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Red in Rugs and Other Textiles

by R. John Howe

- Part 4 -

The fourth subject I want to talk about in this lecture is red in relation to some aspects of color theory.  This is an interesting subject in itself, but will also serve to make part of the framework, within which I have organized the pieces I have brought, more explicit.

Most treatments of color theory begin with a color wheel of some sort.

Here is one with relatively few colors.

Now I don’t want to seem to pretend that I am a serious student of color theory.  I am not. 

A comprehensive treatment of color theory would need to deal with the behavior of mixtures of light, called additive color mixing as well as with the behavior of pigment mixtures, called subtractive color mixing.  If I understand this distinction properly, we will be dealing here only with subtractive aspects of color theory and even that in a rather superficial way.

Dealing adequately with red alone, in terms of color theory, would be far too ambitious for this session, but a few snippets from it may be of informing interest.  I will deal with the following snippets:

Red as a dominant color
Red as a subordinate color
Red and its analogous colors
Red and its complementary colors
Red as a contrast color
Red as an accent color
Mixed instances of the use of red

Let’s start with pieces in which red is used as a dominant color. 

(You will note that my examples are not pure instances of the particular aspects of this color theory typology.  Sometimes they are legitimate examples of several aspects.  I have picked them because they seem to me to project at least the aspect under which they are presented.)

A use of red is characterized as dominant if it is the color used in the most area of a given rug or textile.

Sometimes the dominant use of red in a rug or textile is easily recognized.
Here is an “in your face” Samarkand ikat from the mid-19th century.  The fact that there are some other colors and strong graphics does not get in the way of the reds in this piece.

Here is a Igdir chuval with a wonderful clear red that almost but not quite overwhelms everything else.

This 17th century Ushak has an impactful dominant use of red in its field.

Some pieces exhibit subtler, dominant uses of red.

Here is a Kazak the field of which is clearly an example of the dominant use of red.

But notice that this red is also in the outside border and serves to integrate it into the overall rug.

And this rolakan from southern Sweden about 1800, may be a borderline instance of the “dominant use of red,” since it has a lot of yellow, blue and white in it too.  

But it may have enough red to qualify.

A “subordinate” use of red is one in which there may be considerable red but another color is dominant.

Here is an Anatolian kilim with a “vulture” design from the Caroline Jones collection.  Red is used, but there is more yellow.

This is a contemporary gabbeh designed by Parviz Tanavoli.  There is a stark use of red but there is a lot more ivory.

A possibly border-line case of the subordinate use of red is this 17th century Ottoman velvet yastik.  To me, more area is covered by the tan shades than by red.

Red’s analogous colors are those closest to it.

Looking again at our color chart, red has one set of analogous colors that move toward blue and another that move toward orange.
Here are my analogous examples for red.

Balouch rugs and textiles with their dark reds, oranges and browns are among the first that come to mind when one looks for colorations analogous to red.  Here is one.

Notice that Balouch pieces frequently use white as an accent color, something to remember when we look for accent uses of red.
Turkmen pieces are also frequently instances of the use of colors analogous with red.
Here is an Ersari main carpet the palette of which is enriched by the use of orange with the dominant red.

This Saryk chuval has two shades of red wool and is lavishly decorated with pinkish silk.

But the use of analogous colors with red is widespread.  Here is a 19th century Satillo serape with rich red family shades.

This 19th century Anatolian piece, from the Konya area, also employs red and several close shades effectively.

The Moghuls may have practiced the most sophisticated use of analogous colors.  They often used close colors side by side without any intervening outlining to produce shading.  Here is a large Moghul rug.

And a closer view that lets you see this sophisticated use of analogous colors.

When we look for red’s analogous colors, we look on the either side of red on the color wheel.

But there is also complementary use of color. 

For this we look across the color wheel to green and its nearby colors.

One of the really good instances of the use of red’s most directly complementary color is this rare Moghul “tree” carpet.

Here is a piece of Central Asian ikat in which the red and green do not abut directly but still function in a complementary way.

The complementary color does not always need to be the directly opposing one to be effective.  Red and orange are used effectively with green and yellow in this sedate 18th century Yarkand carpet.

Color theory also talks about red as a “contrast” color.  Basically, this means that red (and any other color too) looks different depending on the color of the background on which it is placed.  This, of course, also means that red affects how other colors look when it serves as their background.

Caucasian rugs are often useful examples, since the ground colors of their fields tend to be different from those of their borders AND the same color combinations tend to be used in both.

Here is a quite old (1800 or earlier) Daghestan piece with a white-ground field but red ground borders. 

The same colors seem to have been used against both of these grounds and you can see the different effects that produces.

A closer look.

This is a 19th century Pennsylvania quilt with a “log cabin” design.  Notice that how the red squares are emphasized by the pale shades of those that are next to them.

