Let’s talk a
little now about how rugs and textiles are colored with red: the
process of dyeing.
The most frequent sources of dyestuffs used to produce red in the rugs
and textiles we collect are:
- Madder (from the root of a plant)
- Cochineal (dried insect shells)
- Lac (dried bodies of insects)
- Synthetic dyes (various chemicals)
Robert Chenciner lists a number of other dyestuffs that will produce
- Annatto (seedhusks of a
- Archil or Orchil (a purple
lichen dye growing on rocks)
- Brazilwood (extracted from
- Cudbear (a compound similar
- Henna (from dried leaves of
- Kermes (dried shell of
female louse found on some oak trees)
- Logwood (from the red core
of the crooked tree)
- Murex bandaris (extracted
from mollusc shells)
- Red ochre (a soil pigment,
containing iron oxide)
- Safflower (a thistle-like
Now I am not an expert on dyes and left my college general chemistry
course in 1955 entirely delighted with my
“C”. So, although the following
discussion of dyeing
for red is non-technical, there may be
readers who can correct the more obvious errors.
I have consulted what seem to be some useful sources. There
two fairly recent treatments of the two most frequent sources of red
dye used in the rugs and textiles we collect. Both are
in the brief bibliography at the end.
First, there is Robert Chenciner’s “Madder Red: A
history of luxury and trade,” 2000.
Madder is the most frequent source of red in the rugs and textiles we
A second book on dyeing with red, is Amy Butler Greenfield’s
“A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage and the Quest for the Color
Greenfield treats dyeing with cochineal, perhaps the second most
frequent natural dyestuff used to produce red in the pieces we
I want to treat each of these four categories of red dyestuff (i.e.,
madder, cochineal, lac and synthetics) briefly, but before that just a word about how the dyeing
itself is usually accomplished
Although descriptions and recipes for dyeing vary widely, the process
they describe usually reduces to the following four steps.
- Clean the stuff to be dyed
(wool, cotton, silk, etc.). Called
- Immerse the stuff in some
mordant (often under heat)
- Immerse the mordanted stuff
in a bath of the dye (again often under heat)
- Remove stuff from dye bath,
rinse and let dry
The mordant forms a chemical bond that makes the dye adhere to the
stuff. If this bond is strong enough the dyed stuff is both
fast and light fast.
We begin our treatment of the natural dyes used most frequently to
produce red with madder.
Here is an image of a madder plant.
This top part has no interest for the madder dyer, except for the signs
it gives of how the plant is growing. It is from the root of
madder plant that its coloring agents are taken. Here is some
These roots are chopped finely for use in dyeing.
The handout contains an old recipe for dyeing for red with madder.
Chenciner gives some madder dyeing processes that are ten or more steps
long and that sometimes seem designed to mystify. Early dyers
were working in part in alchemy and were often secretive and
We move to cochineal.
Cochineal is an “insect” dye rather than a
“plant” dye. One source indicates that
medieval Persian dyer had access to four types of
cochineal…Indian cochineal, Armenian cochineal, Polish
and in late period, Mexican cochineal. All of the above listed dyes
come from different species of insects and produce slightly different
shades of red.” The term “cochineal” is
used to refer
to all four of these insect dyes.
This illustration is of cochineal being harvested from a cactus plant
The cochineal is the white areas on the green cactus leaves.
These two workers are using sticks to scrape the cochineal off into
baskets. The worker on the left is Spanish, the one on the
And this a photograph of cochineal on cactus.
This is a drawing of an individual cochineal insect.
And, again, a photograph of one.
Greenfield, whose grandfather and great-grandfather were dyers and
whose father is a scientist, describes her own dyeing with
cochineal. There is a summary of her description in the
Sometimes the presence of cochineal is seen as an indicator useful in
attribution. For example, weavings from eastern Turkey often
Here is a 19th century kilim woven in Aleppo in southeastern Turkey the
burgundy shade in which is from a cochineal red.
Now let’s move to lac.
Lac is the other more common insect dye. Lac was
cultivated in Northern India and imported into other rug producing
countries. It is obtained from an insect parasite found on trees.
This is an illustration of both lac and cochineal in nature.
