- dyes

Colour is a very important factor in our lives, as well as being of prime importance in rugs. Colours play an important part in the aesthetic appearance of rugs as well as playing a vital part in assessing the age of certain rugs.

The first synthetic dyes came into existence in 1863, William H Perkin, an Englishman derived the purple dye Fuchsin from coal tar. It proved to be very popular as it was easy to use, but with the process of time it lost it's colour and faded to a dull grey.

However, this set a precedent, and chemical dyes rapidly became widely used, apart from in more remote areas. Before this time only natural dyestuffs were used for dyeing wool, these include different parts of plant and vegetal substances, insects and even volcanic mud.

There are 3 main types of dyes used today, natural, chrome, and aniline. Natural dyes have a better harmony of colour, and mellow rather than fade. Chrome dyes are light and colour fast, although with exposure to natural light all colours will eventually fade. Chrome dyes tend to fade unevenly, leaving blotches of stronger and weaker colour. Aniline dyes fade very rapidly upon exposure to sunlight, however, the faded colour is often more desirable than the original! It is a standard practice to leave both kilims and carpets out in the sunshine during summer to improve the colours.

A good dyer can produce excellent results with chrome dyes, but so far, none of the chemical dyes developed match the beauty of natural dyesuffs. With cheaper new production kilims, it would not be economical to use all natural dyes. Wool quality also effects the look of the dye, as well as the mordant (fixant) used.

Some photos follow of a few of the colours frequently found in kilims woven pre. 1900, these are scanned directly onto the computer, and are only as accurate as the screen resolution. They are a brief guideline.

Red (blue red)

Cochineal, made from crushed beetles, widely used at the end of the 19th century

Red (terracotta red)

Madder, plant root, crushed, 1 kilo madder will dye 1 kilo wool to a darker hue than shown



Light blue



Wool is first dyed yellow, then over-dyed with blue

Light green

Apple green is not so commonly used.


Many indigenous plants produce yellows of varying degrees of brilliance

Natural wool colours are widely used, as well as dyed wool, to enhance the colour palette.

Primary colours (red, yellow, blue) are the base of other colours, but it is the amalgamation of colour and design that makes a beautiful rug, it should be a picture for the floor. Madder root is widely used to produce red tones, including apricot, pink and aubergine, madder grows prolifically in most rug producing areas, and it is a dye stuff with which it is reasonably easy to achieve good results.

Blue comes from indigo, the darkest indigo only grows in countries with a subtropical climate, however, dyer's woad is a widely available as second best. Specialist indigo dyers would travel from village to village to ply their trade. Curiously enough, the chemical composition of synthetic indigo is the same as that of naturally produced indigo.

Yellow is produced by many species of plants, sometimes it is the root, leaves, flowers or stem that will make the colour, and the strength of colour will vary.

All colours are affected by the water chemistry of the dye bath, the mordant used (alum is a very common mordant), the amount or intensity of the dye stuff and the quality of the wool. Hand spun wool will absorb dyes less evenly than machine spun wool, making a greater variety in the tones of the colour, which is a desirable effect, and gives 'depth' to the colour.

Variation in tones of colour is known as 'arbrash' , this is achieved by tying the hank of wool before dying, where it is tied the dye will not penetrate as much. As is the case in many antique kilims, the dyer was only using small cooking pots for one dye lot, so the next dye lot would turn out a different hue.

The balance of colour is a vital ingredient, if there is a predominance of a vivid colour it can affect the harmony of the overall look of the kilim.