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Central Asian Dyes

January 2010

Two sources identify vegetable dyestuffs, one early in the Russian period, another two decades later.  The first list comes from the polytechnic exhibition of 1872;[1]. the second, materials sent to the Chicago Exposition of 1893 by the Turkestan Governor General. [2]. Turkestan was a special government jurisdiction which included all of Russian Central Asia -- today’s Turkmen, Kazak, Uzbeg, etc. republics. 

The Khiva and Bukhara khanates remained officially independent into the 20th century and seem to be outside the scope of these lists.  Synthetic dyes arrived first in the area’s northern tier; the khan of Khokand, for example, banned their use at about the time of the 1872 compilation. Turkmen territory, the southern rim, received them somewhat later, varying, of course, by location but generally a bit after 1890.

Terms used here, presumably Turkic, are transliterated from Russian and some of the resulting English may have a double distortion.

The 1872 List

  • Ruyan’ – madder, grown in the area, especially Kokhand; it can be found in the wild; it is used for the coloring of silk and of mats.

  • Isparyak’ – yellow zhivokoct’ grows wild in abundance in the neighborhood of Tashkent and other places; it yields a fine yellow color, which is used for dyeing silk and yarns.

  • Pugak – fungus [gubka] growing on mulberry trees and used for dyeing sheepskin coats in a muddy yellow-green; a lot of it is brought out of Khokand

  • Tukhmyak’ – the flowers of saphora Japonica, a shrub growing in local gardens; from the flowers of this shrub they obtain a green dye, but the use of it by and large is not extensive.

  • Gul’khairi – the flower of black hollyhock, grown in gardens as a beautiful plant; it is used, although rarely, for dyeing silk in a black color.

  • Narpuc’ – pomegranate rind, in large quantities, is imported from Namangan; used for the making of black.

  • Kyzil’-Bakam’ – sandalwood, imported from Russia and used as a red dye for silk and chamois; since the importing of fuksin the use of sandalwood and cochineal has considerably diminished.

  • Kara-Bakam – Brazil wood imported from Russia for dyeing in a warm-violet color.

  • Buzgunch – galls from the leaves of the pistachio tree, used as a tanning substance.

  • Kermyak’ – rhubarb root, growing in abundance in neighboring mountains, used for tanning leather.

  • Nil’ – indigo, found on sale in several types; all these come from India and have great use in the art of dyeing, both for coloring all shades of light blue and in a green color, which is achieved through dipping material of a given color into an indigo solution.

  • Asil’ren’ -- cochineal, imported from Bukhara and used for dyeing silk in a red color; it costs 3 rubles a funt’ [pound]; in Tashkent in the spring, on young leaves of ash and other trees, it is possible to find cochineal, but the natives, at least up until now didn’t make use of it.

If, when making [perechislennym’] a more intense dye, the local chrnila-ciyi is added by the natives to the recipe; and if such material is counted, the list of local dyes will be longer.

Siyai – in association with black tush’ is prepared as follows: in a smallish cup they fire linseed oil and collect lamp black, created by burning; they boil the resulting soot with rice and water; then harden the oil to a considerable thickness and use it as sizing for wallpaper, and for painting rooms black.

Overall – Neighborhood dyestuff establishments which dye yarns and fabrics make only a light blue color; dyeing of other colors is involved with particular masters of this work, preparing each time the necessities for dyes in the required color strength; dyeing of silk, for example, is almost exclusively done by Bukhara Jews.

The 1893 list

  • Marina (madder) roots.

  • Saf-flower seeds; the dried flowers of this plant yield a red dye, cartamin, insoluble in water.

  • Seeds of wild plants Kermek (Rheum Emodii) and Taran (Rheum spiciforma); the roots contain a tannin substance employed by dyers for fixing colors.

  • Seeds of ‘Ispariak’-- yellow larkspur (Delphinium hybridum var. Sulphureum) grows wild and yields a good yellow dye; Tukhmiakflowers of the tree Sophoria Japonica yield a good green dye.

  • Galy buzgunch -- gallnut, growing on leaves of the pistachio tree; its deconcoction serves as a mordant for black and other dyes.

  • Bark of the balanstine [pomegranate] Anarpust’; serves as a mordant for black dye.

[1] Obshchestvo liubitelei estestvoznaiiya antropologii i etnografii, Politekhnicheskoi vystavka, 1872, sbornike politekhnicheskoi vystavki, vypuske vgoroi, Vol 2, pp. 14/15, 1872. 

[2] Catalogue of the Russian Section, World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893, pp. 212/213.


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