Posted by Rick_Paine on 09-25-2002 01:29 PM:

Dyes and Ethnographic Value

By way of introduction--I am an anthropologist/archaeologist and have been excavating in southeastern Turkey for the last couple of summers. While I am there, I like to buy kilims and bags. The stuff I buy is mostly Kurdish because I work and live with Kurds, have a deep affection for them, and think their textile work is beautiful. I would not describe myself as a collector--I'm in it for the experience and a lasting link to the Kurds. I know virtually nothing about textiles (I probably like them because they are so absent from the archaeological record).

I have been looking at old TurkoTek salons for a month or so now, and have noted two very interesting trends in many of your discussions: 1) a powerful desire to both understand, and possess, 'ethnographic' pieces; and 2) the battle over dyes. I like the definition of 'ethnographic' as made for one's own use--though it is hardly one an ethnographer would identify with. I'll stick with it here.

It seems to me that these two trends conflict. When a weaver chooses dyes for a piece she plans to use herself (following above definition), she bases her choice on several factors: local traditions, what is available, what is convenient, cost (monetary cost or importantly, her time cost), and what she finds appealing (or interesting). Synthetic dyes are likely to have been, at various times, convenient, low cost, and appealing/interesting. When they were new, synthetic dyes offered a variety and intensity of color unseen in natural dyes (other salons have delved into the Kurds' particular affection for strong, saturated colors). They also allow weavers to work in very pure, even color (I find it hard to imaging the absence of abrash wasn't seen as pretty cool, at least for a while). We should expect weavers to experiment and explore these new colors, at least until hidden problems (fading) show themselves. The fruits of these experiments should be of great interest to anyone looking at textiles from an ethnographic perspective.

To eliminate pieces characterized by synthetic dyes, either because of their long-term failure to hold color or because contemporary tastes (either ours or those of contemporary weavers) run against them, or our image of the 'primitive,' is to ignore a vast variety of 'ethnographic' pieces. One loses a very interesting period of development (where isolated, sometimes nomadic weavers began to assimilate products from the outside world). One also loses yet another of the weaving behaviors I see constantly praised in these salons: the weaver's desire to experiment and 'play' rather than conforming to programmatic constraints so criticized in textiles made for sale.

Rick Paine

Posted by Steve Price on 09-25-2002 02:02 PM:

Hi Rick,

First, welcome to our forums.

Your points are very well taken. I think there are several reasons why many of the people who hang out here are averse to things with synthetic dyes.

One reason is not that the dyes can fade, but that they have already faded. I have one NW Persian bagface with a palette of extremely faded synthetic dyes. The back, not having been exposed to light, has more or less the original colors. I've shown the piece to 50 to 100 noncollectors to illustrate the fading that happened to early natural dyes. I've never had anyone think the front (faded) was more attractive than the back. Maybe they were influenced by my opinion, but I don't think so. So, since collectors are interested in aesthetics (many will say that they're interested in nothing except aesthetics), the stuff with synthetics loses points on this basis.

Another reason is that many collectors simply prefer to collect antiques, as opposed to things that are not antiques. Synthetic dyes pretty much eliminate early dates of manufacture. This is an irrational reason, but collecting isn't a rational activity to begin with, so collecting antiques isn't much more subject to this criticism than collecting at all. Personally, I find it comforting to be around things that are older than I am that don't look too bad. I don't predate synthetic dyes, but I can be absolutely sure that things made before the introduction of synthetics are much older than I am.

The rather exuberant orange used in many pieces around the first quarter of the 20th century seems to many to be out of harmony with the rest of the usual palette in which it is found. I guess that makes this an aesthetic issue.

We can add things like snobbery and peer pressure to the list.

On the bright side: we are rapidly approaching the point where the "early synthetic period" (synthetics, but before the chrome dyes) will be more than 100 years in the past. When those rugs become antiques, the collectors of antiques will see them through different eyes.

Incidentally, I was in southeastern Turkey for a week or so last summer, and can easily understand your affection for the region and its people.

I hope you'll continue to contribute your expertise to our discussions.


Steve Price

Posted by R. John Howe on 09-25-2002 03:31 PM:

Mr. Paine -

You touch a chink in the "armour" of our collecting standards.

Since the aesthetic standards we employ are seemingly largely learned, they are a social product and manipulated by the current elite. Any such phenomenon will have inconsistencies in it and points at which the justifications offered will conflict. Sometimes it will become evident that such standards cannot really be justified on the basis of the logics offered for them. It can become irrational and, yes, we do sometimes bar ourselves unnecessarily from pieces that we ought to consider more seriously, because we find a few traces of a likely synthetic in them.

There does seem to be some sense in which "old is better" is true, but there is no doubt that meritorious weavings are likely made in every age.

Steve says, we value the old, and that is true, but the presence of synthetics can actually be, and this is increasing the case, an indicator of fair age. Not of the possiblility that a given piece might have been made before 1850 but presence of an early synthetic may let one estimate with fair accuracy that a piece was woven say between 1875 and 1910.

At a rug club meeting recently I ran into a person who owns a few rugs but who is actually a "print" collector. I quizzed him about the standards he uses and especially about whether the presence of synthetic dyes in a print lowers his interest in it at all. He said not; that he is actually glad to find one since it functions as an age marker for him. I asked him if synthetic dyes detracted from a prints aesthetic appeal and again he said not. And print collectors are not immune to aesthetic judgments about color.

At The Textile Museum recently some contemporary weavers were ooh and aahing over some colors they were using that seemed of the "day-glo" variety to me. Again, these are folks not untuned to aesthetics, including color, and they looked at me blankly when I described why antique rug collectors would find the colors they were admiring unsatisfactory.

And we are inconsistent when we both admire the gentle pastels into which many natural dyes fade with age and talk condescendingly about the "glare" of a synthetic and then move to a dye that we think natural and admire its great saturation and intensity.

So I would advise you to school yourself a little. There is something to the standards into which we have been socialized. But then you should buy what you like and what you think you could live with and look at for a long time, even if you think such pieces have synthetic dyes in them.


R. John Howe

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 09-26-2002 10:50 AM:

Absolutely, Rick.

I have to say, though, that some open-minded, ethnographically-oriented, narrow-budgeted collectors do not refrain from buying modern or not-so-old textiles with synthetic dyes.

On the left an old tattered mafrash (probably a Shahsavan from the Moghan region) good natural colors faded, but not terribly, with the age. There is not a big difference in color between the external and the internal side - this should be an indicator of natural dyes, I guess.
On the right a modern mafrash, well done, nice wool, and, ugh you see those pink green and orange?
(the gray strip under the old mafrash is a Kodak neutral test card, with a 18% reflectance, that was supposed to help in calibrating the picture’s colors).

None of them should be a serious collector’s choice: the first is too ragged, the second for some of its fluorescent dyes.
I liked the second anyway and I bought it.
It is so ugly for you?

I suspect it is not as new at it seems. It could be a dowry piece stored in a trunk and never used. The waver made it with a good care. She used also some camel wool - at least it looks like camel because it is softer, the fibers are longer and for its color. See detail:

Then I bought the old one - I liked that too in spite of its condition.
OK - In a better world I would have only one mafrash: with the color and the age of the first and the perfect condition of the second.
My only consolation: they both have - I believe - an ethnographic value. And I like them both.
What do you think?


Posted by Steve Price on 09-26-2002 11:13 AM:

Hi Filiberto,

Forgetting about the aesthetics, I think these two pieces show very nicely what I think of as the "tidying up" that seems to have happened between the mid-to-late 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries. The main band, the two narrower bands, and the "crab"border of the younger one all clearly have their roots in the tradition of the older one. But in the main band and the two narrower bands the fluid drawing is replaced by a simpler, more rectilinear style, and the negative space is much less a part of the design.

I think having both is a good decision. It really makes each one more interesting when you can compare them side by side.


Steve Price

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 09-26-2002 11:40 AM:

Hi Steve,

Yes, another point in having them both was the "air of family" between them. Like the modern mafrash was woven by a granddaughter of the weaver of the old one. Which, broadly (anthropologically) speaking, is correct.

Posted by Rick_Paine on 09-26-2002 12:52 PM:

First, thank you for the kind welcome and the very interesting replies.

My post was essentially about the contrast between cultural interest (ethnographic interest to an ethnographer) and aesthetic interest. I think both are absolutely wonderful perspectives to approach textiles (or just about anything else). I did not intend to denigrate either collectors' well educated (I have been thrilled by the knowledge that comes out in these salons--I'm learning by the day) senses of textile quality, or an approach to collecting based on aesthetics. My principal aim was to suggest that many 'ethnographic' pieces have interest that goes beyond pure aesthetics.

Clearly, the two are not mutually exclusive. One big reason I think I am attracted to textiles is the way they blend utilitarian forms with art. When I go looking at kilims (I can't afford to look at knotted rugs. If they are interesting, they are beyond reach), or bags, I am usually attracted to them by their beauty. Aesthetic appeal (for me) follows my socio/cultural/temporal perspective. I am a middle aged, classically liberal, New England male from the academic class. As such, I tend to be attracted by the same softened, pure colors (likely natural dyes most of the time, though as I have said, I'm really not qualified to say) that I suspect most collectors out there prefer, along with the strong geometric designs often associated with 'tribal' peoples. I have only once bought a textile that drifts too far from contemporary concepts of beauty (see below).

However, I am also an anthropologist (this is more relevant here as an insight into my personality than an indicator of professional affiliation), which means I get pulled in different ways too. The 'ethnographic factor' can occasionally pull me in even if a piece violates contemporary aesthetic tastes. Last summer I bought a piece my companions found genuinely offensive. It's a Kurdish Baddanni or Filikli. It's not as nice, but looks a lot like one pictured in Daniel Deschuyteneer's salon on Kurdish weavings (which I enjoyed thoroughly--wish I'd been aware of TurkoTek when it was active). It has wild, synthetic colors (powerful oranges, sadly faded purples, electric pinks--a member of my project described it as the shag rug from hell). I love it. I think it looks like it's on fire. However, if it did not appeal to me from an ethnographic perspective (I thought I knew its use before reading another salon, which raised alternative possibilities), I probably would never have looked at it long enough to appreciate its strange beauty. Understanding a piece's use and cultural context adds enormously (for me) to a beautiful piece's appeal, and can be enough to get me to part with a few million Turkish Lira for a less attractive one.

One reason I would like to see collectors take the ethnographic side seriously is so textiles that have cultural interest wind up in places where they have a chance to be preserved. These objects preserve behavior that is currently disappearing, not just from the contemporary world, but from memory (as elderly people who have lived a nomadic lifestyle die off). Ethnographic textiles can tell us about aspects of daily life. They can also tell us about evolving connections to the larger world, and evolving senses of group identity, and aesthetics. That makes pieces 'made for one's own use' intrinsically fascinating, regardless of their current aesthetic appeal. Because some of these pieces are not aesthetically exciting (or maybe too exciting), at least by 21st-century western collector standards, they are endangered (does that make them intrinsically collectible?).

Thank you again for the great conversation. Guess maybe I'll go register.

Posted by Rick_Paine on 09-26-2002 01:11 PM:

I think both of Filiberto's bags are wonderful. The bright one reflects the color sense of its maker, which I find fascinating.

The colors remind me of rugs I've noticed among contemporary Kurds in Turkey. Based on bad sampling (the handful of houses I have been invited into and rugs hung over balconies to dry), the big room rug of choice today is a machine-made 'Persian' with a big central medallion. This is not so enlightening so far, you can see them in homes all over America too. The difference is the field color around the medallion. The color of choice--a radiant magenta (bright aquamarine is also popular). You see these rugs everywhere. I suspect the same sense of color went into Filiberto's bag.

Woven plastic mats with big geometric patterns are pretty prevalent too.


Posted by Chuck Wagner on 09-26-2002 06:03 PM:

Arrgghh... ANOTHER century to deal with...

Hi All,

As many of you have noted previously, I'm another who is undeterred by the presence of synthetic dyes in woven goods.

Our (my wife generally has a say in what gets bought) criteria for acquistions is not rigid or closely focused, as our tastes (and our handicraft collection) is eclectic.

Thus, when we encounter pieces that appear to have been made for personal use (ethnographic pieces, as Rick mentions) we are quite flexible with regard to their attributes. Colors and/or designs that clash with our tastes rarely make it to the counter. The same is true with shoddy workmanship, or pieces suspected to have 10,000 clones spread around the world.

But knowing that a lot of folks in the weaving cultures live pretty close to the edge, economically, we'll make exceptions for pieces that appear to be genuine artifacts of a disappearing lifestyle.

Here are two examples, both containing a dye that (to my uncertain eye) appears to be fuchsine. I'm pretty sure they're 5th or 6th quarter 19th century.

The first, I think, is from north central Afghanistan, probably Ghormaj. A salt bag that has certainly seen better days but also has the distinct look and feel of something used for decades. The wool feels like it's still attached to the sheep.

The closeup shows remnants of the original purple color. The inside is in good shape and shows no evidence of bleeding due to a harsh wash.

The other piece is a small bag, bigger than a chanteh but smaller than a khorjin. When I first saw it I thought it was Chinese because of the sheen on the wool, the velvety texture, and the odd color scheme.

Then I looked inside...

We don't have too many pieces like these. But then, as most of you know, they are uncommon (which is different from rare and valuable ) in any market. Their presence is evidence that things have gone so badly in Afghanistan that the last of the utilitarian goods are going on the market to raise cash.

The 20th century is one where commercialism and synthetic dyes dominated the weaving world. Yet nomads still wandered the steppes and mountains, and poor settled people still made goods for their own use. Ethnographic goods were still created.

As Steve points out, products with synthetics are aging into the antique period now, and may gain additional audience as a result. We should expect more and more queries from people who seek knowledgable commentary on pieces from the "post-natural-dye" period.

With sufficient study, I suspect we will attain some level of satisfaction with our ability to establish dating and attribution criteria for some groups of 20th century rugs. As the weaving cultures comingled and traditional classification techniques (design, structure) became less useful, were not some other patterns beginning to develop ?

This will be the challenge of antique weavings from the 20th century. We should hone our minds now, while the weavers are still alive to talk to, so when the questions start coming we have some ideas.

Let's assign a grad student...


