Neutrals, primaries, or rich jewel-like tones — there is a rug or kilim that will not only complement it, but will also make a positive contribution to the appearance of a room. Rugs are made in every colour that can be created by dyeing wool, from the soft browns and pinks of the Afghan kilim to the rich reds and blues of traditional Turkish tribal knotted rugs. There are the bright kilims whose tones and bold geometric patterns are at home with brilliant contemporary colours. And then there is the gabbeh, a type of rug that is uniquely modern in many ways, including its use of colour.

The colours of all these different types of rug, the richness and variety of their tones, are their most immediate charm. The colours sing out to us, communicating in a way that is direct, primitive, and seductive. But the rugs in our homes are not only beautiful in themselves; they are the culmination of a magnificent history of skill in using colour and pattern in weaving.

Turkish Rugs (15)Colour is a fundamental part of the nomadic weavers’ creations, and of their rug’s or kilim’s appeal. Traditionally, the colours at their disposal were not huge in range, depending upon the available dyes, but they were rich in tone. The weaver’s great skill was in balancing the available colours and combining them in a satisfying composition.

It is interesting to discover, therefore, that these colours we admire were not always as we see them. The colours on a rug might well have been quite different when the rug was being woven. With a rug that is fifty or a hundred years old, this is not so surprising. You would expect the harsh sunlight of the Middle East to bleach colour from almost any material over a period of time.

But the colours of modern rugs, too, have been altered. Before being exported, rugs of all ages go through a thorough process of washing, sunning, mending, and any other adjustments that the agent or dealer feels are necessary to bring the rug to the height of its beauty before it is dispatched to the discerning collector abroad. Some, after all, will have been on the floor of a nomad’s tent for several years, decades even, being walked on (albeit without shoes) and having the dust of the sandy hillside trodden into them.

The preparation process is in five parts. Firstly, the rug is beaten in a machine to remove the bulk of the dust and dirt. If there is an unacceptable amount of fluff on the back of the rug, this is singed off with a giant blowtorch. Any bad holes are stabilized with a few large stitches to prevent them from becoming worse during washing.

Turkish Rugs (2)Secondly, the rug is washed with water and a solution of calcium hypochlorite to give the colours a slight golden glow, before it is rinsed and dried in the sun. The washing takes place on a sloping concrete floor with water faucets along the upper edge. The rugs are scrubbed by men each holding a “kaj bill,” a long-handled tool with a flat metal head used to rake the pile vigorously up and down while at the same time they walk on it in rubber boots.

The third step is to send the rug to a remote place such as the town of Yazigol, where it lies for up to three months, its colours softening in the sunlight. Then it returns to the washing factory for the fourth stage, another thorough wash. This time shampoo is used, as well as chemical solutions that soften the wool, reduce any garish colours, and give the pile added shine. The rug is then treated with conditioner and rinsed, before being spun in a “hydro extractor” (otherwise known as an industrial spin dryer) and dried in the sun again.

Once you have seen the treatment to which rugs are subjected in a washing factory, you appreciate what superbly hardwearing objects they are. Any apprehension you might have had about cleaning the occasional spill or mark on your rug disappears (though it is always important to use only gentle chemicals for spot-cleaning, definitely not bleach)

The yard of a washing factory is a fine sight, with acres of rugs lying on pebbles to dry, or hung on rails around the edge. A huge beating machine, 20 feet high, dominates one corner, while in another a group of men sit, mending rugs that have holes or damaged fringes. This and any colour retouching is the final stage of preparing the rug for sale.

Turkish Rugs (3)Colour retouching is known as “painting” and involves the workman literally painting colour back into a rug where dark blue colours have faded dramatically, upsetting the balance of tones in the rug’s design. Painting is considered a normal part of preparing a rug for sale in the wider market and does not detract from its value — rather the opposite, in fact, since its appearance is improved. Besides blue, the colour most frequently painted is bright orange, which is toned down with strong tea.

