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Are rugs with natural vegetal dyes better?

Yes and no…: Dyes made from natural substances such as roots have been used in Oriental rugs for thousands of years. But at the end of the 19th century poor quality but easy to use aniline synthetic dyes had been discovered. And by 1940 these inferior aniline dyes had essentially taken the place of natural dyes in carpet production. In fact, even the recipes for making natural dyes had been entirely lost or forgotten.

But, starting in about 1980, natural dyes began to be re-discovered (in some cases “reverse-engineered” so to speak through chemical analysis of threads from antique rugs) and again used in a few rugs. This let to a renaissance of the use of natural dyes in oriental rugs with huge interest and adoption through the 1990s until today.

By then, however, the newer generation of synthetic “chrome” dyes had long been perfected. These dyes do not fade prematurely in the sun nor do they run when washed with water. Sometimes today’s better quality “chrome” or “chromium” synthetic dyes are difficult to distinguish from natural dyes by the naked eye. Today both natural and synthetic chrome dyes are used in Oriental rugs and both are excellent. They synthetic dyes seem to impart a more uniform and regular coloration.

Nevertheless, good quality vegetal dyes offer a richer and more variegated palate of color (known as “Abrash”).  And, carpets dyed with natural dyes age with a warm pleasing patina. Additionally, natural dyes are more environmentally friendly. This comes with a price premium as vegetal dyes are more labor intensive and require a large amount of dye material. Consequently, naturally dyed carpets are more expensive and may add a up-charge when compared with rugs made with synthetic dyes.

Although some people prefer the more uniform color characteristic derived from synthetic dyes, I personally love the rustic beauty of natural dyes. The choice between natural and synthetic dyes is a matter of preference and cost. And in many rugs today often both natural dyes and synthetic dyes may be used depending on the color needs. Often it is hard to distinguish natural dyes from synthetic dyes. Only chemical analysis can tell for sure which dyes are being used, but it is possible to train one’s eye to distinguish. Here, rug connoisseur Steve Price discusses methods for distinguishing dyes.