Chuck Wagner

Posted by David R.E. Hunt on 09-27-2002 10:18 PM:

Apples or Oranges

Dear Rick and All- This aversion to artificial dyes and latter weaving is understandable, but I think it is important to keep things in perspective, so as to neither confuse apples with oranges or misconstrue the proverbial tree for the forest. While most would agree that the natural dyes of old yielded the best colors and in many respects differientiate the truly old or early, especially among Turkmen weaving, from latter antique or modern weaving,I think that it is important to remember that these early Turkmen weavings are both quite rare and quite expensive and as such constitute a smaller percentage of all rugs and are not representative of the body of Turkmen weaving as a whole. So when we try to compare an early 19th century Tekke to a late 19th century tekke we are confusing categories, comparing apples to oranges. Also, I believe that latter weavings have much to commend themselves, and are most worthy of collecting, even if for no other reason that they represent a continum. In as far as these florescent dyes are concerned, it is my understanding that people in the rug producing portions of the world like these colors, and that is why they use them. At one time in the not too distant past here in the west, florescent colors were considered stylish, and if you like them, by all means collect them. Collect whatever category you like, be it pre 1860 natural dye, enhnographic, or any number of variations,find the best examples you can and most of all collect for yourself. Ultimately you are your own authority.- Dave

Posted by Michael Wendorf on 09-29-2002 11:37 PM:

apples and oranges


It is exciting to hear from a new contributor who is or has been working and living among the Kurds in SE Anatolia.

While i agree that anyone can collect anything they find to be compelling or of interest, I have to wonder about the ethnographic interest as well as continum that David mentions in connection with weavings with synthetic dyes. What exactly is it that makes these weavings ethnographically significant or part of a continum? If Kurdish weavers, by way of example, wove with natural dyes from local sources and from local recipes for centuries or even thousands of years only to have these dyes and recipes lost as they were quickly replaced by cheap synthetic dyes from European companies what is it these weavings represent? The destruction/loss of a dye tradition? The loss of a way of life? Not much to celebrate it seems to me - and that quite aside from any aesthetic issue at all.

Regards, Michael

Posted by R. John Howe on 09-30-2002 06:50 AM:

Michael -

One would certainly have to agree that there is ethnographic loss when European dyes are substituted for those produced traditionally within the particular rug weaving community

(Although note that we seem to acknowledge at the beginning that many rugs we would consider still to have ethnographic significance were not necessarily woven from the wools of the weaver's own flocks or dyed by the weaver's own hand and that likely did not go on "from antiquity," so there is some likely change from earlier ages of the tradition reflected even in this beginning position. One might hold that the fact that the dyes came from local Jewish dyers rather than from European firms is only a matter of distance, that the local Jews were outside the Kurdish tradition too).

But would you argue that the entire ethnographic significance of the rugs we collect resides in the character of the dyes alone?

It seem to me that the enthographic significance of something is likely based on multiple indicators. Some of these might be the quality and character of the weaving, the designs, some indication perhaps that an item was used, etc.

How would you evaluate a piece that is made using "weftless sumak" but that has some recognizable traces of synthetic dyes, some goat hair and some places where undyed wool has been used?

I have a Tekke torba that seems likely to me to have been woven mostly with synthetic dyes about 1910. It may also have been chemically washed. To make my confession complete, it was an early purchase, and I bought it because a I liked its "coppery" color. But the technical quality of the weaving and the drawing on this piece are both admirable, it has a rather unusual gul device, and there is some organic matter in the bottom of it (it is complete with its back) that makes me think it was used. This is not a piece over which advanced collectors would salivate but has it lost all of its ethnographic significance?

Is the ethnographic significance of a piece utterly sundered by the discovery that it has some synthetic dyes in it?


R. John Howe

Posted by Steve Price on 09-30-2002 08:17 AM:

Hi John,

I would go even further than you along this line. Tribal and village weavers hopped on synthetic dyes like chickens on June bugs. They did so because they liked the colors and couldn't get them from natural dyes. That is, the synthetic dyes (at least, until they faded) represented their personal preferences. They still do.

I don't think synthetic dyes became cheap to these people until some time later. When that happened, of course, low cost became another factor.


Steve Price

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 09-30-2002 11:25 AM:

To dye or not to dye

Hi Steve,

Right, "they liked some synthetic colors and they couldn't get them from natural dyes."
And there’s the rub. "They still do."

Remember those rugs from Salon 64?

Yet, there are collectors who reject some textiles not for the ugly colors (see above) but only under SUSPICION that some dyes could be synthetic.


Posted by Steve Price on 09-30-2002 11:44 AM:

Hi Filiberto,

The aesthetics of the colors aren't the whole story. A lot of folks want antiques, and only antiques. Besides, nobody wants to overpay, and an antique has a higher value than something too young to be an antique.

When someone says that he suspects that a dye is synthetic, his real concern is that the piece isn't antique. He may not want it for that reason, and he surely doesn't want to pay the price of an antique to get it.


Steve Price

Posted by Chuck Wagner on 09-30-2002 01:49 PM:

You Guyz Are Full Of Surprises

Steve, et all:

...Good. Now we're back to my last point: Now that the world of synthetic-dyed rugs is creeping into the antique zone, what (if anything) should Turkotekkes do to maintain the high standard of Guru-ocity that has been the tradition here, when dealing with 20th century pieces ?

This group loves a challenge, and besides, there ARE some real works of novel, unique art out there in syntheticville (in both the aesthetic and ethnographic categories). Is an ordered approach of any value, and worth the effort ? Should we develop a vetted image gallery for use in establishing age related trends in colors, design, materials, etc. Do Steve and Filiberto have endless time to spend looking after such a thing ?

That kind of stuff...

So, I think it's worthy of some discussion, possibly in another thread. But if I'm the only one that thinks so, I'll just pull the handle and not worry about it

Regards, Chuck

p.s. I can't believe ONE of you hasn't given me some guff over that beat up old salt bag yet. You all must be tired...

Chuck Wagner

Posted by Steve Price on 09-30-2002 02:20 PM:

Hi Chuck,

John Howe did a Salon not terribly long ago on the subject of what collectors will be collecting 100 years from now. That's sort of along the lines that you suggest. If you'd like to work up an essay more directly in keeping with your idea, I'd be happy to run it.

I think the salt bag is OK, but not to die for.


Steve Price

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 10-01-2002 09:52 AM:

Hi Chuck,

Why don’t you give it a try?
I’d like also to see some of Rick’s Kurdish stuff.


Posted by Michael Bischof on 10-01-2002 04:32 PM:

another approach

Dear all,

this is an ever lasting topic - and I like it like that !

Chuck Wagner: here comes the guff. I find the salt bag u g l y - and the two pieces that Filiberto Boncompagni shows do not convince me at all. With his estimation of the first piece I agree.May be a proper decent wash to revive the colour could improve it a bit ? Anyway, not the best of its type. The second one I do not like. Better: I cannot like it as it looks "wrong".

2 years before we had a fashion here: traditional "geometric" carpet and kilim motives on pullovers ( machine knit, synthetic dyes, combined for a pastel elegant European indoor look) . It really hurted my eyes: it looked "wrong". The motives in a way do not function with these dyes. May be as they arose from a kind of co-evolution with strong natural dyes ?

This tradition is at least 4000 years old ( I speak of weaving using dyed fibers) and within this time span a sustainable result evolved: harmonious combinations of upmost saturated natural dyes, applied in tricky and lengthy processses ( that did not harm the fiber integrity). This can be seen best in not (!) patinated (light-oxidized, damaged) pieces but in mint condition though their number is indeed very small. " we both admire the gentle pastels into which many natural dyes fade with age" ( R. John Howe) is a description of the attitude that the majority of collectors hold. But in science and art it is not the majority that counts. Great dyes do not (easily) tend to develop gentle pastels. Look at some great early 14.-17. century fragments - but, please, to the wool inside the pile, not at the surface (though many of them even there have an intensity that is breath-taking).

The more "pure" the natural dye is the more costly it is to make it, leaving the necessary know how aside. With natural dyes one can make even stronger pink colours than the piece of Filiberto displays - but such a dye this weaver could not have afforded, at least not to use it in these high amounts. Some jewel like tiny spots, highlights....

This is an aesthetic approach. It has nothing (!!!) to do with age ! Great creativity was extreme rare in old days and today ... only a fool would reject a splendid weave because it is new. 200 years before people used better dyes for the simple fact that the quicker, lower quality substitutes were not available, yet. Please do not forget that the essence of industry is to substitute human labour - at the expense of quality in most cases, at least with textiles.

"Ethnographic" value: if it is no weak excuse for aesthetically wrong selections there must be a "story", a background that proves the significance of a particular "ethnographic" textile ( no matter whether there are synthetic dyes in it). This story, of course, should be so that it can be checked in order to avoid
tapetological fairy tales...

Michael Bischof

Posted by Rick Paine on 10-01-2002 07:39 PM:

Two quick points:

1: One's individual aesthetic taste is important, and it is an appropriate (probably the best) basis for collecting. It is also highly culture specific. One learns to appreciate colors, (or musical styles, or the shapes of the opposite sex) favored by their 'peers.' This sense serves as, among other things, a means of identifying other members of the 'in' group ('us' from 'them'). It lets one know who is an acceptable friend, ally, or mate.

Let me give an example from an utterly unrelated area. Classic Maya nobles had a rather different idea of beauty than 21st-century Euro-Americans. The found an elongated skull and receding forehead ideal (all with hand tools!). They also filed their teeth into different shapes and inlayed them with green stone. Having the right forehead was as clear a status marker as knowing which fork to use has been more recently. When I tell my students about Maya fashion trends, I invariably get audible groans from the room. My reply is this: we live in a society where people surgically implant sacks of jelly in their breasts and have their teeth filed to nubs and replaced with ceramics, wear high-healed shoes that destroy their backs, and where their parents chemically curled their hair (how you feel about any of these things probably says a lot about your specific social group too). Our fashions would probably be as repulsive to the average Maya as filed teeth are to us. The point is if you JUDGE other culture's aesthetics (what you choose to put in your own home is a separate issue), you have missed some important points.

2: Cultures are dynamic entities. Styles change when new groups or ideas pop up, or when individuals defy established norms and experiment. They also change with technology. The process of change, whether caused by social change, technical change, or something else, is not only normal, but absolutely fascinating to many of us. To suggest that a culture (or an art style) has somehow devolved because it has adopted technology or patterns that do not appeal to US (this has an incredibly long tradition in Art History) is horribly ethnocentric.

By all means collect what you like. If I can borrow a digital camera and figure out how to post some pictures, we can have some fun critiquing what I like (those hoping for a collection dominated by shocking pinks will be disappointed). Personal choice is fair game--and fun. But, be careful about blanket statements about whether other cultures are degenerated because they chose a technology, or a new palate of colors they saw as a benefit.

I have to go find a pigeon so I can post this.

Posted by Michael Bischof on 10-02-2002 02:54 AM:

Dear all, dear Rick Paine,

thanks a lot for your welcome statement !

To warn against ethnocentric remarks is important, indeed. But the adressates of such warnings are not people that uphold natural dyes - the ethnocentric crowd is made up from those who come with claims like "this is art ... because it has some impact on me!" and who therefore try to put down all efforts to determine the significance of a certain textile (piece of art) within its original context ( as far as we can research it ).

To warn me against it is like taking owls to Athens. I lived from 1992 - 1998 in the Türkmen Evleri Mahalle in Karaman and work together with weavers in the Karaman/Taskale area till today. So I could do more than sitting in Germany (or America) at my PC and start to speculate whether and why weavers in the remote Near East would like natural dyes or synthetic ones. We could test it!

The result is crystal clear: - where they have a chance of selection they prefer natural dyes (in case these look like what they have in mind: a real red, no "production red" (1), a splendid real violet from madder only, blue Indigo hues that do not inflame your skin ... as mentioned before: in Karaman the ladies in the neighbourhood constantly come to the master weaver with whom we work together, Susan Yalcin, to catch a bit of strong natural dyes and knit it into pullovers. Not into the cheap commercial rugs they weave for some Istanbul firms and not into their own little rugs - as they are too valuable for that, today.

And: the yarns should be clean, you hands should not appear stained in the evening. This is the reason why today local weavers reject (if they can) the contemporary offers of Turkish carpet producers who use these "amateur" natural dyes. - in old days and today the weavers/knitters had no access to the most important dyes. But in old days there was no alternative to natural dyes - today there are a lot, and these are cheaper! - one can combine excellent natural dyes in whatever crazy combinations in case they have, more or less, the same grade of saturation - with harmonious results. Of course it is possible to make ugly weaves with the best available natural dyes, e.g. if you apply too many without creating a recognizable image. But this is difficult - with synthetic dyes it is easy to create ugly results, as the given pictures show.

If you are not convinced: - look at the shocking pictures Filiberto Boncampagni contributed. And then imagine the same weaves done with natural dyes, but imagine pieces in mint condition! - you gave a good example: a baddani with shocking synthetic dyes. Now imagine one would do such a thing, using silky Mohair and natural dyes, expertedly done in order to come close to the overall look of your baddani. This is no theory, please. It could be done! Take my words as a kind of bet. But then the price would be like with an antique piece. The look will be very different, though.

Of course culture is and has always been changing. To follow it is a fascinating field! But when you change basic technologies there is always the risk of mishappenings: evolution produces also a lot of "trial-and-error"-results that do not survive, that are not successful ... as long as it takes to achieve a successful new identity on the basis of that new technology. My thesis is that we should judge these synthetic dyes as such mishappenings - and, in certain, well researched ( !) cases, may estimate certain exception for their creativity, other aspects of a special meaning ....

What a certain individual collects or not will, of course, remain his private obession and right. I like the idea of "good taste" - as long as it is not dictatorship. Personally I own some ugly artifacts because they remember me of certain situations that I like to remember. But, damned, that does not make them beautiful.

Michael Bischof

(1) Production red ( "imalat kirmizi" ) is an insiders term of carpet producing people in Turkey. It describes the result of what you get if you follow some Western hobby dyeing recipes with madder plus try to save money by using the lowest possible amount of expensive madder when doing it. A kind of matt, brick-"reddish"-"brownish" something ... by light oxidation it changes in short time to a clearer red but on the expense that roughly 30-40% of the dye lake amount is killed and the fiber looks spotty, then, as this process is uneven. To overcome this problem most guys add some synthetic red dyes on top of it. It is called "köklü" boya then - what means: the dye contains madder. "Kök boya" would mean: entirely from madder with no (!) synthetic additions. This is an old habit: when the newly found azo dyes were applied in the Orient at the beginning people liked very much the pure, "shocking" impact they had. But they faded quick. It did not take more than 10-15 years to have a more rational method evolved: to drop the dye costs by using only a small portion of madder in a quick (!) process and then top the unsatisfactory result with some azo. This we often find in end of 19th century woven Caucasians and Turcomans. Rick, sorry, this is second ranked: because it looks so!

Posted by Chuck Wagner on 10-02-2002 05:43 AM:


Your comments don't address the ugly rugs made with natural dyes, (and there are LOTS of them) and how it is that they can be made with natural dyes and STILL be ugly.