The cochineal is on the right and we can ignore it here. The
image on the left shows the lac insects growing on the branches of a
tree (dark bulging areas)
To make this more explicit here is a photograph of the lac insects on
the branch of a tree.
The insects are scraped off by women laborers.
Sticklac is the actual substance used to produce the dye. Approximately
6% of the sticklac is the dye.
Other components of the sticklac are used to make
“shellac”, sealing wax and some food colorings.
The literature I consulted suggested that Lac dye is still produced in
the same way as it was in medieval times.
The handout includes an old recipe for dyeing with lac.
Because historic northern India was an important source of lac, it was
used frequently in Moghul rugs and textiles.
Here is a detail from a glorious Moghul carpet with a lac-red ground.
And another special purpose Moghul piece known to have two kinds of lac
dye in it.
The ground pile in this piece is dyed with lac, as are its wefts.
Lac was also used in rugs made in Persian Khorasan. If you
recall, one of the defining indicators of the classical Khorasan
weavings, in the recent TM “Pieces of a Puzzle”
was the presence of lac dyes. The Khorasan fragment below was
included in that exhibition and is owned by Harold
The reds in the pile of this 19th century piece are dyed with lac.
"Jürg Rageth reports that the Salors, alone among the Turkmen
tribes, used Indian lac on wool (along with madder) for some of their
And two recent rug morning programs by Sheridan Collins and Susan
McCauley reminded me that lac is still used in more recent Bhutanese
textiles, as well as in those from some areas of Thailand, Cambodia and
Laos. The detail below is of such a Bhutanese piece with lac
that Sheridan owns.
Our fourth dye source for red is the synthetic group. Our
discussion of it has two parts: first, early synthetics and then
synthetic dyes with chrome mordants.
Until about the middle of the 19th century, red was produced with
natural dyes. But beginning in the mid-1800s various
dyes began to appear and red was frequent among them.
Here is Chenciner’s listing of the
“discoveries” of various synthetic dyes.
Mauveine by Perkin
1858-9 Fuchsin, lilac by
Verguin with acknowledgement to Hofmann
1859 Coralline by
1861 Methyl violet
1862 Bismark brown
1863 Aniline black
1864 Aniline brown
1867 Rose magdala
1867 Nigrosine by
1868 Alizarin by
Graebe and Lieberman
1875 Phloxine, Rose
Bengal by Nolting
orange by Strobel and Caro
brown by Seuberlich
1877-8 Oranges by Roussin and Poirrier
Berbrich scarlet by Nietzki
reds by Ohler
Ponceau S by Pfaff and Nietzki
You can see that fuchsin appeared early, 1858-9. The anilines
were close behind in the early 1860s. (Although they are not included
on this listing, the acid-based Azo dyes were produced in
Alizarin, one of the main color-producing components of madder, was
synthesized in 1876. And the first of the Ponceau group was
created in 1880.
The Ponceau group is noteworthy, in part, because subsequent Ponceau
“reds” were used heavily by Turkmen weavers at the
the 20th century.
This array shows why natural dyes were rapidly supplanted during the
last half of the 19th century. And, in fact, the market for
natural dyes declined precipitously.
Many of the early synthetic dyes were not light fast or water fast and
some turned into unattractive shades as they faded. When we
at some actual pieces, you will see some dyed with synthetics that were
either fugitive or that changed in other ways.
In the early 1900s synthetic dyes using chrome mordants began to be
produced, but it was not until after World War II that they penetrated
the rug industry generally. Here are two modern rugs with chrome dyes.
This first piece is a new Indian rug with an old Indian Agra design.
This second rug was also woven in India but with a Persian Ferehan
Although we do not know what the colors produced using chrome dyes will
look like, say, 500 years from now, they are very water fast and light
fast. One of the seeming advantages of chrome dyes is that
any color or shade can be produced. Despite this there are
complaints that the colors produced by chrome dyes have a
“flatness” and a “hardness”
that is less
pleasant than those projected by natural dyes. More, they
be so fast that they will not likely mellow over time, as natural dyes
And, of course, dye research continues. As I prepared for
talk, I saw mention of newer “reactive” dyes
primarily to dye some newer synthetic fabrics, but which can be used on
wool and silk as well. So, in the future, there may be
even better ways of producing beautiful reds than we now know.
That is the end of my non-technical treatment of dyeing with red.