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Volume 42, Number 3May/June 1991

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A Passion for Color

Written by Jane Peterson
Photographed by Gayle Garrett
Additional photographs by Harald Böhmer

In 35 wind-scoured villages of north-western Turkey, long-forgotten secrets of the dyer's art have been rediscovered. Natural dyes made from local plants are being used to create colors not seen for more than a century. And the resurrection of this ancient art has inspired rug-weavers to reach back to the finer craftsmanship - and the different way of seeing - of their grandmothers, in the days before chemical dyes. The results are not only new carpets that recall the rich color harmonies of the treasured nomad and peasant rugs of the past, but also changes in the patterns of village life.

The weavers, organized into a cooperative under Turkish law, have refused to accept for marketing rugs colored with chemical dyes - even though insisting on natural colors only makes their work more difficult, since the plant products are less easy to control than industrially-produced chemical dyes. At the same time, the special qualities of naturally dyed wool are not apparent to everyone, for color exists -quite literally - in the eye of the beholder. Where natural-dye enthusiasts see "mellow" hues that sparkle and glow, others see nothing special - at least, nothing worth the effort of looking at a carpet long enough to be drawn into it. To do this one needs, perhaps, a passion for color.

Ironically, over 100 years ago, it was a passion for color - specifically, the bright colors and seductive patterns of so-called "Turkey carpets" - that contributed to the disappearance in Anatolia of the natural dyes being revived today. Inspired by a series of international expositions between 1851 and 1876, Europe's new industrial middle class lined its sitting-rooms with hand-knotted Turkish carpets. The increased demand outstripped supply, and rug prices increased. But higher prices could neither speed up the laborious hand-work needed to collect raw materials for natural dyes, nor increase the supply of those dyeplants that were not cultivated crops.

An 18-year-old English chemistry student came to the rescue. William Perkins, working over his Easter holiday from the Royal College of Chemistry in 1856, was completing an assignment from his German professor, Wilhelm von Hoffmann, to attempt to synthesize quinine. Accidentally, he produced a purple substance that, he noted, dyed silk as well as cotton with a color that was both bright and lightfast. Perkins instantly abandoned quinine and applied for a patent for his synthetic dye, which he called mauveine after the purple flower of the mallow, Malva sylvestris. Von Hoffmann, later returning to his own country, triggered a virtual gold rush in German universities to analyze natural dyes and synthesize them, and Germany's synthetic-dye industry soon outstripped the English one that Perkins had founded.

More than 2000 synthetic dyes were patented in Germany alone in the next half-century. Because these so-called aniline dyes were cheaper than traditional natural dyes, could be produced in any quantity, and were easier and less time-consuming to use than traditional dyes, they soon invaded Turkey's carpet-weaving cottage industry.

At first, there was a backlash against synthetic dyes because some tended to run and fade when washed. However, as better anilines were produced, and European experts were brought in to supervise the new process, more dealers and weavers switched to chemicals, and by the 1880's the majority of the big manufacturing networks were using synthetic dyes, even though they did not provide the range, subtlety or harmony of color that natural dyes, used by skilled and patient hands, could produce.

While the bright colors delighted some clients, they seemed harsh to others, so merchants set about "synthesizing" the mellow look of the old carpets, too, exposing the new rugs to the elements, burying them in dung heaps or immersing them in bleach or alkali baths. Such ploys satisfied the new middle-class market, but not the more discerning clients - including the Ottoman court - who continued until about 1900 to demand naturally dyed carpets. Nomad and peasant weavers, who wove not for dealers but for their families or in order to make a pious gift to a mosque, also clung to their traditional methods, relinquishing them only on the eve of World War I.

It was in the Great War that the Turkish rug-making industry overall went into a decline from which it never completely recovered. The final blow came in the 1960's, when a new mechanized rug industry took over the small market for hand-knotted rugs, and village weavers were urged to imitate the look of machine-made carpets. Played off against one another by dealers who bid their prices down, and squeezed by inflation, the weavers could not afford to buy good wool or to spend time tying many knots. By the late 1970's, their rugs were of very poor quality indeed.