And, you seem to be missing Rick's initial point, which was that when collecting pieces from a cultural perspective rather than a narrowly focused aesthetic perspective, the natural vs. synthetic dye argument has no meaning. It becomes a question of practical use as an indicator of age and cultural origin.

And then there's Filiberto's point, which was: Maybe the weavers use these colors because they LIKE them. Certainly, there are occasions where weaving is done under contract, and the weaver has no control over materials. But the Qashqai CHOOSE to weave with garish colors. I do not think it's because they've been watching too much MTV. It would be simple to use sombre synthetics, as the Baluchis do. The bright colors are used because they LIKE them.

This is not to say your thoughts are wrong. Your own experiences clearly shape your opinions. And, every collector sets their own standards.

Last, I agree with you regarding the aesthtic appeal of the salt bag. But I didn't buy it because I thought it was pretty. I WOULD like to know if anyone agrees that the purple is in fact fuchsine because, if so, it puts an age bracket on the article in question.


Chuck Wagner

Posted by Michael Bischof on 10-02-2002 10:38 AM:

ugly rugs

Hi everybody, hi Chuck,

well, my language might not be precise enough: I mentioned the possibility to create ugly rugs from splendid natural dyes as well. That it happens is quite unlikely, but possible, yes. To create handsome, not to say beautiful, rugs with synthetic dyes is extremely difficult. One must (!) use other motives then. The traditional ones do not "work" as the examples show.

Cultural perspective: always welcome! But this one would like to see in a way that can be checked and discussed, not as an empty claim. Sounds nice: but then you should not just show or mention the piece. You must add the background story. Because, on its own, the piece does not deserve attention.

Filiberto is right: in these +/- 4000 years weavers learned that it is a kind of hard fight to release pure, shiny dyes from natural sources. The more pure the harder it was - and therefore more expensive. As people always fight (or prefer) what they do not have such a dye in pre-industrial times were most likely visual status symbols. But when their cheap substitute became plenty the uncontrolled use of it killed the aesthetics ...

But again: a striking pink made in a special way, let us assume from Cochenille, is light years away from these cheap pinks, visually and in its performance! So to use it would give a different result. Of course how to use it needs certain self-discipline. But this one needs in each art. Who cannot master it ... from the distance I must say what I have said when living and working at the spot: "authentic" is not automatically the same as "splendid" or "successful". Gashgai women are not the only ones that produce Kitsch although they are, technically, master weavers. In Karaman I saw shocking examples of that as well. In case such people lose against an alien culture, accept its predominance and try to copy elements of it - why should we admire the results of that attitude? To admire the physical beauty of those girls seems to be a better alternative - for me at least.

I do not dare to comment on the fuchsine problem from this picture. The bag looks like a typical "semi-antique" piece: 20-80 years old, done with synthetic dyes, faded in use ... it does not smell that one would find fuchsine in it. Nevertheless: if the situation when you got it was such that you would like to remember it - fine.

Yes, and here is the problem. In my opinion we discuss such things here in order to develop standards, measures, etc. Pieces with synthetic dyes do not contribute to that - unless they are embedded in a "cultural perspective". But again: this must be displayed then!

2 years ago there was a well announced exhibition of yastiks in Northern Germany. Some 20 or so pieces. Only 2-3 were natural dyes, but they were not top pieces. All pieces had been bought in the trade, in Turkey in most cases. Their real origin, everything else .... was unclear. Except some that were, with precautions, defined by some of the viewers. Where, please , is the "cultural perspective" here?

The synthetic dyes made the pieces aesthetically uninteresting. Such things might be valuable - together with a proper, well documented background story. But by occasional buying in touristic carpet shops one cannot accumulate it. What is left then?

By the way: it was no idea to drive 400 km to see it. If I would have known ... or, better, if the unlucky collector would have followed the advice of Michael Franses (like: study the subject as well as you can and then buy the best that you can afford) - then I would have in my brain 2-3 great yastiks that since then I wouldn't have forgotten.

If Rick Paine would use his free time while being there, learn the local language, group some co-workers (some ladies must be in the group! Turkologists as well, for the important details of local language) and would start field studies - yes, then there would be a "cultural perspective". But the measures should not be lower! In this way one could well collect material for articles, for an exhibition. But this would not be related to art. A proper title would rather be "Status of the local cottage industry of ..... at the end of the 20th century". The bulk of Caucasian weaves from the second half of the 19th century, by the way, would fall into this category as well.

"And, every collector sets their own standards." What someone chooses to collect is, of course, his own choice. What he claims it to be is not his choice - it can be discussed and, well, be rejected.

Michael Bischof

Posted by Michael Bischof on 10-02-2002 12:31 PM:

Hi Chuck,

sorry, I did not put enough attention on your first sentence

Your comments don't address the ugly rugs made with natural dyes, (and there are LOTS of them) and how it is that they can be made with natural dyes and STILL be ugly.

as I see now. Postponed, not forgotten!
Please be more specific: what "natural dyes" do you mean ?

Do you mean

This makes a big difference. Let me start with what one can learn from old pieces. All early Turcomans, for example, have ultimate saturated dyes of varying degrees of "purity". In addition the very early ones display a more free ( but still very disciplined ) use of them. Same with Balouch. The latter prefer such dark combinations that they should be viewed in bright sunlight ! Otherwise they do not "work".
If you compare now late pieces you will see, I guess, that these in most cases have less saturated, but often ( with the help of azo-topping) more "pure" dyes. As the synthetics fade what is left is - I speak of truely antique, but late pieces here ! - a disappointing "flat" appearance.

Now imagine you take a little thing, e.g. an 18th century Salor or Arabatchi cuval, to a carpet shop and put it on top of

I think you will immediately get my point. With the cottage industry of today we have another problem. Tradition is the source for boring repetitions - but at the same time, as people tend to repeat "successful" combinations, a source of protection against "wrong", ugly combinations. This idea works only as long as one does not change the material basis.

A lady that is accustomed in her habits of placing colours to saturated dyes, but the enterprising firm gives to her flat dyes for price reasons (and for contemporenous Western taste that mistakes harmony with "pastel"= flat dyes), then a successful combination changes to an ugly one. And now imagine what happens if you leave the authentic weaving areas and move to the big successful field of modern "uprooted" carpeting (Pakistan,India, China - but similar concepts in Turkey or Iran as well). The aesthetical fiasco that comes up then has nothing to do with natural dyes - any saturatedly dyed silk shawl or fabric will prove that!

Michael Bischof

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 10-03-2002 03:14 AM:

Hi Michael,

So, you agree with Chuck on that one, right?
Frankly, there are some examples of modern and expensive high quality production with hand spun wool and natural dyes that make me SCREAM of horror. Three of them are here:

For our policy, I’m not going to indicate which ones, though.

But to go back on your opposition to artificial dyes:

1 - If you speak from the point of view of ethnology, their presence is irrelevant, as Rick already pointed out.

2 - The same if you speak from the artistic point of view. Otherwise, with a similar logic we should discard - say - impressionist paintings or modern music, because the firsts were made with new synthetic colors and the second uses electronic instruments.

Then there are things I’d like to clarify.

To be perfectly sure about the "syntheticity" of dyes one has to perform a chemical analysis i.e. appearance cannot be trusted. This was discussed on Turkotek some time ago. I remember someone spoke about artificially looking dyes (perhaps on a Kaitag embroidery) that a test shoved to be natural.
I also remember that synthetic madder and indigo are more or less the same than the natural ones - (chemically they have the same composition only purer). So, it’s difficult to discern natural from artificial.
Ultimately, my opinion is that all depends by the way the dyes are applied on the wool and by the quality of the wool itself.

Also, when you write "The synthetic dyes made the pieces aesthetically uninteresting." I would like to understand how much of synthetic dye makes a rug unappealing for you.
I mean, in old textiles natural colors can be found along with artificial ones. How much of the latter bothers you? A few knots, like in some Baluchi rugs? Some specific colors? 5%, 10% of the whole? Or isn’t it better to judge case by case?


Posted by Michael Bischof on 10-03-2002 08:52 AM:

Dear all, dear Filiberto Boncompagni,

first of all: I have no opposition against synthetic dyes. I do not put them on the same level with first class natural dyes, that is all. Like I do not place "slow food" and "fast food" equal. I do not exclude, however, that artistically great solution might be found with synthetic dyes - but not using the traditional imagery of Oriental rugs and kilims.

One example that comes to my mind are Bauhaus carpets, done with machine spun wool and synthetic dyes in the twenties in last century. They had a modern designs that fitted well to the colours they used - not exciting, but pleasant, I would guess. Their estimation in the market needs a kind of prove what they are - in other terms: they are not overwhelmingly "self-explanating".

How weavers get their dyes is one not unimportant part of the material life and therefore not unsignificant for ethnographers. For its evaluation of its "ethnographic value" it would be insignificant. I agree.

That you, Rick Paint, did not discuss the economical impact of synthetical dyes on weaving communities I excuse with the fact that you are an archaeologist and not, in first line, a textile researcher. In old days, before synthetics were introduced, weavers could occasionally sell their goods. It was similar to have some money on a bank account. The amount of labour spent for weaving was not lost. After the synthetic fiasco this chance has been lost. First the aesthetical value dropped, then the economical value followed. Today textile items with synthetic dyes are meaningless as a kind of "depot". The dealers just sit and wait. In the "dry period", before the harvesting period starts and fresh money comes, villagers are forced to sell for absolutely ridiculous prices - otherwise they cannot sell. This makes them stop to weave. The woven items are therefore (inside such a community - not for the touristic retail customer, of course) a kind of a waste business. How often did we guide Westerners to Anatolian villages and always run into the same old problem: women want occasionally to sell some of their goods (canta, heybe, cuval, sometimes bigger items) and are absolutely disappointed that the customers do not want to offer fair prices. Why? Because the same goods are so cheap on the market (plus the idiotic expectation of "buying at the source"). This combination kills, at the end, the skills... and which private firm, who would need to safe-guard talented weavers at the end, would dare to give to them naturally dyed yarns? Let us assume Mr. Miller would come across such a new heybe, splendid as he ever ever saw any antique one (most of these are extremely faded by use). What would happen ? He would reject it for being new.

Your example with impressionists painting therefore lacks one very important aspect: these people did not copy traditional painting styles with new materials - they developed a new style together with these materials. And this did not yet happen with synthetic dyes in the carpet environment. So your argument nolens volens emphasizes mine: that changing the visual basis (dye technology) without changing motives and colour combination killed the aesthetical values. No wonder that the unhappy corpses of such enterprise must be further tortured by sun tanning on the mountains .... which hurts the integrity of the wool in addition to the chemical wash attack.

I have not enough understanding of modern music to be able to comment whether your comparison is suitable or not. But isn't it a bit fresh for evaluations ? I mean such things are established some time later - looking back one is most often amused about the measurements done at a certain time. I am for sure not a "tradionalist" - but we discuss a defined topic. And there I still wait for the advocates of synthetical dyes to come up with something convincing, aesthetically ... and when it comes to "ethnographical perspectives" I simply want to see them.

Of course natural dyes in a piece can result in a fiasco. If you would read my text again you will see that I had mentioned exactly that. Simply because I had some of the examples in my mind to which you refer in R. John Howe's excellent salon of last year. But the examples that you cite deviate from the assumption that I had in mind:

* there is not one piece there where the weavers did decide how to use the colours. These are cottage industry products ...

* there is one (half) exception: the Ersari piece where traditional motives and colour combinations have been used - and it is does not hurt your policy if I state that this is not a fiasco piece, is it? In my opinion the only visible deficiency (but notice, please: on the basis of a digital photo I do not base such a statement!) seems to be that the colour saturation is not high enough, as compared to 2nd half of the 19th century Ersari pieces. Especially the pale orange in the end kilim looks a bit "flat" for me.

What I had in mind is the case when Oriental weavers have the chance to combine saturated natural dyes (not those of todays cottage industry!) in the way they like when they create weaves which must not copy traditional designs, but that are based on these design schemes. There is so much space for creative evolutions within this frame !

Michael Bischof

Posted by Michael Bischof on 10-03-2002 09:56 AM:

Hi everybody,
here comes part II ( I still need to practice vB-Code, forgive me).

So, it's difficult to discern natural from artificial.

No, but it needs "training". To compare synthetic alizarine with madder is kind of misinformed, as well as to compare natural Indigo and synthetic Indigo. But, as Filiberto writes:
Ultimately, my opinion is that all depends by the way the dyes are applied on the wool and by the quality of the wool itself.

That is the point - and a trained eye can immediately visualize this difference ! For a court trial we would need an expensive analysis. In the market reality things are different: because there is a big difference between natural Indigo, knowledgedly vatted using organic auxilliaries, and synthetic Indigo the repair people in the Orient, who did never learn how to make dyes, are forced into extreme dangerous and toxic manipulations to obtain a nuance that looks closer to the "old" Indigo hues than the modern synthetic Indigo/caustic soda/hydrosulphite process would yield. They heat synthetic Indigo dyed yarns in potassium bichromate solutions ( the ultimate co-allergenic and co-cancerogenic substance ! Nanograms should be avoided, at least in daily exposure till this strong oxidizing agent kills the Indigo and, unavoidably, a part of the wool as well. But the resulting shade is more greenish, kind of broken, closer to an "old dye".

The simple fact that these professional people expose themselves to such a danger shows what the market thinks of the aesthetical values of synthetic dyes (even if they have the same formula like their natural idol ).

Of course I did not have in mind a percentage up to which a synthetic dye would not bother. I have seen once a Lenkoran carpet, with splendid real (!) Cochenille as a ground colour, superb saturated flavon yellows ( may be from weld ,or from local sources), and reported at the ICOC in San Francisco about this piece ( as a part of a technical review about HPLC application for researching natural dyes). There were tiny spots of "shocking" reddish-orange spots in the border - in analysis it came out that it was very, very early azo, many different fractions, not pure, at the very beginning of this business). I loved the rug! Outcompeted most of early Caucasians that I have seen (for the colour impact).

In general "late" pieces have less saturated (natural) dyes. This reduces the aesthetical value of the piece - if we have 1% or 5% synthetic dyes does not matter. And, to be frank: the late 19th century products of the Caucasian cottage industry ( the majority of our "collector's pieces" !) have reds that share the brownish-matt shade with todays "imalat kirmizi" - if these are topped with a bit azo they look better, more "original". If there would not be this damned washing problem ...

But with these experiences, measures - and demands - you might understand why I find any thought of treating the 20-80 years old, mixed material as "collector's pieces" to be grotesque. They might be "affordable" - yes, what does this mean then ? The advice of Franses for me seems not to be snobistic. "Honest" I would call it ...


Michael Bischof

Posted by Tracy Davis on 10-03-2002 10:50 AM:

Chuck's salt bag - fuchsine?

