Jon Thompson



Some Observations on Color in Carpets

What strikes one today, looking at woolen carpets six hundred and more years old is not only the extraordinary brightness, clarity, stability and range of colors in use, but also the harmonious and pleasing quality of the colors that the dyers were able to achieve using a variety of naturally occurring substances derived from plants, insects and minerals. Recently much work has been done by dye chemists to discover the composition and sources of the dyes used in traditional technology. We now know that centuries of experimentation enabled dyers to establish which plants provided stable colors, especially yellows, which are often unstable to light. It has also established something of more subtle interest: that many dye plants contain not one color-yielding substance but several. For example madder (Rubia tinctorum) yields three major and as many as fifteen minor dyestuffs. As a result, the light reflected from the surface of madder-dyed wool includes a spread of wavelengths. Experiments show that when this occurs, such dyes are perceived as pleasing and harmonious. Dyers knew this intuitively and some yellow dyes, which reflect light in a narrow waveband, were ‘sweetened’ by adding red to broaden the band of wavelengths reflected and thus improve their acceptability. Many synthetic dyes reflect light in a very narrow waveband and are accordingly perceived as harsh and ‘strident’. Their advent has served to reveal the remarkable level of skill and instinctive understanding of color achieved by dyers, whose work in the past has contributed to the important place of carpets in the Islamic world.

DR. JON THOMPSON recently retired as May Beattie Fellow in Carpet Studies at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology and the Khalili Research Centre, at the University of Oxford. He continues to teach courses at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, and at the Victoria and Albert Museum. He is the author of numerous publications on carpets, including Timbuktu to Tibet, Exotic Rugs & Textiles from New York Collectors (2008), Milestones in the History of Carpets (Moshe Tabninia, 2006), Silk 13th to 18th Centuries: Treasures from the Museum of Islamic Art Qatar (National Council for Culture, Art and Heritage, Doha, 2004), Hunt for Paradise, Court Arts of Safavid Iran 1501–1576 (co-editor and co-author, Asia Society, 2003), The Nomadic Peoples of Iran (co-editor and co-author, Azimuth Editions, 2002), Textiles through the Ages (co-editor and co-author, Ashmolean Museum, 2002), Silk, Carpets and the Silk Road (NHK Culture Center Tokyo, 1988) and Carpet Magic (Barbican Art Gallery, 1983). Prior to his distinguished career as a specialist in the arts of the carpet, Dr. Thompson was a consultant physician at The London Hospital, Bethnal Green (1973–79), and a Lecturer in Medicine at University College Hospital, London (1969–73) and The London Hospital, Whitechapel (1966–69).

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