The catalyst that was to change this situation, at least for some villagers in northwestern Turkey, was Dr. Harald Böhmers, a German chemist who arrived in Istanbul from Daimehof, near Bremen, to teach chemistry, physics and biology in the German school. He and his wife, Renate, became fascinated with Turkey in general and with old Turkish carpets in particular. Böhmers is "crazy for yellow," he says - not just any yellow, but a certain mustard shade found in old Turkish carpets - and whenever possible the couple has bought rugs with the particular shade of yellow he likes.

The Böhmers were struck by the difference between the colors in museum carpets and those they found in Istanbul's bazaar, and they were frustrated by their inability to explain it. Then, in 1976, Böhmers learned of a new laboratory technique called thin-layer chromatography (TCL), a method devised by chemist Helmut Schweppe to analyze irreplaceable textiles without consuming more than a few precious grams of the fabric.

TCL relies on the fact that different chemical substances, in solution, migrate different distances across a coated glass plate because of their differing degrees of attachment to the coating material. Once separated, the components of the unknown substance - such as a dye - can be identified by the distance they have moved, and by staining them with chemicals. Using this technique in a laboratory improvised in his kitchen, Böhmers began analyzing the dyes in old rugs in his free time, comparing them with pure, known dyes and possible dyeplant sources. The impurities present in the natural dyes facilitated matching them with dyeplants indigenous to Turkey. Over 10 years, the chemist analyzed more than 300 carpets and flatweaves and some 50 plants.

Then, studying dyes from plants that grow only in certain limited areas - buckthorn (Rhamnus petiolaris), for example, which grows in a region of central Turkey - Böhmers made it possible for the first time to trace the geographic origin of some carpets by identifying the source of their colors. With a fellow teacher and rug lover, Werner Bruggemann, he began working on a book entitled Rugs of the Peasants and Nomads of Anatolia.

Looking at carpets in the villages of Anatolia, the Böhmers found no trace of the violet and golden yellow popular in nomad carpets a century before, or the soft reds and blues for which Anatolian rugs were famous. Instead, they saw handmade carpets in screaming yellows, vibrating oranges and tooth-grating greens. "It's a pity," they agreed, "all the trouble these women take in making these rugs, and they can't sell them."

There are excellent synthetic dyes available today, remarks Renate Böhmers, but the villagers tend to buy cheap, poor-quality ones. And there is another problem with anilines as well. To turn greenish yellow into a softer golden shade, she explains, a tiny amount of red is needed, but "if it is half a milligram over, it is too much. You need really good apparatus to measure milligrams, and those things they don't have in villages.... With natural dye-stuffs it doesn't matter, 10 grams more or less." Because natural dyes, unlike synthetics, contain "impurities," or tiny amounts of other colors, she adds, it is difficult to make a bad color combination with them, but with synthetics "you can make terrible things."

In 1978, Böhmers came up with what seemed like a natural idea: to help revive Turkish village weaving by reestablishing the use of organic dyes and, at the same time, reviving high standards of quality for handmade rugs. In view of renewed interest in Europe and the United States in natural products and handicrafts, he reasoned, such rugs might well find an export market.

Though the plant sources of certain colors were pinned down, the Böhmers still faced the problem of reconstructing the dyers' recipes. Scant literature existed. And when they visited the countryside, while they found a few old people who faintly recalled going out as children to collect plants for dyeing, none of them remembered how to extract color from the plants they had collected. So the Böhmers set about reinventing the craft, trying to figure out recipes and techniques that suited conditions in primitive villages. By 1981 they had a full range of recipes for basic colors - except one. Violet still eluded them.

Meanwhile, Böhmer was able to find support for his dyeing-weaving project, first in the German Ministry for Technical Cooperation and then in Istanbul's School of Fine Arts - now the Faculty of Fine Arts of Marmara University, directed by Dr. Mustafa Asher. The parties agreed that the chemist would teach three days a week, and serve as adviser to the formally named Natural Dye Research and Development Project (Dogal Boya Ara§tirma ve Geli§-tirme Projesi, or DOBAG), the other three. In 1988, the university took over full responsibility for the project.

