Posted by R. John Howe on 05-23-2005 09:35 AM:

Are the colors produced by natural dyes more "beautiful?"

Dear folks -

The heading won't let me do it but the full title here should be "Are the colors produced by natural dyes more "beautiful" than those produced by synthetic dyes?

One thing that strikes me about the frequent claim that the colors produced by natural dyes are simply more attractive is how narrow the range of shades is that are in fact included.

I have told how I went to a TM rug morning by a contemporary weaver and noticed that all of her pieces were made in "day-glo" colors. When I cited the standard that we collectors apply with regard to color, I drew blank stares, as if I had just arrived from Mars.

And artists more generally (some of whom are likely far more knowledgeable and skilled with regard to both seeing and using color than we are) often seem to use a much wider variety of palettes with approval.

We have a painter, Tom Xenakis, who is a member of our local rug collecting community. He worked for a long time as a medical illustrator (think wonderfully realistic, very "tight" drafting) and has painted some traditional icons. Nowadays, his work features very modern (I don't pretend to understand it) "cosmic" effects that include such things as gold foil hanging off the surface of the painting.

Anyway, I have been pressing both Tom and the TM to do a rug morning on "An Artist Looks at Color in Oriental Rugs and Textiles." Tom clearly knows more about color than most of our advanced collectors could ever aspire to. It would be interesting to hear what he has to say. I know already that he doesn't buy the restrictions most usually cited by those touting the virtues of the natural dye palette.


R. John Howe

Posted by Tom_Xenakis on 05-24-2005 08:03 PM:

Dear Turko Tek:

This discussion opens up many cans of a variety of worms. I believe the issue of the synthetics/natural dyes addresses the question of color balance, harmony, and intensity or vibrancy...yet beauty is in the eyes of the beholder?? or is it really???

The relationships of analogous, harmonious and complimentary colors etc etc are related to the interaction to other hues and other colors and how they play off one another in a weaving. Their relationships is imperative to the "whole" visual punch of a weaving etc .

A weaving most often is a mixed weaving where a natural is placed next to a vibrant (possibly garish) synthetic. That disturbs the visual balance of the whole piece of art. Akin to a bright orange dot in a black and white canvas. The whole composition is disturbed by that orange dot and the "whole" is reoriented, out of balance. The orange upsets the neutrality of the relationships of the other colors

Another example, which is visually acceptable to me, as a non-purist, is a fuchine dye in a Kurdish rug that has turned gray or some neutral color of the wool before dyeing, blends and becomes much more part of the rug visually with the wonderful natural dyes of late 19th C Kurdish weaving. I do not find this less intensified fuchine, which has faded, overly visually offensive.
Most purists might find the rug a we look at the rug as a whole visual statement or at separate or individual knots? Neuroses often step up to the plate at this point.

As seen recently in a Textile Museum exhibition , most Central American contemporary weaving are all synthetics, bright, garish and saturated colors. Their balance in the weaving is usually maintained because the entire garment keeps it's visual "whole". No one color grabs you by the throat or eyes. The whole garment is unified...for good or for bad. Usually the characteristic of a sound weaving or visual statement.

Another discussion has to address other compositional variables such as hue, key, value (tonal) relationships, and contrast with the natural and synthetic dye interplay phenomenon.

Thanks for the opportunty to give some fuel to the fire.

Tom Xenakis

Posted by Vincent Keers on 05-24-2005 10:42 PM:

Hi Tom,

I can't help it:

I think the combination of synthetic and natural dyes is a very common practice in nomad land.
It's something I like about primitive textiles.
If everything blends in, in perfect harmony, I get bored.
I agree. A shouting blue, faded into silver/grey can be a relief sometimes. But......most readers will

Best regards,

Posted by R. John Howe on 05-25-2005 12:00 AM:

Vincent -

Russell Pickering (a co-author of one of the first serious books on flatwoven textiles), who has put together two noteworthy collections of Moroccan rugs (something you likely cannot do if you are allergic to synthetic dyes) has a position about them that seems similar to what you say above.

He says about this "synthetic vs natural" dyes debate: "It's the silliest thing I ever heard. The only issue is what do the colors look like. If the colors are pleasing it makes no difference what produces them."


And you say, sometimes the fading of a synthetic color results in a kind of "relief." Here again is one saf that Harold Keshishian presented:

Consider the sort of relief we (as observers) would likely be seeking if this piece retained its original predominant purple.


R. John Howe

Posted by Steve Price on 05-25-2005 07:33 AM:

Hi John

Russ Pickering's statement about the natural dyes issue, It's the silliest thing I ever heard. The only issue is what do the colors look like. If the colors are pleasing it makes no difference what produces them would be correct if the only reason anyone cared about the colors was aesthetic. But that isn't the case; we use color as a marker for date attribution, and age is a very important factor in determining fair market value of rugs from central and western Asia.


Steve Price

Posted by R. John Howe on 05-25-2005 08:53 AM:

Hi Steve -

As has happened in other thread here different things are being referred to under particular rubrics.

If you note at the top of this thread I tried to focus this one on the aesthetic issue ALONE.

Given that it seems to me that Russell has an argument.

At least it seems difficult to refute.

Nothing about age or a tradition (although he certainly did not neglect the latter in his examination of various facets of Moroccan rugs in his two books) or market value here. Just what does it look like?

Is it beautiful, regardless of the dyes that produced that beauty?


R. John Howe

Posted by Steve Price on 05-25-2005 09:11 AM:

Hi John

Russ's statement is pretty clear and includes no qualifying clauses. It says, The only issue... in color is aesthetics. That isn't correct, at least for those who collect western and central Asian antique textiles.


Steve Price

Posted by R. John Howe on 05-25-2005 12:45 PM:

Steve -

Then I've misquoted him. He doesn't take the position that some of these other aspects are unimportant.

He is, for example, no Sam Gorden (bless Sam's heart, anyway).


R. John Howe