I looked back at the photo, Chuck, and although the magenta dye appears synthetic, I doubt it's fuchsine (which usually fades to a beigy-gray color) - there's still too much color left. I would guess it to be a second- or third-generation synthetic (1910-1930ish), but I'm open to argument.

Posted by David R. E. Hunt on 10-04-2002 01:10 AM:

Further Elaboration

Chuck, Michaels , All- First off , Chuck, I like the bag, no weaving masterpiece but interesting, as long as you bought it at the right price. While of course it is all well and good to concentrate one's efforts, when assembling any collection, upon only the best and most valued, rare, expensive,ect., this does not hold true when assembling a collection intended to reflect the range of variation exhibited by any order or class of thing or object, be they insects or carpets, or aves or automobiles. As such with ethnographic textiles. While it would indeed represent a beautiful assemblage of rugs, a collection of only those specimens demonstrating the clearest colors and the best delineated markings would demonstrate all the scientific value, in the least from the perspective of representing a range of variation, of a coleopteran collection assembled of specimens chosen for inclusion by those same criteria of clearest color and best delineation of marking.It might make a beautiful beetle collection, but it would fail miserably at being anything but the most cursory and superficial representation of the natural range of variation demonstrated by beetles.Take it to the Smithsonian and they would laugh. Or perhaps a collection of Ferrari and Rolle Royce. Much more representative of the tastes and wallet of the collector than a true representative sampling of the values and varieties of automobiles manufactured and driven by the populi of America and Northern Europe in the twentieth century. Rare and beautiful rugs are both but they are not an all inclusive survey of weaving culture, more at art than science, and for myself the intellectual compenents of collecting are most half the attraction. In as far as preference in choice of color is concerned, I think this best demonstrates a basic quality of human nature as opposed to color preference, for most anyone would choose, given the option, the Ferrari over the Volkswagon.-Dave

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 10-04-2002 03:16 AM:

Hi, Michael,

Thank you for your answer(s).
It seems we might be able to reach a lowest common denominator here if we do not reject a priori a rug for the presence of synthetic dye on it.
One has to decide on the single case, like the Lenkoran rug you speak about.


Dave made a good point too.

Posted by Chuck Wagner on 10-04-2002 07:50 AM:

Get The RayBans Out

Hi Michael,

Sorry it took me so long to get this posted, I’m coming in about two days later than I wanted to. One thing this particular exercise has taught me is that Microsoft software developers are overpaid. I’m going to ruminate a little about the synthetic/natural dye issue. I note, up front, that my initial impression of your position on the issue has evolved as you have explained more fully how you feel.

As I am one of those “A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words” people, I’m going to try to get a few thoughts in and then reinforce them with commentary on some images.

I see that you have stated that you are not rigidly opposed to synthetic dyes, per se. It is clear though, that because your collecting focus area is antique carpets, synthetics hold little interest for several reasons, not simply aesthetics (more on that later).

So first, regarding your question:

“ Please be more specific: what "natural dyes" do you mean ?

Do you mean

• "natural dyes" as to be seen in todays commercial fashion of Near Eastern carpet producers?
• Or do you mean "natural dyes" (sensu strictu) in truely antique pieces or done today with methods equivalent or even superior to those ? “

When I say natural dye, I mean natural dye. A product of minimally processed vegetable or mineral origin. In other words, not an industrial chemical. Whether the dye was cooked over an open fire or prepared in a city dyeworks makes no difference to me. Nor does it matter whether the piece is ancient or brand new. As I stated in an earlier post, I am not put off by synthetic dyes. But when I can find a naturally dyed piece, and it’s attractive to me, I’ll buy it over a synthetically dyed equivalent if it doesn’t leak (a badly fixed natural dye will run just as badly as a synthetic). But that’s it. My collecting tastes are quite eclectic and our collection reflects that.

But, I AM put off by a BADLY DONE synthetic dye job, especially in newer pieces because I don’t think there’s much of an excuse these days for doing a lousy job. The chemicals are high quality now, and so are the results when used correctly. I’m willing to make an exception now and then when dealing with nomadic or CERTAIN refugee goods, because I know that the conditions under which the dye was prepared may have been so primitive that quality control was not on the preparers “important things to think about” list. And, lack of funds limits some weavers to the cheapest materials that they can find, which does not bode well for the collector.

What surprises me is the frequency with which one encounters leaky dyes in new city carpets today. Twenty years ago, you’d have to look at several hundred Tabriz rugs before you could find one with leaky dyes. Today, that number is more like thirty. It seems that the pressure from emerging city carpet look-alike industries in India, Pakistan, and China, are causing shortcuts to be taken in Iran and Turkey that were unacceptable not long ago. I’m sure that collapsing currencies are major contributors to this problem as well. It’s certainly not because the emerging carpets are higher quality than the older ones from the traditional weaving areas. They’re less costly. But inexpensive mediocrity seems to satisfy enough people to squeeze the entire industry. Too much supply, not enough demand, etc.

Very high quality city goods ARE still produced. I’ll show you a couple. You just pay more for them now. I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to say the same for nomadic goods. As we all know, natural dyes are more expensive and take more time to use than synthetics. What nomad would vote for losing time out of the day without adequate compensation ? The economics of competition force the use of inexpensive methods when the woven product is intended for the marketplace. When the weaver is also the customer, there IS no compensation. It’s a harbinger of bad things to come for traditional weavings collectors, because there aren’t that many people on the planet who would choose poverty over prosperity. The nomadic lifestyle may continue but I think it’s unlikely that truly traditional weaving goods are going to be produced in any meaningful quantity any more. Of course, what that all REALLY means is that the definition of “traditional weaving” seems to be changing.

Which brings me to my next point: Time Marches On. As those few REALLY old pieces become increasingly scarce and prohibitively expensive, the collecting population will direct more attention to more recently antique pieces. Most of those pieces will contain some, if not all, synthetically dyed material. So the proper question to ask is: how do we judge quality, or more importantly: value, whatever that is, in newer carpets ?

The old measures, to a large extent, still hold: No leaky dyes, color palette in harmony, lies flat, same width at both ends, no obvious repairs (if they’re obvious they’re either badly done or so big you should worry about them, right ?), structure and materials compatible with the proposed origin, etc.

But for most 20th century pieces, color palettes in particular and materials to a lesser degree have departed strongly from the old “traditional” ones associated with weaving groups in ALL the “authentic weaving areas”. The Baluchi in particular seem to have had their fill of dark colors and have gone off into new and uncharted levels of intense (and occassionaly absurd) color combinations (see below). The modern Turkish kilim weavers seem to favor ghastly combinations of a weird pinkish-gray, olive drab, dull magenta, and brownish- yellow (and they don’t seem to scour their wool very well. A lot of it smells as bad as Bedouin weavings). Trends through time do exist however. One familiar with Nain & Esfahan rugs can, at a glance, determine which 30 year period of the 20th century is the most likely period for a piece. The same is largely true for Baluchi goods.

Historical events since the mid 19th century provide us with several identifiable populations of woven goods, which by virtue of their cultural connections will drive collectors interests. These events have often had negative impact on the weaving societies, however, and as a result the products often contain features usually shunned by collectors. Example: Afghan war rugs. From a historical perspective, a point source event almost unique in the weaving world. Result: rugs with poor dye jobs. And, a unique marker in the weaving world tied to a specific event in time. Maybe Filiberto can comment on this: Here in Saudi Arabia, war rugs are now very scarce. The Afghanis have moved on to decorative carpets and interesting mixtures of natural and synthetic dyes. The refugee situation has actually created a new production area that generates new versions of old Caucasian designs, and designs & colors similar to those produced by vegetable dyed rug producers in Egypt and India. And the quality is coming up quickly. Six years ago the dyes ran and the finish work was shoddy. Now the dyes are stable and the finish work is excellent. I should point out that the Afghanis in the rug trade over here have relatives back home who are really looking forward to getting back to the traditional designs & color palettes of Afghan rugs. Many lost all their looms and goods during the late unpleasantness and as a result there has been a dearth of well made “red rugs” over the last 20 years. So there is a “cultural driver” that at least partially motivates these folks to continue traditional methods.

Which remindes me: I would like to point out that I do not equate the notion of a collecting with a “cultural perspective” or rather, a focus on a specific culture, with the notion of developing a rigorously researched and documented provenance. This is not required unless the end owner is a museum, a person with highly specific collecting criteria, or someone whose net worth has been materially reduced by the acquisition in question. Thus, I do not agree with your statement:

“Cultural perspective: always welcome! But this one would like to see in a way that can be checked and discussed, not as an empty claim. Sounds nice: but then you should not just show or mention the piece. You must add the background story. Because, on its own, the piece does not deserve attention”

Clearly, whenever a background story is available and in particular, verified, there is added value. But most stories are part fact and part conjecture. Much of the carpet collection world is partially submerged in conjecture. The idea, for example, that old Turkoman pieces were not made for commercial purposes and are thus more valuable than those made after the mid-19th century is notable for ignoring the fact that Central Asian cultures have been trading textiles for centuries. The Scyths, Sogdians, Greeks, and Persians traded a variety of goods commercially more than 2000 years ago. Is it REALLY reasonable to assert that Turkoman textiles of the 17th and 18th century were made solely for personal use, and thus are more ethnographically valuable than those of the late 19th century ?. Who knows how many weavings were ACTUALLY made for the purpose of barter or sale ? It APPEARS to be less likely, statistically, but only because we have knowledge of the scale of the commercial weaving environment of the late 19th century. The Turkoman traded in horses and wool. Why not weavings, even amongst themselves ? I don’t believe that EVERY Turkoman woman was a great weaver. Those that weren’t may have had to barter with those who were in order to outfit the oy properly. If so, then those weavings were done with commerce in mind.

If we are uncertain about personal vs. commercial motivation, how certain (or inflexible) can we be about what is “true art” and what is transplanted art ? Does commercial motivation negate the possibility of “true art” in a piece. It’s a question obliquely related to Filibertos point about the impressionists. Not only did the impressionists use new materials, they used them to pay their rent. You reject this analogy thusly:

“Your example with impressionists painting therefore lacks one very important aspect: these people did not copy traditional painting styles with new materials - they developed a new style together with these materials. And this did not yet happen with synthetic dyes in the carpet environment.”

This comment serves to deflect Filibertos actual point. The impressionists were not the ONLY painters on the planet. Others who continued in the classis design motifs ALSO switched to the new materials because THEY were starving artists as well. The new materials made inroads because they were considered acceptable by their user. It was their choice, as the artist, to make the change and that does not make them lesser artists.

But it does mark yet another turning point in time that is unlikely to be reversed; the same is true in the dye industry. Remember that the reason this happened to begin with is greed. The persons who cultivated the madder, weld, indigo, etc., put themselves out of business by squeezing the market to such a point that alternatives were developed. Oil producers should take note.

So, enough diatribe. On to the images. First, a classic example of how synthetic dyes can be used to brutalize the eye in a woven good, and, an excellent reason to carp about synthetic dyes (plus, this looks like it’s just WAITING to bleed all over the place when it finally gets wet):

OUCH !, say my eyes !! But wait. Before we throw the baby out with the bath water, lets look at the following examples, also produced with synthetic dyes. But this time, in the hands of someone interested in visual harmony:

A framed Tabriz pictorial rug:

A border element from a Tabriz rug (there are more shades in this little bit than there are in most carpets):

A modern Nain rug:

Note that none of the usual complaints about synthetic dyes hold here. All have been exposed to light, none show any hint of bleeding, and none exhibit the electric colors on the first image. So what do we say now ? Here is clear evidence that in the right hands, synthetic dyes perform as well, or better, than the best natural dyes.

But wait Chuck: why, then, don’t we see such delicate shades in tribal goods ? Economics. I think. The number of shanks of yarn a weaver would have to keep in inventory in order to produce colors like these is enormous. Few tribal weavers could afford to buy and hold that much wool. And producing so many subtly different shades in a rustic environment is not practical.

So, we see the transition from the old to the new manifest itself in pretty unmistakeable ways. For starters, we’ll look at an old Baluchi bag, the type Ferrier described as being capable of holding liquids without leaking. This thing is like a board, very tightly constructed, and with traditional colors:

Now, put on your sunglasses. We’ll look at some new Baluchi production. I don’t own it; the colors are too much for me. But note that the quality of the weaving on this next piece is as good or better than that of the old piece. There is well done, detailed, kilim work here. So much that I doubt this is a piece just knocked out as another KITSCH bag for the tourists:

The front

The back:


So, can a piece with such striking colors ever become a collectors item ? The workmanship is superior. The colors are nontraditional when compared to older bags. But what about in comparison to this bag’s contemporaries ? Certainly, the market will determine what sells. But one can hardly quarrel about how much work went into this bag.

And now, a topic that troubles me: distinguishing natural from synthetic dye in the absence of a gas chromatography lab.

Filiberto: So, it's difficult to discern natural from artificial.

Michael: No, but it needs "training". To compare synthetic alizarine with madder is kind of misinformed, as well as to compare natural Indigo and synthetic Indigo.

I’m with Filiberto. And here’s two examples of why. The first is a rug that I will claim is from northwest Iran which I believe may be Bakhtiari. At first glance it appears to be synthetic dye, but up close I begin to wonder. There is no tip fading, no bleeding, the greens look like they’re loosing their yellow, and the red has an non-electric, yet bright, character to it that I don’t see very often. The dealer just shrugged and said “who can know with these nomads, they use what they can get”.

The whole thing:

A closeup:

The back:

If these are synthetic dyes, I like them. I don’t think they detract or reduce the appeal of the rug.

And next, a small Ersari Afghan rug sold as having vegetable dyes. Maybe so, I’m not skilled at distinguishing them. If it’s a synthetic job it’s not bad. As I doubt this rug is more than 25 years old, I also doubt the natural dye claim.

The rug:

A closeup:

The knots in detail. What appears to be tip fading actually runs the length of the yarn, a mix of lightly and deeply dyed wool:

I’m not sure that the images are enough to make a definitive judgement. But I think that, synthetic or natural, it’s hardly an offensive piece even to the most hardened natural dye aficionado. And for me, it reinforces Filiberto’s point: such determinations aren’t straightforward, and depend as much on wool quality as the dyes themselves.

So at this point my head hurts from trying to remember what I typed the first time, before Microsoft helped me lose all my work, and I’ll try to wrap up and hope that there was some continuity to this post.

My summary point will be augmented by a couple more pictures. Someone put substantially more work into this piece than the usual junky fast-work el-cheapo Baluchi bag that we’ve all seen, and dislike. To me, it’s an example of what is some of the better flatweave Baluchi work being done today, and the colors (I think) are not what they are because of economic constraints but rather, what the weaver LIKES TO USE. Which makes them part of the world of modern weaving art.

