By Charles Recknagelis,
Tea and Carpets Blogspot
CHAHARMAHAL District, Iran; May 2, 2008 - When
Iranian photographer Javid Tafazoli was walking through a weaving village in the
mountains of Chaharmahal va Bakhtiyari province, far to the west of Isfahan, he
saw an arresting sight.
It was a cascade of recently dyed red wool hanging from a tree. In a world grown
used to garish colors, the mellow brick-red shades looked like a startlingly
natural part of the landscape. He snapped the picture and entitled it simply
The same picture could be taken in many villages in Iran today, where weavers
are increasingly returning to using natural dyes. They hope that going back to
traditional materials will raise the quality of rugs and the value people put on
But if there is a new desire to derive red from age-old sources such as the root
of the Madder plant, which gives hues ranging from pink to rose to scarlet,
another ancient group of reds seems certain not to return. They are the once
famous insect reds.
For centuries, dyers dried and powdered insects to produce colors ranging from
pink-lilac through bright crimson to deep-brown-purple. In many areas where the
dyes could not be produced locally, they were prized imports.
The first insect dye to be traded in large commercial quantities was Indian lac,
derived from the Caccus lacca bug. The insect, which feeds on ficus trees in
India, was also a source for lacquer and shellac used on furniture.
The fame of Indian lac grew so great that it was exported over huge distances.
In their authoritative book 'Oriental Carpets,' Murray L. Eiland and Murray
Eiland III say the dyes have been detected in Safavid and Ottoman court carpets
as well as on 19th century Turkmen rugs. That is despite the fact that madder
was the standard and abundant source for red from Turkey to Central Asia.
Later, lac gave way to still higher quality reds obtained from the Indian's
bug's distant cousin, the South American cochineal. The cochineal reds -- traded
in the Aztec and Mayan empires and still used in Mexico and Peru (below) -- were
discovered by Spanish conquistadors in 1519.
The Europeans considered cochineal to be the perfect red dye because it is
stable, easily absorbed by fabrics, and extremely resistant to fading.
The brilliant red comes from the carminic acid in the body of the female
cochineal larva, which also makes the bug unpalatable to predators. The Spanish
bred the bugs for size and color and created huge ranches of cactus - the bugs'
favorite home. To produce a kilogram of the dye required some 155,000 dried
insects and, by 1770, at the peak of the trade, Mexico was exporting some half a
million kilos a year.
The global business in cochineal dyes is documented in the 2005 book 'A Perfect
Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire' by Amy Butler
Eventually, the Spanish expanded cultivation of the bugs to the Canary Islands
and North Africa. But the lucrative business finally came to an end with the
invention of chemical dyes in northern Europe in the mid 19th century. Within
decades, cochineal red, along with madder, virtually disappeared from use under
a tide of synthetic replacements.
Now, in a world saturated with artificial colors, natural dyes are slowly making
a comeback. But, in a strange twist for the carpet industry, the once so
abundant and highly sought cochineal dyes remain forgotten. The reason is
After they were swept from the textile industry by synthetic dyes, cochineal
reds - also known as carmine - found a new and more profitable place in the
cosmetics and food coloring industries. Today carmine is a high-priced specialty
dye that puts the red in red pistachio nuts, maraschino cherries and Italian
aperitifs. Its advantage over man-made red dyes is that it is not toxic or
That means that making a rug with cochineal dyes today would cost a fortune. The
giant cactus farms in Mexico may still exist and the dyes may still be exported,
but carpets with insect reds belong to the past.
About the author:
Charles Recknagel is an American journalist living in Prague. He travels from
time to time to the east. That is where he caught the carpet bug. He now tries
to keep up with his interest by blogging (Tea and Carpets Blogspot:
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