The poor district of Ayvacik in Canakkale province was chosen to try out the idea. While some of its villages had been settled in the latter part of the 19th century by Turks from the Balkans, others had been more recently settled by nomads with deep-rooted dyeing and weaving traditions, but whose rugs had deteriorated so badly in recent decades that they had lost their markets.

Carrying leaflets with simple instructions, the Böhmers drove out into10 villages in Ayvacik in the summer of 1981, and Renate Böhmers demonstrated dyeing methods to all the women, using the ubiquitous tulip-shaped Turkish tea glass as a measure. A small carpet was woven soon thereafter and successfully test-marketed in Istanbul, and by the end of the year 20 families had made 20 carpets.

To the south of Ayvacik near Manisa an even poorer district, Yuntdag, asked to join DOBAG early in 1982, and this time the Böhmers tried a different approach. In order to maintain control over the process, they taught only a few people in each village how to dye. A young Turkish student of nomadic extraction, §erife Atlihan, who has since earned her doctorate, was hired to assist the villagers with the technical problems presented by handmade looms. Her other, more difficult, assignment was to reject rugs that did not measure up to the cooperative's standards.

And DOBAG's standards were high indeed. The cooperative would buy only rugs made with long-staple winter wool and using the traditional rug designs of the village. And, of course, only natural dyes were allowed, with the exception of indigo sulfonic acid, which is chemically identical to natural indigo. Fine knotting, which serves both to articulate designs more clearly and to enrich color, was encouraged by the device of paying by the knot, and soon women who used to make 40,000 knots in a 1.5-square-meter (16-square-foot) rug began to make 100,000 knots instead.

It takes 10 sheep to produce enough wool for a 1.5-square-meter carpet. The thicker, longer winter wool is better not only because of its length and strength, but also because it "takes the dye" more evenly than the poorer-quality summer wool. Factors such as grease content are also important: If too much lanolin is left in the wool it will repel the dye in places, resulting in a mottled effect, yet a small amount of it makes spinning easier and deepens the colors.

Before DOBAG, weavers used to sell their good winter wool in the bazaar and buy summer wool to save money - and time. Ridding winter wool of burrs, and pounding and washing it to remove the dirt and most of the lanolin, is hard work, especially because villagers depend on wells and cisterns rather than streams for water. After washing, the wool is dried on lines and carded. In the past this was done by hand; now, more often, weavers use the machine the coop owns in Ayvacik.

The wool is prepared outdoors, often by older women who were sidelined from weaving in their early 50's because of arthritis. Gnarled and calloused, the hands that for decades have sown and weeded and harvested crops, then knotted perhaps 150 rugs in a lifetime, now take over the cleaning, the spinning, some of the dyeing, and the warping of the looms.

Women as old as 90 do the hand-spinning, some with drop spindles and others with spinning wheels. Hand-spinning is still considered superior to machine spinning for carpet wool because it produces a relatively loose yarn that both exposes more surface to the dye and knots properly.

Since most natural dyes do not adhere directly to wool by themselves, the yarn is first wetted and immersed in a bath containing a mordant (from the Latin mordere, to bite), which forms a kind of bridge between the fiber and the dye. Microscopic flakes attach themselves to the fibers much as rust does, and it is these flakes that the dye molecules will penetrate, becoming lightfast and insoluble.

The type of mordant used to bond the dye to the fiber affects the outcome significantly. If alum is used for madder red, for example, a brilliant hue results, whereas an iron mordant will, as some dyers say, "sadden" the color, producing a duller, russet red. Small amounts of copper are also added to the dye bath to increase the lightfastness of the color.

Madder (Rubia tinctorium), once the most important dyeplant in Turkey and the world, produces a bright red dye if its roots are coarsely ground and soaked overnight, then steeped briefly at around 65 degrees centigrade (150°F). It also yields the so-called "second red," which is the color of cantaloupe flesh. For the first red, the wet, mordanted yarn is gently "cooked" below a simmer till the dyer sees the color she wants; then it is carefully rinsed in water containing oak ash - whose alkalinity brightens the color - and dried.