The bag:


If you’re still here, thanks for your patience.

Chuck Wagner

Posted by Michael Bischof on 10-04-2002 08:13 AM:

Dear all,

In fact, David, good carpets most likely have been the exception and not the rule at all times! And one must be careful not to be dogmatic when contributing to such a discussion.

...this does not hold true when assembling a collection intended to reflect the range of variation exhibited by any order or class of thing or object, be they insects or carpets,...

Wow, what a demand! The most collectors that I know, and I mean the leading people in this field (like Kircheim, Vok, Dr. Pelz...) try to get hold of the best specimens of a certain type. What they do not do is what you describe here, David! Why? Scarcity of resources, I guess... therefore this is not a thing that one should recommend to beginning collectors, wrong? In other terms: why should (theoretically) do a private collector what museums should do (... have done)? And how shall the collector provide the necessary background informations to make such a collection meaningful? This cannot be obtained by buying at touristic shops "at the source" or in the class-A galleries in the West. I find the idea fascinating - and feel disappointed by the fact that such "showing the variation attempts" do not rarely exist.

A jump. Reading the discussion over and over I conclude that by forcing the quality aspect of dyes too much I moved to a point which is dangerous for my own taste: if one prolongs the logic I have offered the logical end would be that only classical workshop carpets of the "high period", 14.-17. century, roughly, would meet those measures. Their dyes reflect the upmost level that natural dyeing in those countries reached. And, as one may conclude from the tiny scratches of written sources, these have been done in well organized very big workshops.

But these I can admire only for their technical qualities and not from an aesthetical perspective. That the weavers executed in a robot kind of work alien designs in a quite perfect style makes them boring for me. Though, for sure I would guess, abrash was a rather unwelcome side effect of working in small scale and interrupted by other urgent things to do, it creates some positive tension in a piece.

That is the bridge to the question whether synthetic dyes can be used with some aesthetic success in Oriental weaves of this type. All design types that show big areas in one colour look horrifying with synthetic dyes. Because they are automatically applied under very harsh circumstances ( to be sure that metal-complex dyes are really fixed one has to drop the pH finally down to about 2,5-3! And this in an environment where even for big firms the use of an electronic pH-Meter is omitted in order to save some cents ...) the little variations in the yarns are suppressed so that these big areas look boring. Compare an early Turcoman weave ( beginning of 19th century) with a 20th century synthetically dyed piece! whether the latter is more than 100 years old in 2071 - what does this matter ? No one will be forbidden to collect insignificant curiosities at that date, however, as I hope.

And a last argument: the producers in Turkey have seen that the "imalat boya" approach resulted in cheap, but pastel natural dyes of unsatisfactorily performance. Plus: as weaving gets to be too expensive in Turkey the bigger producers rush to the cheaper countries but are apparently not able to take this "technology" over to there ... for this reason the hit of this season is to "copy" the look of natural dyes in real old pieces by a kind of mimicry-approach - but using the cheap synthetic dyes for that approach. If even these guys accept the aesthetical hegemony of natural dyes in this field - why should collectors bother themselves in collecting this "semi-antique" material? If a collector needs something cheap (affordable) for use at home this would be a different story. I would get headaches from it - but maybe I am a weakling in this respect.

The pieces that Filiberto has shown I could stand only "at the spot", with a glass of tea and a lot of jokes with the people ... and if I would, by chance, meet my wife at such a location I could even buy one (but later place it in her room, into the shadow).


Michael Bischof

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 10-04-2002 12:34 PM:

Hi Chuck,

Few quick points:

I regret I cannot comment on Afghan war rugs from here. Jordan has very limited rug market, never saw one of them.

A parallel between colors used in paintings and dyes.
As far as I remember painters used to make their own colors until through the Renaissance. The would-be painter started as an apprentice to work for a well-affirmed Maestro in the Maestro’s bottega (workshop). One of the very first task for apprentices was to grind minerals or whatever organic materials they needed to produce colors for painting.
Later on, when in the 16th C. the Academies - formation schools for artists - took over the traditional craftsmanship methods of the bottega, I suspect things started to change. For sure, when painting became an hobby for upper classes in the 18th C., colors must have been produced by specialized artisans or small scale industries - sort of like your village dyer in the M.E.
They still used traditional natural materials because they were the only ones available.
Then the industrial revolution and the progress in chemistry delivered what we have today: industrially produced colors.
Some of them are still chemically the SAME in use from the antiquity, some others are synthetic, some of the synthetic are also new hues that didn’t exist before. Impressionist and other artists did not produce colors by themselves anymore, (why waste one’s time in a boring task when you can buy the stuff in a shop) so they were obliged to buy the industrial ones and they were more than happy to experiment with the new hues. Like our tribal weavers.

The dyes in the Bakthiari and the Ersari - especially the Ersari - look very good to me!

Posted by Michael Bischof on 10-04-2002 12:36 PM:

Hallo everybody,

first: thank you very, very much, Chuck Wagner. This contribution enlightened (?) me, let my mood fly higher ... I am not a native English speaker. You know what I mean, hopefully. - I have had similar hard experiences with the firm that you mention and since then I am a strong fan of Open Source, reliable software and enjoyed a lot learning these new tools based on a GPL basis. Like in making dyes: one should know what one is doing ...

What surprises me is the frequency with which one encounters leaky dyes in new city carpets today. Twenty years ago, you'd have to look at several hundred Tabriz rugs before you could find one with leaky dyes. Today, that number is more like thirty. It seems that the pressure from emerging city carpet look-alike industries in India, Pakistan, and China, are causing shortcuts to be taken in Iran and Turkey that were unacceptable not long ago. I'm sure that collapsing currencies are major contributors to this problem as well. It's certainly not because the emerging carpets are higher quality than the older ones from the traditional weaving areas. They're less costly. But inexpensive mediocrity seems to satisfy enough people to squeeze the entire industry. Too much supply, not enough demand, etc.

Brilliant! It would shift the topic of this discussion if I would entertain you with backdoor details of how enterprises in these countries work . It is not (!) lack of funding that makes people behave like this as the medium and big producers are indeed very rich families. "Psychology" I would denominate the reason why such people do not use pH-meters or engage qualified people for having the job done. They need "slaves" and do not want to be forced (!) to respect people who work for them.

The old measures, to a large extent, still hold: No leaky dyes, color palette in harmony, lies flat, same width at both ends, no obvious repairs (if they're obvious they're either badly done or so big you should worry about them, right ?), structure and materials compatible with the proposed origin, etc.

Fully acknowledged. For the dyes: a grading from the more "harsh" to the more "soft" dyeing methods. Important for the future performance of pieces. - Chemical wash I leave out: it kills everything anyway ...

The modern Turkish kilim weavers seem to favor ghastly combinations of a weird pinkish-gray, olive drab, dull magenta, and brownish-yellow (and they don't seem to scour their wool very well. A lot of it smells as bad as Bedouin weavings).

As a rule, yes, acknowledged. What stinks is the spinning oil (often what is left over when you change the oil of your cars motor: makes up some 2-5% of the weight that the ready yarn has. Not much! But now, please, calculate in tons of wool to be processed!). And the weavers, believe me, have no say anyway. They have to make use of dyed yarns that the enterprising firm delivers. Do not blame them ... when they work for themselves, for dowry pieces, they still use hand spun yarns but bring them to he local dyes (see below).

Which reminds me: I would like to point out that I do not equate the notion of a collecting with a 'cultural perspective'; or rather, a focus on a specific culture, with the notion of developing a rigorously researched and documented provenance. This is not required unless the end owner is a museum, a person with highly specific collecting criteria, or someone whose net worth has been materially reduced by the acquisition in question.

Those I had in mind, of course. This elite of collectors provides us with nice exhibitions, drives the meetings, publishes books .... what museums do in Europe is not even ridiculous, no bad joke. "Bad joke" would mean there is one that exists ... I will soon report here about an exciting kilim exhibition at a museum. But the true story is that private people, elite collectors, were doing the real job. The museum just delivered the otherwise empty space.

The idea, for example, that old Turkoman pieces were not made for commercial purposes and are thus more valuable than those made after the mid-19th century is notable for ignoring the fact that Central Asian cultures have been trading textiles for centuries.

I agree - but the term "thus" is important. There was a much higher level of technical quality, most likely backed by a higher local (!) price, so it made sense to take care of quality, better trained customers who ask for more than nice fairy tales...
Same in Anatolia or the Caucasus.

To your pictures now: the city workshop pieces I cannot comment. Not my taste, "alien" to textile works in my personal opinion. Like: material and methods do not match the subject - but this opinion I also hold on medieval tapestries. There is only one legitimation for them in my opinion: natural dye lakes on wool look much (!) better than as a pigment in oil on canvas. - But technically these seem okay.

The second Balouch piece: I agree. Keep in mind that all these dyes a dye master could make from natural source as well! But then this open rosy red, done saturated, would cost a lot!

The Baktiari I do not dare to comment on the basis of these pictures.

The Ersari is for me an example of a successful trial to realize a traditional design with synthetic and natural dyes. Apparently these are mixed in this piece. The "spirit" of such a weave is kept, except for the green which does not fit into the piece.

And the last piece. I agree on your comments of its better than normal workmanship. Interesting for me is your remark about and the colors (I think) are not what they are because of economic constraints but rather, what the weaver LIKES TO USE. No, I guess the colours are what the local dyer has to offer. But most likely not against any resistance of the weaver. Similar things one sees in Turkey: they bring the yarn to the "corapci", who gives them to his dyer, and then back to the customer. Or they have them directly taken to the dye plant, which are very small enterprises. Local people claim that this was always like this! The cottage industry, on the opposite and at least in Turkey, is not traditional and run by people who came in from outside this textile tradition, in most cases from the touristic shops. Their advantage is the communication with their foreign customers what you can view in Istanbul, in Cappadocia or at the sea side with ease. When a person like you would force them into technical details they would lose ground immediately - and to ask weavers forbids the status difference that they carefully maintain.


Michael Bischof

Posted by Michael Bischof on 10-05-2002 05:40 AM:

Here some pictures to substantiate my arguments.

The whole concept was, as mentioned earlier: you find a master weaver (a skilled one which grew up in a defined textile culture) - and all you do is to give natural dyes to her, the best you can make or obtain.

Here are two results:

Of course digital photos do not transport all. So I cite Walter B. Denny, who has seen such pieces and learned to know the weaver of these pieces, Susan Yalcin, as well as the dyer, Memduh Kürtül, together with a Washington Textile Museum group when they visited Konya some years before, as a reference.

Picture quality (and therefore dye rendering) depends also on file size. This is an 44 kB-.jpg-file.

For yastiks I would urge you to have a look into the "standard reference book" of Brian Morehouse. On "what is collectible": to mount such an exhibition it was necessary to grab into many different collections. Even the best collection of the world which has been started in the seventies (!) does not contain more than 100 pieces, round about. Since accompanying this experience I think it is better for a collector to prefer 2-3 masterpieces and leave the job of showing the varieties in the genre to the museums or other public foundations. Otherwise one has to compromise on quality or would run out of money.

The nicest natural dye red that I have ever seen in any Oriental weave one has in no. 30 of this yastik book. Attention: viewing the colour plate in the book you cannot see what I mean. I refer here to those readers who have seen the exhibited piece. Whether the red was made from Cochenille using a special dyeing method (what we later did several times) or whether it was just the lucky day in a professional dyers career working with madder (what we constantly repeat, but in very small amounts) I do not know. Into the analytical methodology I jumped later (1). For people who have an eye for that: that is the "impact dye". You view it, in the right light, on a silly day - the day is your friend. Others may do it with music ...

pl. 30, Morehouse

At that time the previously mentioned A-, B- and C-piece grading played no role. This is an A-piece: the village from where it came is known. There were 3 pieces of the same design, may be of different age ( this can well be), but only this one had this red. The other two minor pieces had no real commercial value, antique, but mediocre, and were channelled to some tourists, but not to an important collector. I guess that I still have some pictures of them.

One thing is obvious here: with natural dyes, in old days as well as today, dyes cost different amount of labour (and therefore money). There are expensive dyes and cheaper ones. The very saturated plus vibrant/luminous/vivid/eye catching rosy-pink shade of madder was/is the luxury dye. Therefore in early material it is used as a highlight, not in big areas (as it is today with its cheaper substitute - a piece with a look like the last Balouch piece in Chucks serial 200 years before would have shouted: "look here, I am rich !").

Out of sheer luck this contribution can show "varieties": one traditional design, small deviations ... so we have 4 from the same design, 3 antique, 1 new. The design seems to be "clearer"as the pile is worn down in the antique material.

pl. 55 , Morehouse

And one more:

pl. 56 , Morehouse

Please also notice another variation in the application of one "hook" in the upper "ayak" (the local people use this term for these elem kind of appendix above and below the main field). There is no space here for design discussions. Just a short note. Carpet designing without using a ready design paper works like muscle (body) language. As one might do mistakes when setting one foot in front of the other while one is occupied with certain thoughts the same can happen to a weaver. Or may be too much focus on gossiping while doing the weave? (More likely).

Greetings, Michael Bischof

(1) Fischer, C.-H., Bischof, M., Rabe, J.G.(1990): Identification of natural and early synthetic textile dyes with HPLC and UV-Vis-Spectroscopy by Diode Array detection.-J. Liq. Chrom. 13: 119 ff.

(2)They hate the "natural dyed" yarns that the Konya- or Istanbul-based cottage industry firms force upon them: they are dirty, stain the hands and in one case caused inflammation. When some of those dyes fade in the chemical washing process weavers are accused of having made mistakes in setting the colours according to the design paper - which leads to money cuts.The guy responsible for this, who sits in Konya and who did this for a well-known firm in Istanbuls posh Nurosmaniye Caddesi, got recently a very favourable article in HALI.

Posted by David R E Hunt on 10-05-2002 10:12 AM:


Mr Birtschof and all- Thank you for the response to my post,and be at ease, for there is no need to misconstrue the pedagogical tone of my post. It's just my writing style,in person I am rather more jocular. You have raised an interesting question or two, so perhaps I can clairify. The purpose of this last post, with it's analogies and similies, was to demonstrate and walk one through the temporal process of justifying the inclusion of "lesser" weavings into the body of collected cataloged and recorded weavings. I agree completely that one should by the best examples obtainable, for their class or type, but that these other rugs have much to tell us, perhaps the body of the story of weaving art. We would do well to see and record, if even through photography if nothing else, as many rugs as possible, for after viewing a goodly size representative sampling of rugs,naturally occuring categories and groupings suggest themselves and emerge, constituting a progression of design or developmental framework indicative of a chronology. The sum of the body of weaving history is so diverse, the holdings so dispersed, the sheer enormity of the task of even deginning to accurately document a representative sampling of these rugs, as reflected in the state of contemporary Turkmen scholarship, places an onus upon the inclusion of lesser weavings into the recorded body of carpet documentation.In short we need collectors of "lesser" rugs. Also, I myself do like the idea of a "demonstration of the variation", as in concentrating uponTekke chuvals from the early , middle, and late periods, with an inclusion of representative samples of the different designs produced during each of the three periods.- Dave

Posted by R. John Howe on 10-06-2002 01:48 PM:

Another Yastik

Dear folks -

Michael Bischof has put up three examples of a particular yastik design, designated by Morehead in his "Yastiks" book as from Karapinar. Michael indicated to me a year or two ago that' in fact' this design is seen as their own by a particular village in Turkey populated for the last 200 years by Yomud Turkmen who came from Khorrasan.