There are ways of checking whether a rug has been painted. A skillful painter paints only to the edge of the colour he is  retouching; a less skillful one misses slightly here and there, which can easily be seen with careful inspection. The bottom of the pile can be revealing: if blue areas have been painted, the fibers near to the warp and weft will be a shade of dark gray, while the back in these areas will probably still be dark blue. Another test is simply to spit on your finger and rub the pile: a bluish shadow will appear on your finger if the pile has been painted.

The story of colour in rugs begins, of course, with the wool itself. In June the sheep are taken to the river for a preliminary wash and are then shorn. The wool is washed again, carded, and spun. The Turkoman women use a spindle that has a central metal stalk, from which protrude four curved, black plastic prongs, pointing upwards and reminiscent of the small animal horns which, together with wood, was what the spindle was originally made from. If she is not doing anything else, a woman will take her spindle out of her pocket and spin as she stands, walks, or sits. Spinning is a constant background activity for Turkoman women.

Turkish Rugs (4)Wool is sorted into yarn for warp and weft threads on the one hand, and yarn for knotting on the other. The latter is then dyed while the other is left its natural cream, grey, or brown. Some tribes, including the Turkoman, have a tradition of also dyeing the yarn for weft threads. If you look at the back of an old Turkoman rug, you will sometimes find another entire pattern, different from the front, because the weft threads are red or pink, sometimes with alternating irregular stripes of these two, and other, natural colours. Occasionally you will also find blue weft threads, probably in a rug from Konya and other parts of central Turkey.

Dyeing is a huge and fascinating subject in itself. Today, various types of both natural and chemical dyes are used to colour the wool for rugs. The aim is to produce yarn of the most desirable colours, and while some natural dyes continue to be used because they are readily available and effective, other less effective ones have been replaced by chemical dyes that are more reliable, colourfast, and do not rot or otherwise damage the yarn.

The history of dyes can give clues to the date of a rug. Indigo, for example, is a historic dye that features in ancient African legends and is believed to have been one of the ingredients in the blue woad that barbaric Britons used to decorate themselves, with the intention of terrifying the enemy in battle. Almost everywhere in the world it was found, however, indigo was a revered and relatively rare ingredient.

The Turkish people were able to cultivate the Indigofera plant in a few areas and produce a small amount of indigo dye. Otherwise, it was imported from India. Blue, its beauty enhanced by its rarity and value, became one of the central colours of tribal weavers’ designs. Indigo’s tendency to fade was to a certain extent part of its perceived charm. Today, by contrast, synthetic indigo dye, chemically identical to the original, is easily available and the popularity of the colour blue has, if anything, increased.

Weavers and workshops understand that blue is an appealing colour to those of us who are the rugs’ ultimate  customers. Blue is therefore used freely in contemporary rugs, which are known as “new production.” The blue is no less beautiful because it is created by a synthetic dye; on the contrary, it is not the dyestuff that gives the wool its beauty, or even the fact that it has been dyed by hand.

Turkish Rugs (5)The element that gives the wool used to make Turkish tribal rugs its wonderful depth and variety is the fact that it has been carded and spun by hand. This means that the yarn is not perfectly even in thickness, even when it appears so to the naked eye. When the yarn is dyed, the finished colour is correspondingly slightly uneven, with tiny subtle variations that cause it to “sing” to the human eye, making it ever a pleasure to look at. This quality is unaffected by the method of dyeing, be it by an individual tribeswoman, by men in an outdoor factory, or by machine. In all these cases, the dye and the fibers of the wool form a chemical bond (providing the dye is administered correctly), which prevents the colour from washing out. This is the difference between a dye and a stain, which is potentially fugitive.

Occasionally a rug includes areas of colour created by machine-dyed wool or acrylic fibers in garish colours. These are more than distinctive — they leap out at you — and such a rug is extremely unlikely to be chosen by an agent or dealer for export from Turkey, even if (and this is rare indeed, but not unknown) the acrylic adds a dash of brilliance or humour to an otherwise sober composition. The dealer would simply be taking too great a risk. Hand-dyed wool is preferred because it has subtle variations that give life to the surface of the pile  even when the rug appears at first glance to have a field of flat colour.

