How did synthetic dyes replace natural dyes?


Inspired by a series of international expositions between 1851 and 1876, Europe's new industrial middle class lined its sitting-rooms with hand-knotted rugs from Anatolia, Azerbaijan, Iran, North Africa, Central Asia and India. 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 dye plants that were not cultivated crops.


An 18-year-old English chemistry student, 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.
Mauveine (aniline purple) was instantly successful and so Perkin, using the same method - oxidizing aniline - went on to produce fuchsin, a crimson or magenta colour, and then blues and greens.

By 1868 German chemists had synthesized alizarin, which is the main colourant contained in the natural vegetable colour source madder, to produce colours that range from violet to yellow in the spectrum. This was the first time a natural dye substance was prepared by chemical means. In the 1870s azo dyes appeared, having previously been discovered in 1858 by a German, Johann Peter Griess. Azo dyes come in all colours and need no mordant.

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 Middle East 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. Only nomad and peasant weavers, who wove not for dealers but for their families or in order to make a pious gift to a mosque, clung to their traditional methods.

With the establishment of the Soviet reign in Azerbaijan, the quality of rugs started to fall, usage of natural dyes and handspun wool had dramatically decreased, only some nomad and peasant weavers, who wove not for commercial purposes but for their own families, used ancient traditional methods of their ancestors in the beginning of the Soviet Period. It was during World War II that Azerbaijanís village rug weaving overall went into a decline from which it never completely recovered. In the 1960's, carpet-weaving artels took over the village hand-knotted rugs, and village weavers (except some remote mountainous villages) were urged to use chemical dyes, to use machine-spun yarns and even sometimes to imitate the look of machine-made carpets. In this way, the tradition of the ancestors was mostly forsaken.

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