History of Synthetic Dyes
The journey into the realm of synthetic and semi-synthetic dyes began with studies in the late 18th century mostly in Germany for example by Barth (indigo carmine, 1743) following studies in France and Britain.
‘Paris Green’, also known as copper acetoarsenite, is a toxic synthetic green pigment that was commonly used in the 19th and early 20th centuries as a colorant in paints, wallpapers, fabrics, and even as an insecticide. It has a bright green color and was highly valued for its intense hue and durability. It was discovered in the early 19th century, around 1814, by Wilhelm Dye and White Lead Company. Its name “Paris green” comes from its bright green color and its use as a pigment in various forms of art and decoration. Unfortunately, Paris Green contains arsenic, a highly toxic substance, which poses significant health risks to those who worked with it or were exposed to materials containing it. It was eventually phased out of use due to its toxicity and replaced with safer alternatives in the latter half of the 20th century.
Paris Green is a historical example of how the lack of awareness about the dangers of certain chemicals and substances could lead to the widespread use of hazardous materials.
The first synthetic dye used in history is often attributed to Sir William Henry Perkin, who discovered the synthetic dye known as mauveine (or mauve) in 1856. Perkin’s accidental discovery of this purple dye while attempting to synthesize quinine from coal tar marked the beginning of the synthetic dye industry.
Fuchsine, also known as magenta or basic fuchsin, is a bright pink or magenta dye. It was discovered by French chemist François-Emmanuel Verguin in 1858, shortly after Perkin discovered mauveine. Fuchsine was an important development in the field of synthetic dyes and became widely used in the textile industry.
Aniline is a key compound in the production of synthetic dyes. It is a precursor used to create various synthetic dyes, including mauveine and fuchsine. The synthesis of aniline from coal tar derivatives was achieved by German chemist Otto Unverdorben in 1826, well before the discoveries of mauveine and fuchsine. The ability to produce aniline from coal tar was crucial for the development of synthetic dye chemistry.
The world of carpets is a vibrant tapestry woven with intricate patterns and designs and a rich history of dyeing techniques that spans centuries. Carpets have long been a canvas for artistic expression, with dyeing techniques pivotal in bringing intricate designs to life. The introduction of synthetic dyes, while revolutionary in its own right, brought both innovation and a set of challenges to the world of carpet manufacturing. In this article, I would like to share information about the history of synthetic dyes and their adverse effects on carpets.
The most important discovery in the early history of aniline took place when Perkin, identified in coal-tar benzene a related product that he called mauveine, which produced purple. Perkin then went on to identify a process to consistently produce the first synthetic dyes. Shortly afterwards the French scientist, Antoine Béchamp, developed a new method of producing a range of aniline dyes on an industrial scale. These dyes changed the nature of colour production (techniques, economics, social structures) within the textile and carpet industry throughout the world. In particular, the production of aniline dyes led to the creation of a massive dye industry in Germany under the name of BASF (Badische Anilin- und Soda-Fabrik), which supplied aniline dyes to many countries around the world at that time. These dyes presented an expansive array of colours, from brilliant reds to deep blues and lush greens. From the invention of Perkin in 1856, to the publication of the first edition of the Colour Index in 1924, more than 1200 synthetic organic colourants were introduced. Some achieved commercial success, while others were rarely used for reasons such as high cost, low fastness, and toxicity.
Sir William Perkin’s (1838-1907) original stoppered bottle of mauveine dye, labeled “Original Mauveine.”
A length of dress fabric and a silk skein both dyed with mauveine, mounted in a wooden frame.
An example synthetic dyed, color bleeding silk rug
Above the right photo, I would like to share with you an example of a silk carpet that we encountered recently. This carpet’s bleeding color is almost like a watercolor painting when it comes into contact with water or when liquid is spilled on it, as a result of improper dyeing processes.
Unfortunately, many carpets in the market are dyed improperly or using synthetic dyes unconsciously, without any knowledge of the material and dyes. Creating vivid and shiny colors for commercial purposes and concerns, deceiving customers, and selling them these carpets, is unfair to the weavers and unfair to the customers who buy them.
As I have been in the kilim & carpet business for many years, I had the opportunity to buy and sell many antique carpets and kilims in this period, as well as our experienced team in antique carpet cleaning, the training, and books we own about carpet history & weaving, our natural dye researches, my knowledge of chemistry, and as a result of our conversations with doyens; I can summarize the disadvantages of synthetic dyes and some of natural dyes (with less colorfastness, inexperienced or improper dyeing techniques);
Fading and Colorfastness: A common thread among these dyes is the issue of fading. The vibrancy they brought to carpets often waned over time due to light exposure, washing, and regular use, leading to a loss of their original allure.
Color Bleeding ( Dye Bleeding / Dye Run): During the dyeing process, a chemical bond forms between the wool fiber and the dye substance. This bonding influences whether or not the color will tend to bleed/run or it will stick fast onto the fiber. (Colorfastness) Some synthetic dyes can not bond strongly with the fiber. Instead, they just stay on the top of the fiber, coloring it superficially rather than bonding to it. When this happens, the color tends to run or bleed when it is washed in water.
Environmental Concerns: The production of these synthetic dyes generated environmental concerns due to the toxic byproducts and waste they produced. The use of heavy metals in chrome dyes raised questions about their impact on the ecosystem and human health.
Artistry and Authenticity: The advent of synthetic dyes shifted the focus away from traditional dyeing techniques that held cultural and historical significance. This transition impacted the authenticity and uniqueness of handmade carpets, as the brilliance of synthetic colors sometimes overshadowed the subtleties of natural hues.
Cultural Clash: In regions with rich rug-weaving traditions, like Persia, Turkey & Central Asia, the intrusion of synthetic dyes disrupted the cultural significance of traditional color palettes. This clash between synthetic vibrancy and historical resonance strained the cultural identity of carpets.
Future Health Risks: Every new invention also makes us think about the risks that may occur in the future that we cannot foresee at the moment. As a current example, the future effects of COVID-19 vaccines are still a matter of curiosity. We do not know what will happen to us in the future with the synthetic dyes used in carpets or clothes. But natural dyes have been used for centuries and their full effects are known.
The harm of lead-containing dyes to our health is very clear. The fact that the use of Azo dyes is banned in most of the Western world, but still used and not controlled by many countries, further reveals our clear attitude towards opposition to synthetic dyes and motivates us in our fight for the use of natural dyes.
The introduction of synthetic dyes like fuchsine, aniline dyes, and later modern chrome dyes may have expanded the vivid color spectrum in carpet making, but their detrimental effects on carpets cannot be overlooked. The fading brilliance, environmental concerns, eroding craftsmanship, and cultural discord, unknown future risks, created a complex legacy. As we step onto these carpets, we tread upon a history woven with both the allure and the enduring challenges of synthetic dyes, serving as a reminder of the multifaceted impact on the world of textiles.
The Pazyryk rug is one of the oldest carpets in the world, dating around the 4th–3rd centuries BC.
Mamluk Rug with Cup Motif