The principal colours that are still made using natural dyes are reds of all hues and yellows. Shades of red are drawn from two separate ingredients, the madder plant (known locally as “runas”) and small female beetles of the Coccus cacti (cochineal) family. To make dye from the madder plant, the root is dug up in October or November, when it is between three and nine years old (the older the plant, the darker the red). The root is then dried, ground, and boiled, and the resulting colour can be a purplish-red like wine, or it can veer towards orange.

Cochineal, like indigo, was once imported from India and used almost exclusively in eastern Turkey. In western Turkey the weavers tended to use the madder plant because it grew wild and was thus freely available, and free. The use of cochineal is fairly widespread today, however, and the dye is mainly imported from Mexico.

Turkish Rugs (6)Women in the tribes still dye a certain amount of yarn themselves. They make or buy the dyes, then boil the yarn in them, having first soaked it in a mordant (or having added mordant to the dye), which enables the dye to adhere to the wool fibers. The final colour of the yarn is influenced by a number of factors that will never all be exactly the same twice: the age of the dye plant (or concentration of dye), the type and intensity of the mordant, the hardness of the water, its temperature and the container in which it is heated, and the relative oiliness of the wool.

Chemical dyes have been welcomed to replace certain natural dyes that actually harmed the wool — oak galls, for example, used to make black and brown, contain salts that cause the woolen fibers to wear rapidly. Other natural dyes such as the yellow drawn from saffron were known to fade.

There are various reasons, some more valid than others, why natural as opposed to chemical dyes are perceived as being  desirable. One is that all things natural are seen as eco-friendly (or at least, the Western customer is believed to prefer them); another reason is anthropological — it is a loss to all mankind when human skills disappear, replaced by manufactured goods, especially skills in which man interacts with his environment, as in the knowledge and gathering of dyeing ingredients.

Turkish Rugs (7)A third reason is historical. Invented by Sir William Henry Perkin, an Englishman, in 1856, the first chemical dyes were accidentally discovered in the quest for a synthetic form of the medicine quinine. Known as aniline dyes, they were bright and inexpensive, and were soon widely used across the world. They proved to be unreliable, however: colours faded dramatically, as can be seen in many a Victorian lady’s embroidery.

In the meantime, however, Turkish rug makers had adopted aniline dyes with enthusiasm. The reputation of the Turkish rug industry (a vital part of the economy) was at stake, and aniline dyes were forbidden in 1903. Anyone who used them risked having an arm amputated or their workshop burnt down. This experience of aniline dyes has not been forgotten, even though modern chromatic chemical dyes are unrelated to their aniline forebears, and are colourfast and reliable. Most handmade rugs are today made from a mixture of wools dyed using natural and chemical ingredients, the best of each.

In order to obtain chemically dyed wool, Turkoman tribes-women either obtain dye from a local bazaar, or they sell yarn and buy ready-dyed wool with the proceeds. They can also supply undyed yarn to an agent, who returns them dyed wool for a fee (probably their own yarn, since the Turkoman are the major producers of wool in southern Turkey). Parcels of yarn, already dyed in various colours, are supplied to settled weavers who are working on commissioned pieces.

Turkish Rugs (8)Wool that is supplied to the weaver (or bought from a stall of the bazaar) has not necessarily been dyed by machine. Dyeing factories are often low-tech establishments where the main (possibly the only) difference between “home” and “factory” dyeing is the scale of the operation. At a dyeing factory on the outskirts of Antalya, in the south of Turkey, the process is much as it would be outside a Turkoman tent, but on a larger scale.

Here, yarn is immersed in large rectangular vats, each of which requires 1,300 gallons of water for 660 pounds of wool. Each tank has a domed boiler in the base for heating or boiling the wool for anywhere up to seven hours, after which it steeps for up to a further 24 hours (each colour has a different recipe).