I own the other example of this design to which Michael referred above,

which we estimate to be later than the two Morehead examples, perhaps turn of the century, as we often say when we can't really make an estimate.

Perhaps Michael will want to comment on the differences he sees in these pieces, since they do seem to be instances of a single design woven at different times.

On two different tacks, let me also say that while I appreciate "natural" dyes greatly, and mostly collect things that have them, I am not as passionate as Michael with regard to the presence of a synthetic in a piece that is, despite this, attractive to me.

I bought still another yastik this week (I have no photo at the moment) that has a red ground that seems likely to me to be synthetic since there is transfer of this red to the warp threads. Nevertheless, despite the presence of this synthetic and that fact that this piece has no great age, I find its graphics very powerful and compelling.

Secondly, if I understand David Hunt's thought about needing collectors of "lesser pieces" above, I think I disagree. David's logic seems to be one of the desirability of representativeness. While anyone can collect what they want, I personally would want to restrict myself to things I find attractive.

The notion that we need to "map" the modal Turkmen pieces woven seems to me somehow similar to Senator Roman Hruska's famous indication that Nixon's Supreme Court nominees Carlswell and Hainesworth, needed, despite their admitted lack of legal distinction, to be considered for appointment because "the ordinary American citizen" also needed "representation" on the Court.

I personally want to collect the items that I can afford that seem attractive to me and are of the best quality I can discern and manage. I am willing to leave to anthropologists, if they are interested, the mapping of modal mediocrity.


R. John Howe

Posted by Michael Bischof on 10-06-2002 03:25 PM:

yastiks - continued

Hallo everybody,

personally I am "hunter" - this means for me to try to catch pieces that make me excited from joy. This documentation aspect creates, on the middle and long run, the necessary tools. Indispensably needed but boring, in the middle of such work. Another aspect: other people may have had more luck. I am restricted in this hunt by the scarcity of ressources. So I would not want to scatter them around with mediocre things ... and there is a psychological problem: when I have to document a decay, a process that shows down the hill, I would find it difficult to avoid melancholic feelings. So, David, what you propose I would like to leave, as R. John Howe would do, with museums and their stuff. I am really willing to share with them any news which I collect and that is valuable for them but is "Beifang" for me ( the little fishes of no use that may block the net).

The yastiks: I guess that the piece that R. John Howe owns is the youngest of those published here. Repeating that any statement based on digital photos is kind of preliminary I see that it has the least saturated dyes. The dyes in his piece are okay, but I see Indigosulfonic acid blue - and this means in the context of these Central Anatolian weaves end of 19th century. But not 20th century ! There is a design mistake obvious in this piece. Look at the corners of the main field. A "tree" type of motiv is executed wrong. As stated before weaving motives is like body language. Weavers keep in their "body memory" small units of a motiv that they put together while doing the weave. Here a left thumb was attached to a right hand ...

But the same type of mistake can be noticed in Morehouse pl. 56, at the top of the piece. Some hooks are turned wrong. The piece of John is, in addition, clearly more coarse than the other two. This fact and the design, which is a bit more schematic, does not allow to assume age differences, I guess. The colour argument is more important - for me.

Its a pity that we cannot sit together and handle the pieces which we are talking about. Because a great dye simply means much more sensory pleasure - this is the reason why I favour these natural dyes. The synthetical ones do not exhibit it, being flat in comparison.

To come back to Chuck Wagner and his first shocking picture ( I mean the kilim): it makes no sense to speculate about what weavers might like. In the moment they could easily follow their old preferences for bright and eye-catching dyes with the introducition of synthetic dyes the aesthetics of their textile works broke down - before that, in the natural dyes age, it was not impossible , of course. But very, very unlikely ! Which weaver would have had that much money to obtain such masses of eye-catching dyes from the dyers ? Make a Yüncü type of kilim from really saturated pure madder red , that means no "imalat kirmizi", it will be beautiful just because this red alone is beautiful. Do the same with chromium red ( its dye principle comes closest to its natural dye idol - it is a dye lake as well) and you will gain a boring "something big red".

To remember again: the basis for this whole discussion is how an unused mint condition textile looks alike ! In the moment we speak of our preference for pieces whose age we can "feel" we lost any material basis: we discuss our own imaginations, sentiments, then.


Michael Bischof

Posted by R. John Howe on 10-06-2002 05:07 PM:

Michael -

You said that it is likely that the yastik I have just put up is likely the youngest of those posted here. I think you mean it is the youngest of the three "antique" pieces. The Susan Yalcin piece,

despite the great care that has been taken to dye and to weave it is contemporary and so much younger than the others.


R. John Howe

Posted by Michael Bischof on 10-06-2002 05:22 PM:

Hallo everybody, hallo John,

indeed - I thought it was not necessary to mention that ! ('')

To Susan, who has, of course, seen the other pieces in the book, all were quite familiar.
And she immediately recognized the design mistake in pl. 56 - as she says in her village the majority of girls do not have talent for weaving and no big motivation. It is simply an important way of staying alive - and today the amount of weaving is much higher than it can have been in old times ( when they used exclusively their own wool - there were no streets to the village, just narrow paths for horses, donkey and camels).



Posted by R. John Howe on 10-08-2002 05:48 AM:

Dear folks -

Before this thread goes away, it might be good to make a point relating Michael's concern about getting the best natural dyes one can, to some of the aesthetic standards we employ that are related.

The first contemporary piece that Michael has posted by Susan Yalcin is to my mind a good one for illustrating the fact that dyes and "good weaving" alone do not always add up to the optimum aesthetic effects that we might value.

Ms. Yalcin has taken care to use wonderfully saturated natural dyes of apparently very high quality. She has also taken care not to make the drawing mistakes that Michael has pointed out in the renditions of two of the antique pieces. She has also made sure that the sides of the central medallion do not touch the side borders. This latter feature, is a generally, sanguine one, I think, since it makes the central medallion "float" nicely on its field. Ms. Yalcin has also retained the more articulated version of the cruciform devices that are in the inside of the "insect" devices in the border and that also occur in the center medallion. (If you look at my "antique" piece you will see that these have been greatly conventionalized in the border renditions there.) Last, Ms. Yalcin has avoided the use of "filler" devices that appear in the field of my later "antique" piece and that seem to characterize later renditions.

But I have suggested to Michael that the Yalcin piece can be critiqued aesthetically in comparison to other older renditions.

Perhaps the most serious critique I would make is that the Yalcin piece is too narrow to permit drawing of the central medallion without touching the sides at a size that occurs in the older pieces. It seems to me that the necessary "miniaturization" of the central medallion works to reduce its graphic impact greatly "vis a vis" the older renditions.

An additional quibble is that Yalcin has used a "two-leaf" verson of the lappet design rather than the older "three leaf" version that Morehouse says occurs in pieces woven before the end of the 19th century. This adopts a conventionalization of this design and makes it less fully articulated in this respect (but there are some Ottoman velvet pieces that show five and even seven leaf versions of this approximate lappet design).

Last, is something that may be personal and that Ms. Yalcin might debate with me (Turkish weavers sometimes find distinctive color combinations attractive). I think her piece would be FAR more attractive if the side selvedges were in the red of the field rather than in the very strong yellow she has used sparingly there.

I make these critiques depite greatly admiring some other aspects of the two Yalcin yastiks above. I can demonstrate that I do so in part because Michael made it possible a year or so ago for me to own both of them.

But I thought it important to notice that wonderful, expensive natural dyes, and carefully, skilled weaving do not necessarily produce optimum aesthetic effects. These are always a separate matter.


R. John Howe

Posted by Michael Bischof on 10-08-2002 07:38 AM:

Dear everybody, dear R. John Howe,

thank you for your critique! Yes, of course, dye quality is no guarantee at all. Therefore more than 90% of the antique piece that we came across are not "great" in case we apply this critical view to them - and one should do that! But now imagine, please, what would have happened if in addition to aesthetical details of drawing that you dislike there would not be a kind of balance by sheer pleasure of viewing saturated natural dyes? If one would have some "dead" synthetical dye of thesame nuances instead? - I am curious now: how would you discuss the other yastik?

Chuck Wagner complained about bleeding dyes. This is not the only important aspect. The second one is light fastness! Today we need higher degress of that than 100 years before. Modern pieces are not put into very dark Oriental adobe houses.

In order to come to a result that is useful for the collector one must look for the socio-economic "environment" of how the (synthetical) dyes were applied.

The period and the style of application of the synthetic dyes I would like to split into two categories:

The technical (and, most often, the aesthetical) problems we encounter with the second group. Leaving aside fuchsine the first major application came with azo-dyes. Their fastness is low. In the firt period one tried to substitute natural dyes with them - as a cheaper alternative to the bright and pure shades of natural dyes (saturated, but mixed or broken shades were still done with natural dyes. This mix was applied till recently in Anatolia). The technical problems that surfaced motivated the people to change to another method quite quick:

This combination is most likely the most important source of the trouble of late textiles with mixed sources - as one encounters washing problems: the azo-part of the dye is quite fugitive and tends to bleed. Because they were applied in an amateurish way by uneducated people. Anyway: even if one would see such a thing in mint condition this "mixed" red dye, though its nuance may come close to that of a splendid saturated real madder rosy-red, is second to the latter. The sensorical pleasure is simply lower. Difficult to demonstrate, impossible to show via photographs - ask the most experienced collectors and dealers for that. It comes close to the peculiarities of tasting wine! You may believe that, may be, only after having followed a blind test (what they always do with wines here in Europe at wine contests!).

In addition to the azo-problem we have, but a bit later, the acid dyes which are applied with great ease in any household pot. Very soluble in water, a quick job, an "instant dye" (common until today). Everybody could buy some grams of it and apply it at home. With these dyes all Oriental weavings lost ground: Very low fastness to washing, quite low fastness to light. These are the dyes that mellow in the sun - and one must "burn" them (call it "soften") to sell such material. The fact that then the wool is attacked one may override by fairy tales: happy carpets that were on holiday - sun bathing! If it is not enough - chemical wash, and the piece is your friend (shall I call it: "dealers little helper"?).

Later, in the twenties of the 20th century, the industry ddeveloped chromium dyes. These are applied similar to natural dyes:
The wool is mordanted with potassium bichromate (the earlier mentioned ultra-toxic compound and then dyed with synthetic chromium dye-stuffs, whose composition is quite close to natural dye stuff molecules. This process was never in the hand of village women as one has to handle dangerous chemicals as sulfurous acid. - Recently a ready compound, the dye-stuff complexed with chromium or similar heavy metals, was introduced: the metal-complex dye type. Their application is quicker: good soluble in water. One heats the fluid, adds the dye stuff and then, slow by slow, adds strong acids to drop the pH (this makes the wool dry and brittle). Excellent fastness to light and wash (if properly applied!). One needs at least an electronic pH-Meter - which I have never seen in any Oriental big commercial dye plant!

Each professional cottage industry enterpriser will confirm that ne can manage these chromium and metal-complex dyes so good that the majority of customers mistake them with natural dyes - one dye cannot (!) be substituted: there is nothing to replace Indigo (but only synthetic Indigo is used, including practically all "natural dye" makers 1 ). This has no "romantic" reason: vat type of dyes are no longer in use for wool but have an own visual impact that differs from dye lakes.

If one digests all this information I cannot see where the merits of textiles of the first group should be. Bleeding colours of low fastness to light and of offending colour combinations (when intact: not bleached, not chemically washed; when "softened" their integrity is in question) - why should one collect these except in rare and well documented cases or as occasional souvenirs?

the Gashgai ladies which selected these synthetical offensive dyes ...

Yes, it is their taste: but it is as well the selection of people who have no other choice ! ... as natural dyes with their "built in" colour harmony guarantee are no longer available for them. Plus: this taste evolved in an extreme long period at times where these bright dyes meant something.

If one would eat 10 apples per day no harm would arise. But in case one would eat the equivalent amount of industrially processed material "out-of-apples" after a certain time one would bbe ill. Not the taste of those Gashgai ladies is wrong - they should have taken into account that the objects, that are to be selected or preferred, the dyes, have changed substantially! Old measures are wrong measures then. Till new successful designs using the new dyes have evolved the results of traditional skills and designs combined with new synthetic dyes are ugly and inferior. As waste of skills we might see it from our perspective - as a loss of visual pleasure and taste for the people who create and use these things it looks from their perspective.

To stop any speculation: we have tested this in Karaman - if one lets the ladies select whether they may have saturated natural dyes for knitting a pullover or even brighter synthetical dyes they prefer the first ones ! From my personal background as a biologist I insist on the principle: facts first! Colour is a major aspect of all village and nomadic textiles. If this element is lost or crippled - what then?


Michael Bischof

1We had a lot of quarrels with a lot of producers in the last years for this problem. We uphold the message "natural dyes should be natural dyes" - and have been shown as some stupid naive amateurs, unable to cope with the mainstream of today. Practically any dealer who signs a receipt using the term "natural dyes" for contemporary weaves commits the crime of cheating: it should read "partially natural dyes".

Posted by Vincent Keers on 10-09-2002 06:36 PM:

I'm all natural

Hi Michael,

Maybe "Vegetable dyes" is a more to the point description if you want to distinguish
dyes that are (more) natural and dyes that produce less environmental harm.

It's obvious the vegetable products can't be the manipulated ones.
That's even more absurd? vegetable is manipulated in a way it can deliver all sorts of colours.
What a mess!

I'm the product of mother nature too. And mother earth will spit me out the moment
they put me under. If they burn me, the sun will disappear for months............
Yep. I'm the healthy kind of guy.

Best regards,

Posted by Chuck Wagner on 10-10-2002 10:39 AM:

Hi All,

I have another question that I'd like to put out on the table, which isn't really that easy to state simply. Here it is:

Outside the "weaving-under-contract" world there are still a lot of village, cottage, and nomadic weavings that reach the market. Are those weavers aware of the long term behaviour of the synthetic dyes they're using, and what portion of those weavings have faded dyes as a result of the intent of the weaver ?

