Vegetable Dye Rugs

Written by Helen Glenn Court
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Until the middle of the 19th century, vegetable dye rugs--more accurately, natural dye rugs--were the only ones available. In 1856, however, synthetic dyes were accidentally discovered by a young English chemistry student. The first were based on coal tar, and both bled and faded easily. Within 50 years, the process had been perfected. Synthetic dye rugs dominated the market. A hundred years later, however, interest in naturally dyed rugs is rejuvenated.

Colors in Vegetable Dye Rugs

Natural dyes are made from plants, insects, and minerals. Most common is madder (Rubia tinctorum), an herb native to southern Europe and Mediterranean countries and to Central Asia. Its root is the color producer--always a warm red. Cool reds came from scale insects. Blue, the second most common color in vegetable dye rugs, is extracted from the indigo plant (Indigofera tinctoria), a legume native to India. It produces all shades of blue.

Yellows come from a variety of plant sources. Among them are saffron stamens, pomegranate rind, larkspur, salvia, and certain sumacs. Purples and greens and oranges, of course, are created from combinations of these three. Browns were and are created from walnut and oak nut husks. These are highly tannic and thus corrosive when used in cloth and rugs. Blacks are combinations of tannic dyes and iron salts, and are the most corrosive.

Distinguishing vegetable dye rugs from synthetic dye rugs is only definitive in laboratory analysis. However, certain characteristics of each are often apparent to the naked eye. Synthetic dyes permeate the fiber evenly; natural dyes are absorbed in a graduated pattern. Synthetic dyes fade in natural sunlight and, given enough time, disappear almost altogether. Natural dyes only soften or mellow in sunlight, no matter how prolonged the exposure.

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