Natural Dyes here in Oaxaca

2 January 2015

Three natural dyes are highly touted here: Indigo, cochineal and caracol purpura. There have been some recent museum exhibitions featuring these 3 dyes.

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This is a piece in the current exhibition at Museo Textil de Oaxaca (MTO) with indigo, cochineal and caracol purpura. This is wool and has been woven in 3 panels , the are seams in the red stripes.

During my workshop on fancy seams at the MTO I found some skeins of fine wool dyed a lovely red with cochineal.

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Before Christmas I went to a special textile sale organized by the MTO where you could buy directly from the makers. As I wander around I found some cotton handwoven yardage in brown, natural off white and a rosy color. I asked the maker about it and it had coyuche ( local brown cotton) and a yarn that was dyed with a natural dye, brazilwood. Brazilwood is an old red dye that fades pretty easily and I said that to the weaver and he said yes, that was true but that cochineal didn’t take very well on cotton and that he wanted that rosy color. We than had a conversation about madder ( Rubia tintoria) and he didn’t seem to know about it and didn’t know if there were and local members of the Rubia family. The young man said he was new at this and had only been doing it for a year and a half.

The following Monday, I meet with my weaving teacher and she showed me some of here pieces, all cotton with the exception of a bit of silk brocade. On piece,

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a huipil with a natural cotton ground and red cotton inlay, she said the cochineal was weeping. You can see just the slightest tinge of red on the light ground abound the brocade figures. She said that cochineal on cotton weeped.

She also has a huipil that is indigo dyed and has red silk brocade. The red silk is cochineal dyed. ( For those of you who are not dyers, silk is the easiest fiber to dye, then the wools and cotton is the hardest to dye.)

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She was showing me some personal pieces she had made over the years including a huipil she had made for her daughter when she was a baby and another when she was a little girl. These are some the most charming pieces I have seen. The girl’s piece has butterflies, pinwheels and worms.

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This piece, done in traditional colors of purple and yellow, commercial yarns, looks fresh. Her daughter is in her late 20’s. The baby huipil also has charming motifs but you can barely see them. She explained that she had wanted a rose color for her baby girl and had used yarn dyed with brazilwood for the brocade.

On this Monday, at her studio we got to talking about dyeing. They were going to start dyeing on the weekends in the new year, indigo. Indigo is fairly easy on cotton. Then I asked about mordant she used for cochineal. None, just salt was the answer.

[To the best of my knowledge and experience, one can get cochineal to color silk without a mordant and wools but you get pinks and roses, not reds or wines. Cotton which is so much more difficult to dye would definitely need a mordant. Mordanting cotton is a whole topic by itself; just alum, alum-tannin-alum or the newest- refined alum or aluminum acetate.]

I asked her if she scoured the cotton before dyeing? And she asked what was that. I explained that natural cotton, is full of pectins and waxes which inhibit the dye take up. They can be removed by boiling with soap or detergent and soda ash or other alkali. She she asked if one could use lime ( a common household item here used to prepare dried corn). Cochineal turns blackish in hard water because of the calcium and lime is a calcium compound, so the answer is no, lime will not work to scour for cochineal.

Cochineal is also sensitive to pH, The color changes from red or red with blue cast to oranger with the addition of an acid such as lime juice or vinegar. She did not seem to know this. This color shift can happen even after it is dyed, for example when you wash it.

The tannins, from many kinds of leaves and woods, can be used for mordanting themselves, and should be stable. But look at this weeping figure:

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She told me it was a natural dye from some wood, I didn’t catch the full name.

So that is the current state of natural dyeing in this little corner of Oaxaca. I don’t know if there are pockets of better dyeing here. It seems that natural dyeing is a re-introduced craft. It could be just the natural mix of dabblers and competent natural dyers that one sees in the US. Information on natural dyes is hard to come by.

Stay tuned for updates on natural dyeing. I said I would love to see them dyeing and that I knew a bit about natural dyes and would be glad to help. We’ll see if I get invited out to the studio for dyes days.

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3 Responses to “Natural Dyes here in Oaxaca”

  1. Sandy Says:

    Sounds like you are teaching the teacher. Can’t wait to see if you are invited and your take on their process.

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  2. It seems like sharing to me. She has helped me with my backstrap weaving immensely. Even got my loom to stay rolled up, mostly yesterday. Sneezing sent every thing flying

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    • So I’m invited to a dyeing session either tomorrow or next Saturday, depending on when her daughter has to work. We will do indigo. She is collecting onion skins today at the market and seems open to scouring and mordanting.

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