Certainly, they're all aware of the existence of vegetable dyes. But a quick trip through Google will demonstrate that the vegetable dyed wool available around the world is roughly twice as expensive as synthetically dyed wool. I have to assume that same porportion is roughly correct for the dyes themselves.

So it appears that even for pieces made to be used by the weavers (or their families) for some time before reaching the market, synthetics are in heavy use. But over time, they must see the fading in their own goods. Do they just shrug their shoulders and wish for the old days, or are they happy when they bright colors fade and soften ? I have seen several (and own one or two) items that have a faded blue that - UNFADED - is way out of balance with the rest of the dyes in the rug. But after fading, its saturation and contrast are more in line with the rest of the dyes.

Is that an accident, or is it intentional ?

And another question along a line that Michael touched on, the circumstances of the dyeing process itself, and related tolerances for temperature, etc:

Isn't the same true for natural dyes ? There must be circumstances where the preparation and application of natural dyes is done badly. Many nomadic folks prepare this stuff over an open fire pit; hardly laboratory conditions. I'm not so sure that fading or running is necessarily a certain indicator of synthetic dyes (although I recognize that it generally is). Comments ?


Chuck Wagner

Posted by Michael Bischof on 10-10-2002 03:28 PM:

Hallo everybody,

to avoid environmental harm is a future job of making dyes. It will not be the carpet section of textiles who will pioneer this, that is for sure. Vincent, you mention vegetable is manipulated in a way it can deliver all sorts of colours. What a mess!

Well, that already has happened. In the US they started quite some years ago to use genetically engineered bacteria to produce natural Indigo. Maybe we have soon A-Class (real natural Indigo) and B-Class (genetically modified material) Indigo?

"But a quick trip through Google will demonstrate that the vegetable dyed wool available around the world is roughly twice as expensive as synthetically dyed wool. I have to assume that same porportion is roughly correct for the dyes themselves."

The real differences are, according to the quality, much bigger. "Only" twice as expensive? T hat means it is "köklü boya". Whatever, since this tradition got extinct in the whole Orient without having had produced enough written sources to revive it from its own weavers who would like to use natural dyed material are kind of victimized. They can get only what cottage industry producer supply to them. There are no dye plants where normal people go and get natural dyes - simply because there would be no market for that.

What I described from Taskale and Karaman (the neighbours of Susan Yalcin) is a very special case that cannot be taken as a kind of general situation.

Notice please, that both approaches work very different from each other:

Of course they realize that light and use degrade their textiles quite quick. Nearly all weavers that I know do not like it - so it is not a planned enterprise of softening down offensive dyes. They do not find it offensive - they spontaneously like bright dyes! Just as the previously mentioned Gashgai ladies ... later they are disappointed when a technically well done "softened" carpet does not catch a small fraction of the price that a 100 years old piece, with much stronger natural dyes, would fetch... if the deal would be straight.

Synthetic are not "in heavy use", as you say, Chuck, they are for this purpose in exlusive use. People shrug their shoulders, yes. What can they do ?

As a result I would guess: to visualize the degradation of dyes as "softening" is a Western attitude which is not shared by the local people. Each collector starts, as I suppose (I am no exception!), with some "semi-antique" pieces of mellowed down synthetic dyes which he mistakes (!) with natural dyes for especially this reason. It is a beginners mistake. When one starts to go to the museum to study the best available materials this attitude changes very quick. The better piece is always the enemy of what we found good until that very day when we start to learn ...

I spent more than 20 years with the effort to find out what is left of old dyeing know how. And I did not do that alone! All nomadic people in Anatolia that we met say: we never did dyes! This is an occasional habit of settled people. And even these say frankly that they did only the "minor" dyes sometimes on their own - the nice, bright colours they got from the professional dyers in the next township. Rests of this "minor dye" know how are still there (walnut browns, dark, a bit dirty ochre-yellows..). And these fade, indeed.

It seems so that some old methods of dyeing with powder-like extreme fine grinded madder resulted in a lower rubbing fastness - but as stressed before on Turkotek this should not be mistaken with "bleeding", which is a different process.

In most antique kilims or village rugs one will find some of those "minor dyes". To which extent they endanger the aesthetics of the piece depends on the single piece and on some luck. This amount will regulate its price then.

To use open fire when making dyes is in most cases detrimental to the integrity of the wool - and to the dye quality! It makes nice photographs of true authentic charisma (for the semi-informed, though). These pictures add to the enormous amount of uninformed nonsense that dominates even the "professional approach literature" on the topic of dye making. As the price of the merchandize is connected to the processing details this makes at least some sense.

Especially if one uses fire to mordanting the wool will get attacked, brittle and lacklustre. Certain preparations for yellow dyes would not damage the wool that much under this condition.
Whatever: everybody who would make dyes will sooner or later, on a silly Monday or whenever, sometimes produce something which is weaker than it should be ... but if the process is "soft" (and slow, then) it will not attack the wool's integrity and one would have, as the ultimate damage, a stronger colour shift than it was planned, that is all, from a middle yellow to a nuance which is a bit more ochre, which is unavoidably with flavonol type dyes anyway. But never ever from strong ("offensive") violet-blue to a light grey like it happens with this "semi-antique" material.



Posted by Bob Kent on 10-10-2002 03:57 PM:

Better Fuchshine that Fled (than Too Hot a Pink-Red)?

LOve the thread. It started with a question about how the pursuits of ethnographic interest and natural dyes play out in for example Kurdsih weavings. Reminds me of this big red devil:

Show those holes to a non-collector, they're put off. Collectors love the borders, wool, colors, and may even wax a bit about the ethno-associated (i.e., Quchan) howzi design at first sight, but then they notice the faded pink bands across the medallions and forget some of what they got just by looking at it. I like it, and appreciate the fact that its 'neither fish nor fowl' nature means I can buy it for money that might pay for a nice dinner (OK, a nice dinner with nice drinks). And here's the really heretical part: having seen the 1970s color of the knot bases and some Kurdish rugs of similra age with pinks that didn't fade, I am glad it's a chemical pink strictly on aesthetic grounds. The resulting cooler pink isn't too out of balance now, and nothing should be so bright as to distract from the borders, blues, and green.... rock on, Bob

Posted by Michael Bischof on 10-11-2002 09:29 AM:

Hi Bob,

that was a pleasant but funny return! Bravo!

The question that we discuss here, "what is collectible ?" (apart from the fact that everybody might choose what he likes"), harvested different answers. One further proliferation is yours: "semi-antiques" with synthetic dyes can be collected insofar they are sufficiently "damaged". But then we have already passed the "textile art" exit, didn't we?

I can well accept your point. If I would select I would as well select that piece that means less offense to my eyes. But behaving in that way we automatically, implicitly, state that synthetical dyes are aesthetically a deviation, a kind of reduction, of what we aim for.

The consequences for "evaluation" are crystal clear - anyway. My question how one can speak of "ethnogrpahical value" in case he does not know the real context of a particular piece (anonymous
"Strandgut" from the trade) had no feed back until now!



Posted by Bob Kent on 10-11-2002 10:16 AM:

eyes not dyes!

michael: yes, with my usual febrile and rather small-minded seriousness, I mean it: I am glad that the evil pink in the stripes of one medallion are a faded chemical dye. I've seen the knot bases and the orginal color was out-of-hand bright, anticipating the 1970s by most of a century. from an ethnographic point of view, some might want that aesthetic choice of the weaver to be preserved, but to be honest I think people would wince if they said this looking at the knot bases. I think it's a fun rug that was made with one wacky color, thank you photons. I just saw a kurdish rug with a natural pepto-bismal pink that I'd pay someone to replace with faded dye, honest (well you know what I mean). so who's to say that chemical dyes are _always_ bad?

plus, if the kordi rug had all natural dyes I don't think I'd own it, too much money business. of course I see steve's point about age, but I don't expect many kurdish rugs to be really old anyhow, heck the ones with fuchshine may sometimes be older than ones without. I agree with steve's idea that weavers liked bright colors. but they don't have to deal with my wife (who already wonders about the ventilation). I think the pink in this rug would have been evil from day one.


Posted by Chuck Wagner on 10-11-2002 04:36 PM:

Deja Vu All Over Again

Hi Michael, et all,

We now pass close to the original topic of Rick's: whether or not it's reasonable to exclude pieces from the "collectible universe" because they are constructed using synthetic dyes.

I think it's important to note that the ethnographic component of rug collection typically has a temporal element to it: As time progresses, cultures migrate, comingle, even disappear. Their socioeconomics and demographics evolve. So, a given area of collection concentration usually focuses on some window in time in addition to a specific weaving group.

Such windows includes today, and, the future. To exclude the woven record of some uniquely identifiable weaving culture from the collectors world because synthetic dyes are used implies that almost all future weavings will be of no interest.

The Kordi piece may not be documented well enough to sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, but it still represents a snapshot in time of an evolving culture. Many rugs are in the same category: pretty clearly attributable to a specific subset of humanity, but not precisely so. So I side with Rick, still, using the case of the Afghan refugees as my example. The explosion of non-traditional, but temporally unique, weaving associated with the Afghan diaspora will not persist over a long period of time. Their lives will get back to normal, hopefully, and a more settled and slowly evolving period of Afghan weaving will be upon us. On time, those weird war rugs and psuedo-Kafkaz lookalikes will be recognized as markers in the historical record.

One other note: I agree with most of the points you made in your last couple posts, but I'm not ready to buy the part about the dyemasters not using wood as a fuel, just yet. That may be the case TODAY (and recently) but I wonder if (for example) all those villages peripheral to the Dasht-i-Kavir, Khorasan, or the Turkmensahra had meaningful quantities of affordable natural gas available to fuel the dye bath heating process until the mid-20th century. Yet wool was dyed, and carpets were woven. Anyone familiar with wood burning fires knows that maintaining a constant temperature with wood is a real headache. Coal would be a reasonable suspect for a suitable fuel, or oil I suppose, but I confess I have no actual knowledge here; I'm running on intuition.


Chuck Wagner

Posted by Rick Paine on 10-11-2002 05:47 PM:

The discussion of fuel got me wondering... Is dung a viable option for dyeing? It is often cheaper and more available than wood, and my impression from watching people bake bread with it, is that is maintains a pretty steady temperature. Michael especially, have you seen dung used, or discussed its use in the past?


Posted by Michael Bischof on 10-12-2002 10:30 AM:

Hello everybody,

some further details :

One other note: I agree with most of the points you made in your last couple posts, but I'm not ready to buy the part about the dyemasters not using wood as a fuel, just yet. That may be the case TODAY (and recently) but I wonder if (for example) all those villages...

A misunderstanding, Chuck Wagner: I mean of course today! And I mean: a dye master who takes care of the wool quality - which is an assumption that is not met in the cottage industry. There the goal is to work cheap, and this means: quick! The second misundertanding: the strong smelling Turkish items! One has used fuel oil in it - as spinning oil.

So to avoid that anybody gets confused I want to list here the different sources of dyes:

  1. village people do it at home - sedentary people ! Dyeing seems not to be a nomadic habit ...
  2. villagers take their undyed yarns to a local dyer or "corapci" and get it back later. Or they buy it there as ready yarn...
  3. dye plants that work for the cottage industry (or, in most cases in Turkey, are owned by such a firm) do a. synthetical dyes b. "natural dyes" or c. a mixture from both... (köklü boya)
  4. highly specialized places where, at the side of other businesses, natural dyes are done for repair purposes or with an ecological aim. In Turkey there are two such places... the amount per year is so tiny that one cannot call this a "production".

The hottest candidates for being reliable sources of technical problems with the dyes are 1 and 3 (in the Orient people hate qualified labour). "Mixtures" are common, for example in the "carpet villages" where one can "see" natural dyeing: 1 kg wool is heated the whole day in some pot. When visitors come they lift it: "oooooh .... "! At the end it is jumped into the waste box. The dyes for this production come from 3.

To use dung would (theoretically as much better alternative. But you assume what is normally not the case: a weaver who creates the dyes for herself at home. Then she would be restricted to the use of acid dyes which are the weakest synthetical dyes available (the running problems come from them! Their light fastness competes with the lousiest amateur natural dyes). In this case she could, with some success, use dung for a better controllable heating. But where is the benefit? In case she wants to sell her products some day one has to take into account the labour she has to spend in order to collect fresh dung, form it by hands, dry it at some walls and keep it carefully dry thenafter. If you count labour as part of the production expense this would be stupid ... in the cottage industry they work with chromium dyes or metal-komplex dyes: time is money! So any available strong quick (!) heating system plus very low pH! Both is detrimental to the wool quality.

In the touristic business the results of these efforts must be further damaged anyway to make them ready for the sale: sun bathing on the mountains! Why take of the wool then?

But here it comes to my mind that there is an apparent knowledge gap with some of our readers: opposite to common knowledge natural dyes act very active and quick on mordanted fibers, much more active than most of the synthetic dyes (which need the heat therefore! I previously mentioned that in http://%20[url/[/url] Germany a firm under the leadership of Axel Wähling succeeded in developing a madder extract. If the fiber is mordanted (and the mordant fixed) properly you put a spoonful bit of it into water, stir a bit, add the fiber and heat it in a water bath. At about 30°C it starts to work - more than 50°C (1-2 hours) one does not need even for extreme saturated dyes. Brilliant fire like reds or blueish violets only from madder are the result. No imagine how urgently necessary these tones are for carpet repairers or, as highlights, for ambitious cottage industry enterprisers.

With madder it is even a professional mistake to apply heating over a fire, opposite to many impressive fake photos that show exactly that. Above a certain temperature the vividness of the obtainable dye lake is strongly reduced and this "brownish cast" of madder dyes, which is ubiquitous with "natural dyed" cottage industry products from Turkey to Pakistan, becomes apparent - and cannot be removed using chemical wash. Who does not want to buy that: read again some archived discussions here on Turkotek about fermentation and in about the connection between dye quality and "speed" of work. Again: in the Orient natural dyes do not cost about twice as much as synthetical ones! In Turkey the range is between 1 $/kg and 15 $/kg (1), according to the quality! Synthetical dyes range from 0,3 - 5 $/kg. But the higher prices are not obtained in the carpet industry!



(1) For special dyes of smaller amounts, as necessary for repairers, even more than that.

Posted by Chuck Wagner on 10-13-2002 11:18 AM:

Michael shows his cards...

Hi Michael,

While reading over your last post, I was glad to finally see a definitive (if not a little obscure) answer to my most important question, which was:

"Isn't the same true for natural dyes ? There must be circumstances where the preparation and application of natural dyes is done badly."

"...Their light fastness competes with the lousiest amateur natural dyes."

Translation: Yes Chuck, lousy natural dye jobs exist, and they result in fading well beyond that normally expected in a natural dye.

