Colors & Patterns


Words and images by HALI Publications Ltd.
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Vine leaf from a curtain, Egypt, Byzantine period, 5th-6th century. Image: Cleveland Museum of Art

Summoning images of imperial robes, jewels and wine, the colour purple evokes courtly luxury, from Japan to Byzantium. To wear clothes dyed with this precious purple pigment was, for centuries, a true declaration of status, a sign of access to the rare and the beautiful.
This vine leaf (above), dyed with ‘Tyrian’ purple, once decorated what would have been a very elegant plain linen curtain. Its deep colour evokes a connection with grapes and wine, and it was probably woven in 6th-century Egypt, when the pagan cult of the wine god Dionysius still survived within the Christian Byzantine Empire.
Purple was the colour of the Byzantine court; walls and carvings were hewn from porphyry stone, and only the imperial family were permitted to wear robes dyed with the valuable pigment. The magnificent mosaics at San Vitale in Ravenna (below) depict the Byzantine Empress Theodora cloaked in a deep shade of imperial purple. The scene gives a real sense of the glamor of the court and the role of color in underlining power and taste.
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Empress Theodora and entourage, 6th-century, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna. Petar Milošević /CC BY-SA, Wikipedia.

The many hues of purple cloth may be familiar to us now, but throughout the classical and Byzantine eras, the necessary dye was hugely expensive to produce. Obtained from the murex sea snail, over 9,000 were needed to produce just one gram. However, it possessed a remarkable property; once cloth was dyed with this special pigment, the purple did not fade but instead strengthened with time.
The production of Tyrian or ‘royal’ purple ceased with the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, and soon after an alternative New World dye was discovered: Mexican cochineal. Upon the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, crimson became the color of choice for velvets and silks, but the ateliers occasionally used purple to great effect, as in an exceptional ‘ogival lattice’ silk (below, right, and background image).
Another beautiful purple silk is a magenta alaari, woven by the West African Yoruba people (below, left). It would have been wrapped around the waist as a skirt – an ‘aṣọ-òkè’ or ‘prestige cloth’ to be worn on important occasions. Interestingly, the silk fibres were not local, but instead imported from Europe as a waste product of the textile industry, and reworked in imaginative, symbolic forms. 


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Left: 'Aso oke', Karun Thakar Collection. Right: 'Ogival lattice' silk; Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The field color of this striking Aksaray flatweave kilim (below) is rare and generally referred to as ‘aubergine’, which is perhaps misleading as the wool is actually dyed with the root of the madder plant. Using a natural or vegetal pigment to dye wool in batches produces variation in the color, or ‘abrash’, when it is woven. This creates a beautiful, striated tonality, widely sought after by collectors.
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Aksaray kilim, central Anatolia, circa 1800 or earlier. Courtesy Rippon Boswell, Wiesbaden.

Madder is used to dye not only wool but also silk. An Uzbek ikat silk fabric contrasts two shades - plum and burgundy - set off by tiny dots of indigo (below). It is an example of the sophisticated silk and cotton ikats produced in the Central Asian oasis kingdoms, centered around Bukhara and Samarkand in modern day Uzbekistan. The process of dyeing and weaving such impressive textiles was a multi-ethnic endeavor, reflecting the diversity of Central Asia and its situation at the heart of the Silk Road. 


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Uzbek ikat silk fabric. Courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

Red and yellow dyes were controlled primarily by Tajiks, indigo blue by Jews, and Uzbeks wove most of the half-silk, half-cotton textiles (see example below). The silk thread is typically polished to give it a glossy lustre, accentuating the shimmering, blurred beauty of the textile. Appropriately, in Central Asia ikats are given the name ‘abr’, meaning ‘cloud’ in Persian, and the master who ties the warps the ‘abrbandachi’ – he who binds together clouds.


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Silk warp ikat, Afghanistan. Courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

In Turkmen weaving, purple is mostly associated with Arabachi weavings, achieved using Mexican cochineal, sometimes mixed with madder. The difference of the bright red has made some suspect that the red is synthetic, but it is madder, the effect being aesthetic and the result of tonal contrast (see the example below).
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Arabachi Turkmen chuval, Turkmenistan, mid 19th-century. Courtesy Austria Auction Company, Vienna.

A beautiful 17th-century silk (below) points to the continued use of purple in the context of luxurious fabrics. Attributed to Spain or Northern Europe, the elegant lattice design harks back to Italian silks of the 14th and 15th centuries. The prestige associated with purple in the ancient world reemerged in the second half of the 19th century in Europe and North America due to the discovery of the first aniline dyes by William Perkins in 1856. Mauvine, the first dye revealed by accident in his experiments on coal tar or coke, was quickly taken up by leading women of the period, such as Queen Victoria and Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, and again therefore spread quickly in elite circles.
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European silk textile, c. 17th-century, Courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.


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