The color of an oriental carpet is one of its most compelling mysteries. Before the twentieth century, Oriental rugs reflected an uninterrupted cultural tradition going back thousands of years. Although the language of these designs remained faithful to its origins, there was tremendous range in the creation of motifs and color harmonies, making each carpet unique.
One of the major changes that occurred during the fourth quarter of the nineteenth century was the introduction of chemical dyestuffs. Although there was controversy about the use of aniline dyes, their use became widespread very quickly. Aniline dyes were considered damaging to the Oriental rug trade, and by 1900, the Shah of Persia had issued an edict prohibiting the importation, sale and use of aniline dyes. All items manufactured with these dyes were to be confiscated and destroyed. Unfortunately, even this harsh measure was not enough to end the use of this convenient new product. These were exciting new colors from a package! They eliminated the need to forage for plant stuffs with which to create color.
It seems that once aniline came into common use, the desire for wonderful antique carpets dyed only in vegetable or animal dyestuffs became too great for the supply available. Seeking carpets that are considered seductive decoratively, there is much information to consider. With the enormous increase in the prices of old rugs, there is great motivation on the part of manufacturers and dealers to "enhance reality". This motivation towards extreme restoration of antique carpets and alteration of newer carpets is not a new phenomenon. In the early part of the twentieth century, there was also an enormous attraction to antique rugs. Everyone was searching for those pieces with pure color, softened over time.
Lust for carpets made with the wonderful old dyes became great. Everyone wanted the extraordinary soft but true color that could not be reproduced in chemical dyes. The art of chemical washing was born to soften and mute the tones. Unfortunately, it also damaged the wool and deprived us of carpets that would have aged naturally. The effect of chemical washing was more a blurring of lines and removal of color than aging. If you look at the backs of many early chemically washed carpets, you can see a palette rich in mellow color, which has been destroyed on the face.
Rugs that were antique in 1900 became very desirable. It was well worth the time, effort and expense to do extensive restoration. Exporters and dealers found ways to make contemporary rugs seem to look older. Rugs were treated with various washes of chemicals, and even buried in the ground to age them artificially. Many new rugs were sold as antique. Sound familiar?
Here we are again, 100 years later. This time our searches are not limited to vegetable dyes and pre 20th century design, but we are looking for the wonderful patina of age and the softening of color that comes with time. Wonderful carpets, woven through the 1930's hold a mystery, which is hard to define. The color is often a combination of chemical and natural dye, which seems glorious with the passage of time. If only more great carpets had been left to grow old naturally!
Those pale washed out carpets that were chemically washed 100 or more years ago are as trendy as ever and still command high prices, although I doubt the lovers of those carpets realize what has been done to them. Contemporary rugs are almost all chemically washed to make them look softer and shinier. Many rugs are being stripped of their true color. To me, they only look washed out and blurry. Fortunately, for future generations, there are a limited number of new rugs being made with some vegetable dyes. They are bright when new, but it will take only the patience of the owner to realize the true beauty of color that comes with time.
The lesson here is that there is no substitute for time. One hundred years from now, lovers of pure color will be seeking those rugs that managed to escape the chemical vats during this era.
"The art of Persian rug making is an example of a handicraft born before history, which lives on, owing nothing to modern science. They are not woven against time. Each knot is carefully, patiently tied, each row is meticulously tamped down with a metal comb and another row built upon it. And always, just beneath the level of the hands, the pattern develops resplendently, until finally, this vibrant enduring fabric is completed and has locked in its web of wool a timeless charm and beauty…"
This is a quote taken from the tag on the back of an old Persian rug years ago. There was no attribution to an author, but I think the concept applies to almost any handicraft. We love antique woods and finishes, paintings and textiles, ceramics and metals because they have withstood time. There are many ways to try to age any of these things and new and faithful reproductions can be made, but the truth is we love them because they are old and you cannot recreate the ravages- how ever gentle, of time itself!