So, the follow-on question should be: Is it possible to discriminate between poorly done natural dye jobs and poorly done chemical dye jobs ? This, because there could be genuine vegetable dyed pieces out there that get passed over by the tendency to quickly dismiss anything with fading as a synthetic, when in fact the fading may just be an indicator of which (of your four) class of dye sources was used as the source of wool.

Also, if I read your post correctly, you feel confident that color running is limited to synthetic dyes. Is that a correct interpretation, or have you seen running in natural dyes as well (I'm particularly interested in whether you believe that a badly done cochineal job would run or discolor, because they're often done at higher temperatures (closer to those of acid dyes) than madder) ?

I've always thought that running is a mordanting issue rather than a temperature issue, so I've believed that both natural and synthetics will run with a lousy mordanting job. But I'm willing to be wrong.


Chuck Wagner

Posted by Michael Bischof on 10-13-2002 12:52 PM:

Hi everybody, hi Chuck,

what, please, is "obscure" ?

"Isn't the same true for natural dyes ? There must be circumstances where the preparation and application of natural dyes is done badly."

Of course, but now not to get confused we discriminate between
1. natural dyes done by the people themselves in old days
2. cottage industry "amateur natural dyes" of today.

(1) is very common, not (!) only in late pieces. Over the years I came over many early village rugs and kilims in which some dyes were weak (not running, but fading) and this distracts the aesthetic value a lot. Natural dyes are harmonious when they are applied in one piece with the same saturation. If some dyes fade (which is often enhanced by wrong washing!) then this harmony breaks to some extent.
( - Two such examples I discussed here and the pictures are in the archive. I send them again to Steve in order to mount them into this post - hopefully it works! )
In most cases it happens with different minor yellows, browns or olive-brown-something dyes - whereas the good dyes in antique pieces seem to be of professional origin. I conclude this from their consistency over the time and from own researches in Anatolia.
(2) A lack of know how plus the need to work cheap is the main reason. The present situation you cannot compare with the earlier situation, under no circumstances! It is a new piece of reality. - Fading happens very often, yes. I have in mind a dark red pile piece which was put into a shops window in Konya. 3 weeks later one could visit fading while passing by! But the guy whose done it is a felt maker and never had the chance to learn how to make dyes (see one of the latest HALI issues to learn how splendid nevertheless the marketing stories work in case the visitor does not understand from dyes!). That is a general socio-economic problem in the Orient: they do not like qualified work. So the only know how basis for this "revival", from Turkey to Pakistan, are Western hobby dyeing books.

For the tricky problem whether natural dyes bleed (normally they cannot - I discussed this, really in detail, in previous contribution and do not want to repeat it all here) - there must be one more not yet published one with Steve, especially for Turcoman reds. To make it easy: acid dyes bleed by principle, natural dyes if something is done wrong. Not impossible, but not very likely.

Are "semi-antique" pieces with (partially) synthetical dyes collectable?

Hopefully in this thread are now sufficient arguments for the sensorical evidence that natural dyes (in the sense of the word, technically at least equivalent to the level of the best know antique=pre-synthetical dyes) are an own world of pleasure, taste, however one would like to express it. In addition one should see that the aesthetiques (motives plus the specific "habit" of combining these colours) how they had evolved cannot be transmitted to this new, different world of colour. A new, own aesthetique for this new type of dyes did not evolve yet, at least not in the Eastern Weaving Culture.

So there is normally no gradual difference between these things - they represent two entirely different "units".

  1. fast food - "new technology". Adds a lot of synthetical chemicals and has evolved new types of food stuff, hitherto unknown. Long-term consequences for humans are not known, not researched. Its rationale is to reduce human labour and substitute it with energy. Low taste, artificial flavouring necessary. Cheap.
  2. slow food - "old technology". No no-food ingredients are allowed. Is optimized using modern technology but exluding unresearched mechanisms. Labour intensive, therefore costly or selfmade. High taste for the distinguished user.

This incredible amount of marketing talks, publications, gimmicks and fairy tales that the cottage industry uses with "natural dyes" is a reflection of that. They want to give evidence that they are settled in the A-World - and claim the proportionate prices.

Even at about 1900 this technological difference was reflected in a remarkable difference of value, the "new" technology" items being less than 25% of the old ones. This was no fashion rr market drive - it was just the reflection of the big difference in labour, which is incorporated, and of performance (keeping, bleeding, fading, sensorical "fun" of those dyes). We have shown some years before that if one takes the price for a equivalently usable antique piece of 1900 and of today there is no difference (!) in real terms (1). This has nothing to do with collecting. Remember that most of the circulating antique weaves are of commercial character and have no or at least a questionable value as "textile art". That some people pay the necessary price apparently only when under influence of this assumption does not change the case. You may as well take it as strange, camouflaged version of keeping the market value.

As time progresses, cultures migrate, comingle, even disappear
Yes, I agree. My point is: if this is so then the documents of decay are much less desirable! I question that proper documentation (which is missing in most cases of "ethnographic claims") is the real background force or motivation of collecting. It is the desire for joy, I guess. - Whatever: this would be indeed a fascinating field for ethnographic/cultural studies to research how a new "language" in weaving evolves there - after such research the term "ethnographical value" makes sense. The story that shows the context adds this value then. No story, no value ...

My own bias is: if rooted in this specific culture, if using the traditional motives as a "starting point", they must express it using natural dyes - or they would need to create, let evolve something entirely new. Such things I have not seen yet ... but who am I? Did I see all that exists? For sure not. That this is possible without cultural hegemony I question as well. Look, tlease, to the mental status and relative cultural standards of that period where this textile culture evolved from! These war rugs are, for me, "Kitsch" inspired by Westerners (2), as well as some small weaves that I saw in Central Anatolia featuring Mickey Mouse figures etc. May they weave what they like: but must we estimate it ?



(1) How many hours must I work for balancing a certain good?
(2) Do you remember how many professionals ran to Peshawar to strip the refugees of antique pieces some had taken out of Afghanistan? I remember it well - and how incredible cheap it was. Better than grave digging ... as it gives a tiny bit of value to the living people.

(Sorry, it seems that I am a victim of the CR & LF problem, incompatibility between UNIX and MS-systems. Excuse the layout, please!)

Here are the images Michael requested. Steve Price

Posted by Chuck Wagner on 10-16-2002 02:41 PM:

Hi Michael,

I'm going to try and elucidate a couple of thoughts I've had rattling around my head over the last few days, but please understand up front that I agree with several of your arguments for focusing on "slow food" rugs. For my part though, I will not describe synthetic dyes as offensive or ugly purely because they are synthetic. The piece must itself be genuinely ugly, like that in the first image I posted in this thread. ( )

Having said that, given two pieces with equal "eye appeal" I will always select one with natural dyes over one with synthetics, and a genuine "ethnographic" will always be selected over workshop goods. But as you know, such pieces are NOT often encountered except in a few auction houses and dealers shops.

Our collecting criteria are NOT tightly focused. My wife likes city rugs; I prefer tribals. But we do live together so we collect both. We don't buy a rug unless we both like it; thus avoiding nasty stares, and comments like: "Well dear, I actually can't STAND that thing, I just stayed quiet because I thought you liked it". We try to stick to pieces that we consider unusual compared to what we've seen in the market or in literature. We try find pieces with better that average work, design, color balance, etc.

But we will buy the odd wierd rug; I've posted a few images that should make THAT obvious.

For my part, when I look at "rustic" carpets, I'll claim I'm looking at a DYING culture. Anyone who weaves for a living these days is also hoping that their kids can get an education and go get a real job that pays GOOD money. So although I try to find the genuine antique tribals, I'll also buy interesting "newer" production. I guess that our definition of "collection" is different, and less rigorous, than for some in the rug collection world.

And so, I have a real problem with this comment:

"My point is: if this is so then the documents of decay are much less desirable!"

To my mind, use of the term decay is harshly judgemental. This may well be how you view the transition from the "old days" to the "new days", and it IS consistent with the criteria that you have established for collecting, but I do not accept that change=decay. It's just change.

I do not believe, for a second, that early 18th century Turkoman carpets designs and methods are unchanged from earlier Turkoman carpets. The area, and the people, were subjected to innumerable invasions, displacements, and other cultural pressures. We have almost no evidence from early times, so who can say for sure. But a quick look at the Ballard Yomud speaks volumes... Do you not believe that in 1810, Turkoman grandmothers may well have complained bitterly to their granddaughters about how the old patterns aren't woven anymore and how "You young people have no respect for tradition" ?

You may not LIKE the change to synthetics; that's fair. But the new stuff is just part of an evolving record of an evolving culture. That doesn't make it good or bad, just different. I don't want to try to change YOUR mind about YOUR collection criteria; I accept that they're well thought through and, not unreasonable. But woven goods are still being made for personal use, and they're still showing up on the market.

Which gets me to the other thought, which really is still an open question: Can knowledge and/or classification of synthetic dyestuffs contribute to estimation of provenance, or ethnographic attribution, of more recent (20th century) weavings ?

During this discussion we have from time to time touched on this question, and truthfully, I'm not sure that there's a nice structured answer. But a century from now (see John's Salon) people will look back and note that chrome dyes were in heavy use up to about 1965-1970 and then began to phase out in favor of dyes without heavy metals. Someday, they will be a marker in time for future collectors.

This has been a very stimulating session, and I thank you (and everyone else) for taking the time and effort to keep at it. At this point, I'm starting to have trouble keeping track of what we've already discussed when I write new posts. I think that may be a sign that we're wearing holes in the pile of this topic. I hope that's what it is, otherwise it might be a degenerative neural disorder, such as:

getting older...


Chuck Wagner

Posted by Michael Bischof on 10-17-2002 04:03 PM:

Hi everybody, hi Chuck,

with these kilims I wanted to demonstrate quality differences between natural dyes at the level of two quite early pieces. (of course you should here look into - the Rageth book on radiocarbon dating of kilims for the first piece - the McCoy-Jones catalogue of the kilim exhibition that paralleled the ICOC in San Francisco for the second piece)

The first piece is quite older. Most of its dyes are quite perfect professional dyes. A lot of "minor shades" are, according to my guess, professional as well but lighter. These suffered more from light oxidation first and finally by not appropriate washing which apparently has removed quite some of those latter dyes. As a result the once wonderful colour harmony suffered a lot (the kilim is still one of the most important early flatweaves from its region). The second piece is from the same region but younger and has much less saturated dyes (the bright yellow is excellent, though). Fading enhanced the abrash a lot, so much that the difference between the abrash and some motive details done once with less good dyes is unclear now in some parts. Result: even at that early time they cooked (dyed) with water only.

For me age is not a merit in its own! I am a biologist. When the evolution creates new forms at the beginning, in a kind of trial-and-error phase, a lot is "crude", a successful solution not yet found. Similar I see the development of arts.

"But woven goods are still being made for personal use, and they're still showing up on the market."

Yes, but unfortunately this is a kind of waste market - overflooded with pieces from people that leave the countryside and flee into the cities. So any kind of grading, which is essential for keeping up quality, together with a fair price, is lost. As a matter of fact the extreme small number of educated customers is the biggest bottleneck on todays markets. It creates a kind of "stupid demand", people who can be fooled too easy with fairy tales of faded "soft" natural dyes in the touristic centres, from Istanbul over Rajasthan to Chiang Mai...

"I guess that our definition of "collection" is different, and less rigorous, than for some in the rug collection world."

I share you point of view. But those collectors who cannot merit creative successful new weaves are the mediocre types anyway - the real leading guys are different. "Age" alone as a quality mark is a stupid idea and they know that.

Look at the yastik adventure of R. John Howe where the youngest piece has the best graphic and where on can learn that weavers may borrow alien designs without success in antique times. So those "rigorous" people are, in my opinion, the kind of "unsafe middle" people who stick to age as they have nothing more developed to found their measurements. A kind of desparate cry in a situation where they feel a lack of "safe" measures. They can't do better than "age".

"Which gets me to the other thought, which really is still an open question: Can knowledge and/or classification of synthetic dyestuffs contribute to estimation of provenance, or ethnographic attribution, of more recent (20th century) weavings ?"

I fear the answer is "no". Too much is disturbed and mixed by the cottage industry in traditional weaving areas.The only chance you might have is to live (!) in such a place and learn to know from close distance the different styles they do there - by the way: that would produce the desired ethnographical background about which many people only talk.

"...but I do not accept that change=decay. It's just change." and "I do not believe, for a second, that early 18th century Turkoman carpets designs and methods are unchanged from earlier Turkoman carpets."

This I did not say. I said: change may be decay. A broader perspective: in the 16th century the silk road as a fertile exchange area stopped to exist. People there had lived in the centre of the civilized world - and out of a sudden they were stuck in a forgotten corner of trade, geography and of cultural development. Stagnation and starvation - in the 19th century they fell victim to the Russians with ease. I am very curious to learn how Turcoman material before this turn looked alike.
I can respect the technical quality of early Turcomans and their talent of combining very saturated dyes of middle quality to create admirable effects. On the other hand: "you see one - you have seen all" ... result of this stagnation, boring repetititon, may be with the exception of some exciting 19th century Ersari material where they tried to "digest" external stimulus' in a creative way. - Technically and aesthetically the transition to synthetic dyes for me is a decay as they did not change
the motives and the colour style, but they changes the dyes! So they did not evolve. Creative developments at his particular time will most likely not happen there as they did not recover any kind of cultural self respect. Look at Turkmenistan of today! Must I say more? This is not the environment for a creative evolution. Cultures must live. "Living tradition" is, for me, a stupid marketing story of touristic souvenir shops. If people copy themselves, their own tradition, without thinking further
this culture has died.

Another interesting illustration I today prepared for a salon discussion here on Turkotek that will come soon. I came to the conclusion that with pile rugs some 13th century material is, in certain aspects, less good, less evolved, less sophisticated than 15-17th century material. With my "evolution perspective" in mind I do not admire anything just for its great age. I saw once the oldest known flatweave .... extreme rare, extreme old, extreme insignificant and ugly. A little Mickey Mouse rug done by a motivated and talented weaver (of course with synthetic dyes! A must!) would be artistically most likely much better.

The best illustration for what I want to say is, may be, the evolution (and the decay) of Navajo weaving. The oldest weaves are by far not the best ones. It had a climax (artistically, though they worked with foreign dyes!) and a decay after they lost their independance as a nation. And opposite to what had happened in the Orient it is well documented - as they had been "our" enemies for some time.

Today we support some gifted individual weavers in Central Anatolia - of course working with natural dyes as they are rooted
in that culture and work with these motives and their "indigenous" style of combining colours. We have a close look on some Turcoman weavers that came to the Konya area as refugees and who did not stop to weave. Very interesting observations that go beyond the aim of this particular thread!