(The following is an edited excerpt from Warp, Weft & Weave: A Life Collecting and Investing in Handmade Oriental Rugs by Sam Ramazani)
Color and stylistic elements are as important in a handmade rug as the construction of it. If a rug is made of unsound material or poorly knotted, it will not be a beautiful rug. At the same time, if a rug is perfectly constructed with every knot in its exact place, but the coloring is off, it will also fail to be a beautiful rug. Today I’d like to share a few things we can look for in the coloring of our handmade rugs.
Fundamentally there are two kinds of dyes for handmade rugs, “vegetable” and “chemical.” Vegetable dyes are made from plants and animals. Rather than being definitively “vegetable,” they are more accurately described as “non-chemical.” At one time, vegetable dye was the only option available. These kinds of dyes are highly variable and require a simple yet precise and almost intuitive process, by which the yarn is plunged into boiling vegetable dye and is left to simmer for a certain amount of time.
As the yarn is boiled, it takes on coloring that is more or less intense, based on the amount of time spent in the boiling dye and also the particular idiosyncrasies of how the particular batch of dye was made. One root or animal can be a little more intense or a little more muted than another of the same size, and as little as a minute of extra boiling can cause variations in color. The people who specialize in this craft know the recipes and times. Like a chef knows how to cook food for delicate and subtle flavors, someone who dyes wool will know how to cook it for delicate and subtle variations in color.
Vegetable dying is a real art form that is becoming less and less common as we move into the future. Right now, it is still possible to purchase rugs woven with materials colored with vegetable dyes. In the future, it’s almost inevitable that rugs made with vegetable dyed materials will increase in value, solely because the skill of vegetable dying will become less and less prevalent as fewer and fewer artisans color their materials this way.
One hundred thirty years ago, chemical dyes started being made. These dyes are made solely from chemicals, and are more commonly referred to as “chromide.” The most significant difference between the two types of dye is color consistency in the finished yarn, both initially when the rug is woven new, and then also over time as the rug ages. Chemical dye is extremely consistent. An expert wool or silk dye artisan can make incredible colors, exactly the same time and time again, using a chemical dye created with a precise formula. This precision makes a rug uniform and very fine in its beauty.
Perhaps the most significant thing that differentiates vegetable dye and chemical dye is how they fade over time. A vegetable dye will start with more variation and will always have even more variation as it ages, which can be beautiful and exciting to see. It’s like a window into a past world. Well dyed chemical materials will fade evenly, which is not intrinsically better or worse than what happens with vegetable dye, merely different.
Which Is Better?
There are some who will argue that rugs made with vegetable dyed materials are better. This is nonsense. There are beautiful and valuable pieces that are woven with chemically dyed materials, and in fact, an almost infinite variation of colors can be created with chromatic dyes. There is a prejudice against them, which is unfounded and unfortunate. The only reason in this day and age that a piece made with vegetable dyed material is because vegetable dye is what is available, not because the vegetable dye process is superior. As with the knotting and construction of the rugs, if it is done with skill, a chromatic dye can be just as beautiful and valuable as a vegetable dye.
A skilled dying process is very important. If the dying process is not done correctly, whether it be from improper cooking, fixing or rinsing, can lead to color run, which will seriously degrade the value of any rug. It also creates a problem from a simple practical and utilitarian standpoint, in that if you buy a rug and the colors bleed or fade, the rug is no longer the rug you bought and your enjoyment of it will be diminished.
Once the desired colors are achieved, the wool comes out of the dye and is dried. The last step in this process is washing the wool, which is very important. Washing the wool gets the dye residue out of the dye and helps keep the colors from running after the rug is woven.
Testing For Quality
One way to test the color fastness of a rug is to wet a piece of white cloth (a handkerchief will work, or any piece of white fabric) and rub it over each of the colors in a rug. If significant color comes off on the white cloth, you might have a problem. If the rug is made from wool colored with vegetable dye, you will get a little bit of color, and this is fine. However, if a lot of color comes off on the cloth, the dye hasn’t been well set and you’ll have trouble down the road. In most cases, you will want to avoid a rug that has this potential for color bleed.
There is a major exception to this general rule about color run. If you are considering a tribal rug, you may still want it for your collection. Sometimes nomadic people, even though they are highly skilled artisans, for whatever reason will not have been able to rinse the wools enough to prevent color run. If this is the case, you should be able to take the rug to a professional cleaner to take the excess dye out of the rug without doing any damage to it.
One of the unique qualities of the vegetable dye is the phenomenon known as “abrash.” This is the variation in color caused by the different dye “lots” of vegetable dye mentioned before. Vegetable dyes will start as different shades of color from the moment they are created and then over time, they will fade at different rates, based on how long they were cooked when they were dyed. The abrash of a rug is one of the ways you can tell you have a “real” rug that has been handmade. Abrash happens horizontally throughout a rug as dye lots change. When abrash occurs in the wrong direction of a rug, it’s highly likely that the abrash has been done intentionally to make the rug look older than it is.