scraped off by women laborers.

Sticklac is the actual substance used to produce the dye. Approximately 6% of the sticklac is the dye.

Other components of the sticklac are used to make “shellac”, sealing wax and some food colorings.

The literature I consulted suggested that Lac dye is still produced in the same way as it was in medieval times.

The handout includes an old recipe for dyeing with lac.

Because historic northern India was an important source of lac, it was used frequently in Moghul rugs and textiles. 

Here is a detail from a glorious Moghul carpet with a lac-red ground.

And another special purpose Moghul piece known to have two kinds of lac dye in it.

The ground pile in this piece is dyed with lac, as are its wefts.

Lac was also used in rugs made in Persian Khorasan.  If you recall, one of the defining indicators of the classical Khorasan weavings, in the recent TM “Pieces of a Puzzle” exhibition, was the presence of lac dyes.  The Khorasan fragment below was included in that exhibition and is owned by Harold Keshishian. 

The reds in the pile of this 19th century piece are dyed with lac.

"Jürg Rageth reports that the Salors, alone among the Turkmen tribes, used Indian lac on wool (along with madder) for some of their their reds."

And two recent rug morning programs by Sheridan Collins and Susan McCauley reminded me that lac is still used in more recent Bhutanese textiles, as well as in those from some areas of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.  The detail below is of such a Bhutanese piece with lac reds that Sheridan owns.

Our fourth dye source for red is the synthetic group.  Our brief discussion of it has two parts: first, early synthetics and then synthetic dyes with chrome mordants.

Until about the middle of the 19th century, red was produced with natural dyes.  But beginning in the mid-1800s various synthetic dyes began to appear and red was frequent among them.
Here is Chenciner’s listing of the “discoveries” of various synthetic dyes.

1856        Mauveine by Perkin
1858-9     Fuchsin, lilac by Verguin with acknowledgement to Hofmann
1859        Coralline by Persoz
1861        Methyl violet by Lauth
1862        Bismark brown by Martins
1863        Aniline black by Lightfoot
1864        Aniline brown by Martius       
1867        Rose magdala by Schiendt
1867        Nigrosine by Coupier
1868        Alizarin by Graebe and Lieberman
1875        Phloxine, Rose Bengal by Nolting
1876        Alizarin orange by Strobel and Caro
1877        Anthrocene brown by Seuberlich
1877-8    Oranges by Roussin and Poirrier
1878        Berbrich scarlet by Nietzki
1879        Cloth reds by Ohler
1880        Ponceau S by Pfaff and Nietzki

You can see that fuchsin appeared early, 1858-9.  The anilines were close behind in the early 1860s. (Although they are not included on this listing, the acid-based Azo dyes were produced in 1864)  Alizarin, one of the main color-producing components of madder, was synthesized in 1876.  And the first of the Ponceau group was created in 1880. 

The Ponceau group is noteworthy, in part, because subsequent Ponceau “reds” were used heavily by Turkmen weavers at the turn of the 20th century.

This array shows why natural dyes were rapidly supplanted during the last half of the 19th century.  And, in fact, the market for natural dyes declined precipitously.

Many of the early synthetic dyes were not light fast or water fast and some turned into unattractive shades as they faded.  When we look at some actual pieces, you will see some dyed with synthetics that were either fugitive or that changed in other ways.

In the early 1900s synthetic dyes using chrome mordants began to be produced, but it was not until after World War II that they penetrated the rug industry generally. Here are two modern rugs with chrome dyes.

This first piece is a new Indian rug with an old Indian Agra design.

This second rug was also woven in India but with a Persian Ferehan Sarouk design.

Although we do not know what the colors produced using chrome dyes will look like, say, 500 years from now, they are very water fast and light fast.  One of the seeming advantages of chrome dyes is that nearly any color or shade can be produced.  Despite this there are complaints that the colors produced by chrome dyes have a “flatness” and a “hardness” that is less pleasant than those projected by natural dyes.  More, they seem to be so fast that they will not likely mellow over time, as natural dyes do. 

And, of course, dye research continues.  As I prepared for this talk, I saw mention of newer “reactive” dyes developed primarily to dye some newer synthetic fabrics, but which can be used on wool and silk as well.  So, in the future, there may be different, even better ways of producing beautiful reds than we now know.

That is the end of my non-technical treatment of dyeing with red.

Discussion Back to Part 1 Back to Part 2 Proceed to Part 4