After dyeing, the bundles of wool tied with coloured twine lie on the ground to dry in the sun. The entire process takes place in the open air, all year round, operated by men with the aid of machines such as boilers and hydro extractors. The same dyes are used (some natural, some chemical), and different tones emerge for the same reasons as when the wool is dyed by individuals.

Factories such as this supply wool ready-dyed (naturally and chemically) to retained rug makers in the villages. The worker is paid for his or her labor, and the rug is weighed when finished to ensure that it contains an amount of wool equal to that supplied.

Turkish Rugs (10)Interestingly, while in the tribes it is the women who spin, dye, and weave (in addition, apparently, to doing all the other work except tending the herds), in the villages and town bazaars like Antalya, weavers are of both sexes, while dyers and the workshop overseers are invariably men.

One of the most appealing results of the yarn having been dyed by hand is the “abrash.” This is a streakiness in what would otherwise be a flat area of colour, on the field of a rug. The word itself is derived from a Turkish word referring to the dapples on a horse. Some abrashes are hardly visible; others are extremely noticeable. Abrashes are the result of two possible events. Either the weaver has changed from one batch of dyed wool to another whose colour is not exactly the same; or it is caused by the batch or skein of yarn being of slightly uneven colour.

These subtle changes in colour occur in a batch of yarn because, having been spun as well as dyed by hand, the strands are marginally thicker in some places than others, and have consequently absorbed less dye. The varying thickness of the fibers themselves can also be the cause of subtly uneven colour in a single skein of yarn, as can the amount of lanolin fat the wool contains, and the extent to which minute air bubbles cling to the fibers during the dyeing process.

Abrashes do not make a tribal rug less valuable — rather the opposite, since they are a reminder of the fact that this is a handmade work of craftsmanship, created by an individual, not a factory. A machine-made rug looks mechanical; a handmade one, especially a tribal piece, has subtle variations of colour that breathe life into it, give it added visual interest and character, and contribute to its growing beauty over the years.

One of the ways in which it is possible to identify which tribe has made a rug is its use of colour. Antalya rugs, for  example, have strong, deep colours. The red is particularly beautiful, being a glowing ruby colour. Another significant tribe, the Lori, is fond of red, theirs being strong and deep, ialouch rugs also use red (as indeed do all the tribes, the dye jeing readily available and free), but with more white than most other tribes, usually with strong areas of blue and black or dark brown.

The symbolism and hidden meaning of the colours found in Turkish rugs is a perennial source of fascination. Grey, for example, has been described as being the colour of secrets and withdrawal (the latter being a not inaccurate description of its effect in a design) while yellow, the colour of sunlight, spoke of plenty, riches, power, and the attainment of happiness. Orange was said to evoke tenderness and devotion, purple self-determination and magic.

Turkish Rugs (11)Though charming and poetic, the significance of colour can be a disappointing theme to pursue into the modern world, however. Whatever meaning the colours once had, they are largely lost to the tribes, who choose and use colour in their rug designs according only to availability, tradition, and aesthetic considerations. Their instinct is always to decorate, and the increasingly easy availability of dyed yarn is a delight to them, one that overcomes any distant, half-forgotten symbolism.

Green, for example, was the colour of the banners of the first Muslim troops, and was therefore too holy to be trodden underfoot, even without shoes. In fact, green is quite often found, albeit generally in small but telling areas.

In decorating terms, the most significant colour in a rug is generally that of the ground, the area inside the border and outside the central motif or medallion. The overall tone of a rug that has a detailed design covering the whole field is also important. If you can’t decide what this is at a glance, take a step back and screw up your eyes. This should give you a better impression of the overall hue. In tribal rugs reds, rich browns, and blues predominate. These colours obviously complement the mellow colour of polished antique furniture and wooden floors, and the patina of well-worn terracotta tiles.

Kilims, by nature of their bold geometric patterns, tend to look as nice in contemporary as in older surroundings, as do gabbehs, which are particularly well suited to modern interiors because of their free-form designs and light, vibrant colours.