ISTANBUL, February 15, 2012 -- One of the greatest changes in carpet making in modern times is the return to natural dyes.
It began in Turkey in the 1960s, and it is the story of largely one man: a German chemist. His work in recreating natural dyes helped launch a project to convince villager weavers to give up synthetic dyes and return to traditional plant-based dyes instead.
Many of those plant dyes had disappeared from rugs for more than a century.
The result was a revolution in color whose success has inspired thousands of other producers around the carpet world to now move partly or wholly back to using natural dyes, too.
The name of the chemist is Harald Boehmer and the project, carried out by a Turkish university, is the Natural Dye Research and Development Project, better known by its Turkish acronym DOBAG.
The rugs that the Turkish villages in the DOBAG project produced – and still produce – are simply called DOBAGs. Here, and at the top of the page are photos of two DOBAGs, both available from Peter Linden in Dublin.
Boehmer came to Istanbul in the 1960s to teach chemistry and other sciences at the German School and with his wife Renate soon became fascinated by Turkish carpets. It was at a time when Turkish carpets had been in decline for decades under the pressures of mass production and the urge to use ever cheaper synthetic dyes to lower costs.
Instead of being repelled by the poor quality rugs, the Boehmers were intrigued. Why, they wondered, were the centuries-old rugs they saw in Turkish museums so vastly superior to Turkey's modern production?
The answer, they decided, was not the quality of the weaving but the use of chemical dyes in place of the older rug's plant-based ones.
But if the Boehmers became interested in the old natural dyes, learning how to recreate them set the science-minded couple off on a lifetime journey.
The Boehmers began scouring the Turkish countryside to find weavers old enough to still remember what plants their grandparents used to extract colors. At the same time, they conducted their own analysis of old rugs using the laboratory technique of chromatography.
Putting the two sources of information together, they were eventually able to reconstruct all of the missing natural dyes.
With support from Istanbul's Marmara University, the next phase was to interest villagers in again producing the old dyes and weaving with them. The project began with villages in Canakkale province bordering the Dardanelle Straits, expanded to more villages in Turkey's southwest, and DOBAG rugs were born.
To appreciate just how revolutionary was the idea of returning to natural dyes, it is interesting to recall the history of the synthetic dye industry, which developed in Britain and Germany in the mid 1800s and whose products spread to weavers across the world.
In 1856, an English chemistry student, William Perkins, discovered synthetic dyes while attempting to synthesize quinine, used as a medicine against malaria. The purple dye he created inexpensively by accident was so obviously desirable to the textile industry that he immediately applied for a patent.
Perkin's professor, Wilhelm von Hoffmann, also recognized the significance of the accidental discovery. He later returned to his home country of Germany and set off a race between German universities and British ones to synthesize more, better, and cheaper colors.
The new dyes spread quickly to the carpet world because the second half of the 19th century was also a time when European demand for oriental carpets was exploding. A series of international expositions between 1851 and 1876 had fanned huge interest in eastern – and particularly Turkish carpets – and demand suddenly outstripped supply.
Jane Peterson describes neatly why the Turkish carpet industry embraced the new synthetic dyes in her 1991 article "A Passion for Color," published in Saudi Aramco Magazine:
"Rug prices increased. But higher prices could neither speed up the laborious hand-work needed to collect raw materials for natural dyes, nor increase the supply of those dye plants that were not cultivated crops."
Here is a picture of one plant traditionally used in Turkey to produce yellow: chamomile
The new synthetic dyes offered multiple advantages. They not only were available in quantity, they also were cheaper and less-time consuming to use than plant dyes. By the 1880s the majority of Turkey's big carpet manufactories were using them and by the eve of World War I even nomad and peasant weavers were, too.
The synthetic dyes colors reigned – and still reign – so supreme that rug dealers estimate 95 percent of the rugs available on the market today are made with chemical dyes.
Thus, for natural colors to challenge that supremacy today requires not only changing the weaving world's work habits and economic patterns, it also means changing what have become established tastes among carpet buyers.
Both synthetic and natural dyes have their admirers.
Synthetic dyes, being the result of a chemical process, produce monochrome colors. If the color is red, it is a single shade of red, with no variations of shades within it.
That means every piece of red-dyed yarn will be identical, producing a near-perfect evenness of color. When the carpet is woven, the red knots will stand out in full contrast to the knots woven in other pure colors around it, creating a powerful effect.
By contrast, natural dyes produce polychrome colors. If the color is red, there are multiple shades of red in it because that is how colors occur in nature. The same spontaneity of multiple shades carries over to the plant-dyed yarn.
When the carpet is woven, these subtle variations of hues will be apparent in each red knot. And because all the other plant-dyed colors in the carpet equally contain multiple shades, the colors overall will subtly harmonize. The contrasts between them will be softened, creating a mellow effect.
This photo shows DOBAG weavers preparing dyes by boiling plants they have collected.
As more rug producers across the carpet world now explore returning to natural dyes, the question will be how customers adapt to the suddenly expanded range of choices.
Will they strongly prefer either natural or synthetic colors over one another or – perhaps more likely -- will they find a place for both in their homes?
The pleasure for every carpet lover will be in exploring the possibilities and, in the process, the wonderful world of colors around us.
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