And you might argue about this southern Caucasian flatweave but for me red areas abutting dark colors look more subdued than those abutting yellow.

My last contrast example is this older Caucasian Bordjalou Kazak.  Here you can see the effect of various ground colors on red.

It may be simplistic, but still worth saying, that contrast seems heightened when lighter and darker shades are used close to one another and is damped when either lighter or darker shades are used side-by-side.  This is true regardless of whether the lighter or darker colors are analogous or complementary. 

The use of different background colors to change contrast is one source of some optical illusions.  If you are tempted to explore the color theory sites listed in the handout, you will see some examples.

Sometimes one encounters what might be seen as a contrast or subordinate use of red, but which is more restricted and purposeful.  This is sometimes described as an “accent” use of red.

Here is a 19th century Perepedil on which red is used throughout in very deliberate ways to produce particular effects.

This is a 19th century Agra rug in which red is also used in nearly every part in visibly purposeful ways.

I think, though, that the best example of an accent use of red that I encountered in my preparations was in this French hanging.

The nature and placement of red in this piece is very deliberate and seems to me to influence heavily the way one’s eye moves about it.

Here, at the end, are a couple of uses of red that seem mixed or more complex to me.

First, is this small Uzbek rug. 

Its red-dominant field has a nearly chaotic feel.  But closer examination shows that this piece is quite regularly draw and this chaotic effect is produced by failing to use yellow in the upper right full gul and again in the partial gul on the top left.

This example shows how even a small change in color can have a dramatic effect on how a rug looks.

And last, this old Moroccan embroidery seems initially to have a red ground.  Or does it?  Yellow might also be a candidate.  Ambiguous uses of red are likely worth a talk of their own.

That is the end of my four-part lecture.  We have looked briefly at:

Red in everyday life
Historical uses of red in rugs and other textiles
Dyeing with red
Red and some aspects of color theory

Now we are going to look at some actual rugs and other textiles.  I have tried to organize the pieces I have brought in terms of dye use and some of these color theory distinctions.

Here, below, is an abbreviated version of the handout provided in this session.


Red in Rugs and Other Textiles:
A Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning
March 10, 2007

R. John Howe

Recipes for Dyeing with Madder, Cochineal and Lac

Here is just one older concrete set of directions for producing a madder red.

To Dye Madder Red
Take 3 lb of Allom,, two Pound and half of white Tartar, a quarter of a pound of Fenugreek, two quarts of Wheat bran, boil all in the copper, then put in the stuff and let it boil 2 hours and half, after which take it out, cool it very well and hang it out for one Night; then to dye it, take 7 pound of Madder, an ounce and a half of Aqua Fortis, a Pint of Wheat Bran, put them into the copper, stir them very well about, and when the stuff have been very well rinced in the dye, then wind it very swift upon a Roller and tumble it about the Copper for an Hour at least, taking care that the Fire keep it boiling hot; after which take it out and rince it.

Here is a summary of Greenfield’s experience dyeing with cochineal.

(She dyed silk rather than wool because she is allergic to the latter and dyed already woven, but uncolored scarves.)

  1. Put the scarves in distilled water so they will take up dye more evenly.
  2. Put some distilled water in the dye pot and heat it to just below boiling.
  3. Weigh the cochineal and ground it to fine powder with a pestle and mortar. 
  4. Measure out tin and cream of tartar, a weak acid.
  5. Put the cochineal, tin and cream of tartar into the heated water of the dye pot.  Let it “simmer” for about 30 minutes.
  6. Put in first silk scarf.  Let it in about 20 minutes stirring it frequently.
  7. Remove scarf from dye pot, rinse in distilled water and lay on a towel to dry.
Notice that in this example Greenfield is using a tin mordant.  Jurg Rageth, in his analysis of the source of the brilliant reds in some Turkmen pieces, credits the use of cochineal and/or lac with tin mordants as a primary source of these colors.

Here is a medieval Persian lac dyeing recipe for something called “Persian scarlet.”

“Take the lac colour, and if you choose a little cochineal for richness and soak from four to six days; strain it in two cloths and add alum and a little tumeric; let it stand for three hours.  Put wool in and steep for twenty-four hours, then boil for two hours.  Take out the wool and add mineral acid; re-enter wool and boil an hour more.  Wash fifteen minutes when cold, and dry in the shade.”

Bibliography – Books referred to in the lecture.

Elizabeth Barber
Prehistoric Textiles
(paper) Princeton University Press, 1992

Elizabeth Barber
The Mummies of Urumchi
(paper) W.W. Norton & Company, 1999

Robert Chenciner
Madder Red: a history of luxury and trade
Curzon Press, 2000

Amy Butler Greenfield
A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage and the Color of Desire
Harper Collins, 2005

Internet Sites on Color Theory


(on the “additive” and “subtractive” color theory distinction)



Discussion Back to Part 1 Back to Part 2 Back to Part 3