Serendipitously, madder plants grow wild in cotton fields today, stray descendants of an earlier cultivated crop, and farmers are delighted to have DOBAG villagers weed their cotton for them and cart off 10 tons of madder each summer. Dyer's weld {Reseda luteola), which makes yellow, is now being raised in some village gardens, and if the cooperative's success increases, madder may have to be cultivated once again as well.

It was only in 1983 that madder finally yielded up the secret of a lovely amethyst shade that Böhmers calls violet, another of his favorite colors found only in old nomad and village weaving. "He likes mostly the difficult ones," comments Josephine Powell, a friend of the Böhmers and DOBAG both. An ethnographer and former social worker from New York City who bounces around Turkey in an old van to study nomad and village life, it was Powell who rediscovered how to make this color, which hadn't been seen since the late 1800's.

"She started to experiment a little with her dye pots," says Böhmers, "and she found the right way. I always thought it should be more complicated, but she had the idea that it must be simple because it had been done by nomad weavers up to the late 19th century." Now the secret of madder violet is guarded by DOBAG much as the master dyers of an earlier age protected their recipes, in order to keep competitors from using them.

Although Böhmers has simplified some dying procedures, the wool's hue and colorfastness are still vulnerable to a range of circumstances and variables - often unexpected ones. Böhmers recalls being summoned to a village early on in the project by two women who demanded to know why one could get a brilliant red and the other couldn't, despite the fact that they were both following the same recipe. He watched them go through the whole process using identical steps and, to his bafflement, reach undeniably different results. Finally, he noticed that they were drawing water from two different wells 500 meters (550 yards) apart, and suggested they switch wells for another attempt. When they did, it became apparent that one woman's well-water was more alkaline than the other's, and that this accounted for her brighter red.

DOBAG's goal of reviving traditional designs and, at the same time, encouraging innovation was not easy to achieve, for many women had long relied on the ready-made patterns farmed out to them by merchants, and had forgotten how to play with design. Nineteenth-century village and nomad weavers, on the other hand, rooted in traditions dating back to the 12th century, used designs that "belonged" to their family or tribe, and generally followed their own lights in the empty spaces, or "ground," of the carpet, inserting symbols that often were far older than the craft itself - for instance, S-shaped figures that were thought to bring good luck to the owner.

In the early days of the DOBAG project, the women dredged up memories of carpets they had made or seen earlier - one recalled the design of the dowry carpet she had made 20 years before. The local mosque, which contained many layers of carpets donated over the years on the occasion of funerals or for other pious purposes, was a rich source to learn from. Ordinarily, a weaver can memorize a pattern after making it once or twice, and in time she might come to know 20 or more designs by heart.

DOBAG affected family life in the weaving villages by enabling the weavers to continue productive work at home during the cold months. Summers, most Turkish village women work in the fields, but from September to May DOBAG women fit weaving in with their household chores. Working on a loom that, typically, is a major feature of a single room containing a wood stove, kitchen utensils and a stack of sleeping mats, a weaver can tie about 5000 knots in an uninterrupted eight-hour day. During the weaving season she may make about five carpets.

Traditionally, Turkish women work together, seated side by side before the loom - which accounts for the way the left side of some Anatolian carpets differs from the right one. Girls, who often leave school after five years and usually start weaving around age 12, help their mothers at the loom, and neighbors often help each other. When two women weave together, the woman who owns the loom chooses the design and the colors, and the finished product belongs to her. Then she helps her friend make a carpet in the friend's house. If they especially like their creation, they may weave their initials into the design.

On Fridays, the rugs from the Yuntdag villages are taken to the DOBAG depot in the city of Manisa, where the women who wove them can be seen down on their knees and elbows, counting the warp and weft threads with a pencil. They multiply the two figures to get the number of knots in the carpet, which will determine their pay. One enterprising weaver in Ayvacik created a sensation a few years ago with a 740,000-knot carpet of approximately seven square meters (75 square feet) which was immediately snatched up by a visiting Londoner. Since then, a 25-square-meter (270-square-foot) rug has been sold to the British Museum.

