Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 03-29-2007 11:05 AM:

Red Is Beautiful

I think it’s pertinent to quote what Elena Tsareva wrote in Chapter Six of "Carpets of Central Asian Nomads” (the catalog of 1993 Genoa Exhibition). The chapter is titled:


Admirers of Oriental carpets are attracted to individual examples by two principal characteristics: rarity, either of form or design, and beauty. The distinctive feature of Central Asian weavings, of course, is the predominant use of red, which is sometimes so vivid, cheerful and full of life that it is easy to understand why, for many Eurasian cultures, it was symbolic of the Sun and its equivalence of beauty.
The spiritual, magic meaning of red has another special meaning in folk ideology. It occupies an intermediate position in between white/life and black/ death and corresponds to the threshold period of betrothal (wedding). Accordance of red and wedding explains to a definite extent domination of red tints in the colour scale of made for dowry rugs and carpets (compare with prayer rugs namazlyks, funeral rugs ayatlyk, for example, with their white grounds).

However, in order not to place undue emphasis on this symbolic interpretation, it is important to remember that the widespread use of red had not only aesthetic and magic qualities but also practical implications. Of the latter, one point perhaps worth bearing in mind is that an overall deep red tonality rendered the soiling which inevitably resulted from every day use less obvious, a fact not without significance given the conditions of nomadic life, with long migrations and a general lack of water.

The use of red was convenient for a number of other reasons; madder was both readily accessible and inexpensive and also gives a wide variety of tones, from pink to violet-brown.

However, some shades were extremely difficult to obtain and the dyers - who were usually also the weavers - had to use somewhat complex methods. The most difficult was cherry-red, which was much beloved by the Salor and Saryk. To give this tone intensity, they used imported, and therefore expensive, cochineal, which they employed principally in the dyeing of silk.

The wide variety of shades obtained from madder made it possible for each individual tribe to choose its favourite tones. We now know that what was originally a tonality caused by local soil and water later became the characteristic colour scheme of the particular tribe inhabiting that area, regardless of where the tribe may have moved subsequently during the great migrations which took place amongst the Central Asian peoples from time to time. Thus the tribes of the Essenkhan Unit, such as the Choudor, favoured a violet-brown colour for the fields of their weavings, whilst the tribes of the Soinkhan Turkoman Unit, such as the Salor, used lighter and more vivid shades

Returning to the question of the influence of soil and water on dyeing, it is interesting to analyze the weavings produced by definite tribes in different regions. Also preserving their traditional use of particular shades, the weavings made by Salor, or Tekke, or Saryk (all Soinkhan Unit) in Khorassan or Middle Amu-Darya, or Merv have such a distinctive colouring of red that they can easily be distinguished from the mass of other work attributed to the same tribe or tribal group. Indeed, if we know the history of the tribe and where it was at any particular time, it is often possible to date individual weavings by their colour.

Posted by R. John Howe on 03-29-2007 11:53 AM:

Filiberto -

I think the current work of Jurg Rageth, the German rug scholar, is relevant here.

Elena is undoubtedly right about the effects on palette from local soil and water, but Rageth has been interested especially in discovering how the brilliant reds in older Turkmen weavings were produced.

He is using carbon-dating and then combining the results with analysis of dyes and mordants used.

I can't reproduce his current findings faithfully in detail (he is very cautious and so slow to publish) but in a presentation he gave at the last ACOR and that he has given to several rug clubs in the U.S. he attributes these brilliant Turkmen reds to the use of tin mordants (Various Turkmen tribes used tin mordants with both madder and cochineal). In the case of the Salors he has also found (as I mentioned in my lecture) that they, alone among Turkmen tribes, used lac dyes on wool, sometimes mixed with madder, to produce some of their brilliant shades.

This would seem to suggest that although the various Turkmen reds are no doubt affected by the local soil and water, that deliberate human actions (selecting dyes and mordants) also play their part.


R. John Howe

Posted by Horst Nitz on 04-11-2007 05:40 PM:

Hi John

I agree - however, Jurg Rageth is Swiss (from the German speaking part of the country).

Thanks to you for this many-facetted salon.


Posted by R. John Howe on 04-13-2007 08:25 AM:

Hi Horst -

My mistake. Thanks for the correction.

I was imprinted as a result of hearing him growl once, at a conference, about mistakes in the translation of one of his speeches from German into English.


R. John Howe

Posted by Richard Larkin on 04-13-2007 09:19 AM:


I note with interest that the excellent Ms. Tsareva saw the versatility of madder as an opportunity "...for each individual tribe to choose its favourite tones." What do you all think of that? Was that mauve color (I like it!) chosen by the Chaudor over brilliant red? Was there a pecking order among the Turkoman as to principal color? Has there been significant research about how the various tribes got to the colors they got to?

P. S.: John, I also thank you for this very interesting tour of the color, red.

Rich Larkin

Posted by Horst Nitz on 04-15-2007 04:46 PM:

Hi Richard

it is a very interesting question you are raising - I have no answers though.


Horst Nitz

Posted by R._John_Howe on 04-17-2007 02:53 PM:

Dear folks -

I cannot answer Richard's question either, but there was from time to time a hierarchy among the tribes of Turkmen---as tribes.

The Salors were originally top dog so to speak and I think it is established that other tribes collected Salor weavings. I can't say what role color played in that but it may be suggestive that Rageth finds that (so far in his researches) only the Salors used cochineal dyes. And in one of the reports on Turkmen weaving (maybe Mackie-Thompson) is an indication that some Salor pieces exhibit 13-15 colors, something that would seem likely to attract attention within a group in which color palettes of from 4 to 7 colors seem more usual.

(Istabul has beautiful sushine today, but is cool, with a little wind, as we await the beginning of ICOC XI tomorrow.)


