In the world of rugs, there's an undeniable allure that beckons my senses—colors. Think about the rich, deep red hues that pour life into a Persian rug; they bring an abundance of joy and vibrancy that is just appealing.

Throughout history, dyes have been obtained from plant and animal sources, but humans began manufacturing synthetic dyes in the mid-nineteenth century to achieve a wider color spectrum and to make the dyes more durable for general use. Yet natural colors are still preferred by rug connoisseurs. Natural dyes offers the sheen and brightness that synthetic dyes often lack. In addition they are often more harmonious,  which implies that the majority of natural dye colors complement one other.

The color palette of rugs produced in various regions has historically been influenced by the natural colors available in those areas. This phenomenon is particularly evident in tribal carpets, where the range of available colors is often limited. These limitations arise from the specific plants, minerals, and even insects found in the region, which serve as the sources for natural dyes. What's fascinating is that the availability of these colors can change over time, especially among nomadic tribes who regularly move to different areas. As they adapt to new environments, the colors used in their rugs might shift, reflecting the dynamic relationship between nature, culture, and the artistry of rug weaving.

Sources of Natural Colors:

Natural colors are obtained from a wide range of organic and inorganic sources found in the natural world. Plant-based dyes, one of the most ancient methods, are derived from various parts of plants, such as leaves, roots, and bark. For instance, indigo comes from the indigofera plant, while madder root produces shades of red and pink. Another source of natural colorants is insects, like cochineal insects that yield vibrant red hues. Minerals and earth pigments, such as ochre and iron oxide, offer a palette of earthy tones. Some creatures, like certain mollusks, contribute to the creation of rich purples and blues. The process of extracting these natural dyes often involves crushing, boiling, or fermenting the source material to release their pigments, which are then applied to textiles or materials, creating a spectrum of colors that have been cherished for their authenticity and eco-friendliness throughout human history.

Let's explore some instances of colors obtained from each of these sources.

Red: The root of the Madder plant is the most common colorant used for making red color dye. Alizarin is the main chemical compound in this important natural dye and produces the red colour. Madder is a long lived perennial of the family Rubiaceae, the same family as coffee.

Besides Madder, Cochineal is used to make another variation of red colour known as carmine dye. Cochineal is a parasitic scale insect that thrives on the moisture of opuntia cactus in Mexico and South America.  The color derives from carminic acid in their bodies, which they create as a deterrent to predators. For over 3000 years, red dye has been extracted from Cochineal, producing a carminic dye that can be described as crimson, bluish-red, or purple-red in color. This is significantly different from the colors produced by madder.

Another example of using insects to obtain red pigment is how Lac has been used in India from ancient times for dyeing wool and silk. The dye is made from the raw shellac resin of the Lac insect, which is grown in Southeast Asia. After extracting the sap from its host tree, the insect produces a protective coating. Harvesting entails removing the host tree's sap and insect-coated branches and breaking them into little pieces. insect bodies and tree debris are then pulverized before being soaked in water. The dye undergoes additional processing before it is ready for usage.

Blue: The indigo plant is the oldest and most widely used source of blue colors. Indigo can be used to dye  all natural fibers, it produces stunning blue hues ranging from the palest summer sky to an almost deep purple. The color achieved is determined on the indigo concentration, and number of dips.  The pigment is obtained from the leaves of the Indigo plant, which acquires its name from the Roman term 'indicum,' which means "product of India," despite the fact that it is grown throughout Asia and most of Central America.Indigo is a vat dye, which means that it is not water soluble. It is also unique in that it does not require a mordant for dyeing any natural fiber. Indigotin, the color, is produced by fermentation in water of Indican in the leaves. The dye turns yellow in the dye bath, green when exposed to oxygen, and blue when it oxidizes.

Yellow: The Weld (Reseda Luteola plant, which is one of the oldest dye plants used for yellow color, produces a very transparent, deep, and bright yellow pigment. Except for the root, the entire plant is a wonderful source of natural color. Buckthorn berries, wild chamomile, which is widely used in Anatolia, Tanner's sumach leaves, and Pomegranate rind, which is grown in most major rug weaving areas such as India, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Afghanistan, are other sources of yellow colours.

Green:  Mossy greens can be obtained by dying with yellow and utilizing modifiers such as copper and iron. However, the best way for getting a strong, bright green is to use Indigo to make blue and then over-dye with yellow. In addition to these methods, other plants, such as Chamomile, or Coneflower can be used to make a green dye bath for the fabric by boiling the leaves or flowers in water.

There are plenty of green colour sources in the nature, but many of them fade fast in the light. Making an appealing green dye is difficult, and it usually requires a skilled dyer to achieve a good hue. As a result, green rugs are very uncommon.

Orange: Henna leaves, which are abundant in nature across the world, are the most commonly used source of orange dye. Saffron was also utilized to create a variety of oranges and yellows in various regions.

Brown: While the uncolored wool from brown sheep found use in certain cases, the brown colour could also be achieved using urucurana bark, which can be used to dye both cotton and wool in shades ranging from beige to reddish brown. Over an extended period, various parts of the walnut tree, including its youthful green leaves, bark, and roots, particularly the outer hulls, have been utilized as natural dyes for coloring textiles and skin in brown.

Black: There are various methods for obtaining the black dye, which commonly begins with dark wool and is then over-dyed with blues, reds, and yellows, or it can be obtained directly from walnut hulls, iris roots, or other components. Aside from that, several tribal weavers utilize iron salt in conjunction with oak galls.The iron salts act as both a mordant to set the dye and a modifier, darkening the colors. The disadvantage of these colors is that the iron sulphate can slowly degrade wool over time.

Natural colour workshop

Dyeing Process:

So far, we've discovered that natural dyes come from a number of sources, including plants, roots, leaves, insects, and minerals. These materials are often crushed, ground, or boiled to release their pigments. This step is critical for extracting the color and making it available for absorption by the fabric.

In the dying process, weavers methodically immerse the previously prepared fabrics in dye baths, where they undergo multiple cycles of soaking, drying, and sometimes even exposure to sunlight, a process that can take several weeks. Throughout this process, mordants are used to help the fabric absorb and retain the natural dyes. Mordants are substances that form chemical bonds with both the dye and the fabric, creating a more permanent bond. Common mordants include alum, iron, and tannin-rich materials like oak galls. The choice of mordant can also influence the final color of the dyed fabric.

In certain instances, the dye bath and the fabric, are subjected to heating at a specific temperature, which varies depending on the type of natural dye used. The heat helps the dye molecules to penetrate the fabric's fibers, making the color more permanent. The fabric is left to soak in the dye bath for a specific period, often hours or even days, allowing the color to develop and bond with the fabric.

After the desired color intensity is achieved, the fabric is carefully removed from the dye bath. Excess dye is rinsed out to prevent bleeding or fading. Sometimes, traditional methods involve exposing the fabric to sunlight, which can further enhance the color and fix it in the fabric fibers.

Throughout the natural dyeing process, getting consistent color tones over the entire fiber proved challenging, resulting in differences in the shades of a given hue both within the fiber and across the design. This inherent, uncontrolled variety, known in Persian as 'abrash,' ultimately gained recognition as an artistic aspect that genuinely reflects the material's natural origin and the dyeing process.