DOBAG rugs now adorn walls and floors in homes and museums eastward to Osaka and westward to Los Angeles, and in 1989 the cooperative distributed $200,000 among its weavers - then all women. Since, a few young men have begun to take part in aspects of production, profit and prestige overcoming their reluctance to do what is traditionally women's work. Also in 1989, three villages in Yuntdag decided that their cooperatives should be run by weaving women, thereby creating what is believed to be the first women's cooperative in Turkey.

Better clothes worn by DOBAG weavers' children, dowry gold flashing on the women's necks, secondhand television sets on which their families watch Dallas, built-on weaving rooms with large windows, piped water in some villages and even an occasional refrigerator - all these things make an impression on weavers outside the cooperative, and 100 or more families are clamoring to join. But the inability of the market to absorb more than about 1,200 rugs a year has kept DOBAG from accepting more members.

In Washington in 1987, Gayle Garrett, who teaches a course on Oriental carpets at Georgetown University and sells DOBAG carpets, arranged a beautiful exhibit of the rugs at the World Bank, and two lectures for Böhmers. If anyone lacking a passion for color attended his talk at the Textile Museum, they politely avoided the question that dealers, collectors and curators sometimes debate: Is there any real difference between synthetically and naturally dyed rugs? And if there is, does it matter?

One of Böhmers's applauders in the audience, Washington dealer Harold Kesh-ishian, praises the DOBAG rugs but, like some of his colleagues, questions whether people can really see a difference in the color. "Face it," he says, "ninety-nine percent of the rugs on the market today are chemically dyed."

Those who do see a difference feel strongly that natural dyes, properly applied, are superior to synthetic dyes, but they find the quality they like difficult to describe, a matter of nuance. Nobuko Kajitani, conservator in charge of textile conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, describes it as an "es-thetically comfortable feeling."

At least part of the debate between advocates of the two different paths to color can be resolved by a chemist. According to Dr. Frank Calogero, formerly at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, there is a difference, but "each has its own mission." Calogero, an expert in fiber chemistry and dye processes, explains that synthetic dyes, with the exception of red, are more reliable, or consistent, and hence well suited for mass production.

Natural dyes, on the other hand, do produce a richer, softer color, says Calogero, but they are difficult to control, hence unsuited to producing millions of yards of identically colored yarn. Their impurities, which may comprise from five to 25 percent of the dye, consist of other hues that are similar to the main one, and "it is these mixtures," he says, "that make natural dyes so beautiful" and create their harmony with neighboring natural colors. ' Still, vagueness befogs most discussions about color. Where one person will see some purple in a hank of gray yarn, another may see only gray. The difference is partly genetic, like the ability to curl one's tongue lengthwise, and partly a matter of experience. As for figuring out whether a particular rug is synthetically or naturally dyed, Powell describes the process but cannot explain it. "You look at it and look at it," she says, until it becomes clear it is one or the other.

Even less susceptible of explanation are the ways in which taste and values interact with perception and experience. While some people seek out the near-perfect evenness of a synthetically dyed carpet, others view this evenness as flat and uninteresting. In the latter group is Virginia Tyson, an experienced dyer, spinner and weaver in Potomac, Maryland, who finds that natural dye, precisely because of its unevenness, makes color vibrate or sparkle. And for some people this "imperfection," a sign of the artist's hand working natural substances from the garden or fields, has spiritual overtones.

The debate continues in part because DOBAG, in reforging the broken link between modern weavers and those of earlier centuries, has revived old questions in an age when better understanding of science enriches their discussion. At the same time, there is what Böhmers calls the "magical fascination" of unwritten history in the carpets, which eludes purely rational contemplation. Made by eyes and hands that relay the visions and beliefs of many centuries, the carpets draw the beholder to look and look and look - perhaps to see, if only for a moment, some part or what the weaver saw.

Jane Peterson, a Washington free-lance writer who has lived and traveled in the Middle East, is presently working on a book about homeless women. She would like to thank Professor Donald Quataert of the State University of New York at Binghamton for his help in preparing this article.

This article appeared on pages 2-9 of the May/June 1991 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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