R. John Howe

Posted by James Blanchard on 04-17-2007 10:52 PM:

Hi John and all,

You mention that "Rageth finds that (so far in his researches) only the Salors used cochineal dyes". This surprised me, since I thought that cochineal dyes were not uncommon on Tekke pieces.

A while back I showed a Tekke engsi of mine that has quite a bit of silk highlighting. In addition to a light pink, there is another magenta colour in silk highlights (I can't seem to find a good picture displaying that colour). I think that is cochineal-dyed silk.

Incidentally, I still have not found any reference to the use of silk in another Tekke engsi. None of the descriptions of Tekke engsis in Turkoman Studies I mention silk as a material used.

The following pictures show the silk highlights in my engsi along a portion of the central column and in the diamonds in the mihrab. There are other pink highlights in various other parts of the rug, including the single knot in one of the inner border elements.


Posted by R._John_Howe on 04-18-2007 02:41 AM:

James -

I tried to correct my mistatement about only Salors (among the Turkmen tribes) using cochineal dyes, but it may not have come through on the other thread.

It's lac dyes that Rageth has found (in his samples so far) that seem distinctive to the Salors.

Someone else in one thread (maybe Jack Williams) indicated that in some older writings cochineal other than Mexican was used in some Turkmen weavings. That could be (and makes sense since Armenian cochineal, at least, was in the "area." But so far Rageth seems to have found only Mexican cochineal in Turkmen weavings despite his being aware of the other varieties.

Sorry for the momentary confusion.


R. John Howe

Posted by James Blanchard on 04-18-2007 05:34 PM:

Hi John,

Thanks for the clarification. That is helpful.

Do you have any experience with silk highlights in engsis, cochineal or otherwise?


Posted by Marty Grove on 04-19-2007 11:35 AM:

Icoc Panopally

G'day John and All,

My best wishes to you and all those attending the splendours of ICOC in Turkey.

Actually my envy is probably a better way of putting it; and I am sure that you yourself will be unshod upon, or a least beside some fabulous pieces of red textile magnificence ... oh the rugs, the rugs!

I am eagerly anticipating those which will undoubtably display all the shades of wonderous red the creators of the past have left for us to endlessly enjoy and speculate over.

Whilst we in Australia are in the midst of our worst drought and wondering whether we have enough to drink, you are able to forget the worlds cares for a moment and lose yourself amoung such things of interest and beauty, that I would that I was there also.

Ones senses are aroused imagining being in ancient Turkey and surrounded by the reek and history, people and artifacts of time past where the land has seen as much, and probably more distressing times than we ourselves find ourself in, at this period of human evolution.

I know I would kneel and wallow, my eyes seeing and fingers enjoying the tactile pleasure of aged and brilliant wools, and measuring the heft and handle of warp and weft.

All this and more John you are about to experience again - and many reading your pages here have eagerly anticipated your journey to ICOC Eleven.


Posted by R._John_Howe on 04-19-2007 10:21 PM:

James -

I have not seen silk in engsis but would not be surprised if that occurs since they are seen to be "special occasion" pieces.

Marty et al -

About ICOC XI and our reporting on it. Pat Weiler and I decided last night at the dealers' fair that we would wait and do something together after. Ivan of Jozan is here and will likely do some quick reporting as we both did for the last ACOR.

I already have photos from two exhibitions on Turkish kilims and flatwoven bags, one on yastiks and a smaller on on Ottoman velvets. There is an exhibit open on "Transylvanian" design pieces that is getting very high marks but I have not seen it yet.

It's just after 5AM in Istanbul as I write and I have just 30 minutes of time at the moment (the Swissotel is sumptuous but seems designed to extract money for nearly everything but breathing). I likely won't send any pictures during the conference but have bought two nice catalogs.

I may make a few notes from time to time on the "travel board" (my wife and I will travel the Agean and Med coasts after ending at Konya and Cappadocia before coming back to Istanbul to fly home on May 14).


R. John Howe

Posted by James Blanchard on 04-21-2007 10:39 AM:

Hi John,

I also didn't think much of the presence of silk in this engsi, but in my subsequent investigations and inquiries I haven't run across any references to it, so I am assuming that silk was used less commonly on engsis than on other "special occasion" pieces such as chuvals.


Posted by Steve Price on 04-21-2007 02:31 PM:

Hi James

You may be right, but bear in mind that juvals probably outnumber the ensis in Rugdom by more than 100 to 1, and only a small percentage of the juvals have silk.


Steve Price

Posted by Richard Larkin on 04-22-2007 02:22 PM:

Hi James,

I note that in the 1973 reprint of Carpets of Central Asia (Bogolubov), edited by J. M. A. (Jon) Thompson, at Plate 4, there is an engsi labeled "Pende" by Bogolyubov. It doesn't show any silk (maybe some white cotton), but in the supplementary editorial notes, Thompson mentions that the rug was acquired from a Saryk village. He also states that "late" examples [I think he meant period late] were typically colored cochineal purple-red and often featured the "lavish use of silk." In my mind's eye, I am seeing one of these as an illustration in a book with a lot of pinkish silk across the elem panel. However, I haven't succeeded in finding it. (BTW, I have a lot of dreams like this...rugs I imagine having seen that don't really exist.)

Rich Larkin

Posted by James Blanchard on 04-23-2007 12:57 AM:

Hi Richard,

Thanks for that reference. My reading has also confirmed that the Saryk used silk in a lot of their weavings. Jourdan mentions that the horizontal bar of almost all Saryk ensis have a red silk ground, with wool being used in the earlier examples. So I guess it is not surprising that the Tekke would also have occasionally used silk in some of their ensis.

Steve, thanks for reminding me, an epidemiologist, that analysis of numerators without denominators can be very misleading...