Persian dyes

Category: General

by Ehsan Afzalzadeh Naini, Iran Rug Company
Iran Rug Co has established a laboratory and is running a research project on vegetal dyes

Oldest signs of mankind’s use of dyes go back 150 to 200 thousand years ago. Some cylinder bones containing ochre and oily solutions are found and estimated to have that age. In west Iran (Persia), some beautiful dishes and glasses having paintings and drawings of animals in black, purple and red colors on a crème or white-yellow background, belonging to the “Susa” civilization (3000 BC) are found.


‘Medes’ (2000 BC) used dyed animal fibers. The purple mantles that army commanders of the powerful ‘Achaemenid Empire’ (1300 BC) used, were famous. These clothes were dyed using a special shell. The ‘Achemenians’ supported industries and brought glory to the trade.

The ‘Pazyryk’ carpet – the oldest known carpet, proves the complex and advanced weaving and dying industry in old Persia. It is indeed a Persian rug since it contains absolute Persian signs and motifs, similar to those on ‘Persepolis’ walls.

Before synthetic dyes were used, all dyes were made using natural and vegetal sources. Chemical compound extracted from coal and then oil expanded the chemical dye producing industry. Many rug producers now use chemical dyes as it is much easier and cheaper, but most Persian producers still insist on natural dyes since they cause no side effects and health problems.

Dye bath
Dye bath

Persian dyes
Presence of color in human life is because of its integration with nature, but oriental colors express people’s feelings and their reflex to exterior tensions. During certain eras, Persians developed color as a powerful mean of expression in fine and decorative arts. Undoubtedly the mystic and subjective ideas of Persians contributed a lot to development in use of color in traditional Persian arts like Ceramics, Miniature, and tile-works.

Persians, for sure, were masters of using colors in weaving, painting and carpet weaving during 8th century till the end of ‘Safawids’. Some of the remaining masterpieces are shown in the greatest museums of the world. The colors are still in glory after more than 500 years. Persian dyeing masters lovingly spent days on making a dye for a carpet and created ever lasting, unique colors.

Contrary to what people think, the number of materials used to make different dyes is small. Most of these dyes are a mixture of few primary elements like ‘Red grain’, ‘Runas’, ‘Walnut peel’, ‘Vine leaf’ and some other herbs depending on the area.

Runas (Dyer’s madder)
Most precious natural vegetal dyeing element. The plant grows all over Iran but gains the best quality in deserts. It contains different pigments like ‘alizarine’ (brick red), ‘pupurine’ (purple), and ‘rumiadine’ (red-purple), which differs upon the climate. To process the Runas, they dry the roots of the plant after pulling them out in late autumn. As per requirement, they grind the needed amount and mix it with other elements. It gives great looking buff, orange, red, brown, purple and green colors when mixed with other pigments like walnut peel and indigo. Also crimson –the most common color in hand woven carpets, is made of Runas.


Red grain(Cochineal)
Brilliant ruby color used in east Iran carpets is obtained from a little insect called kermis, after the Persian word QHERMEZ, meaning ‘red’. Kerman city is also believed to be named after that –the city used to be a source of export. All the body of this insect contains red pigments, the ground of which is solvable in water. It gives amazing different colors of pink to deep purple in reaction with metallic compounds.

Neel (Indigo)
Natural indigo is known for centuries and has been cultivated in India and south Iran. It gives a deep blue color on cotton fibers, and also due to it’s alkaline nature, is able of dyeing wool. Although it’s a barrel dye and has a complex and hard method of using, it is used for making blue and green colors.

Other vegetal dyes are used locally, according to availability and local traditions.

Ehsan Afzalzadeh Naini, Iran Rug Company, 19 May 2005 

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