Indigo Blue, Color of Kings: Oaxaca Natural Dye Workshop

If you are looking for hands-on instruction, a cultural immersion into natural dyes of Oaxaca, and would love to have an experience learning from the Museo Textil de Oaxaca’s director of education Eric Chavez Santiago, please contact me.  We organize programs for museums, textile guilds, fiber artists, designers and anyone wanting to know more about hand-dyeing with natural materials.

Here are some of the topics Eric talked about during the second day of a workshop we organized for Sydney, Australia’s Walter G & Company that focused on indigo dye recipes and using indigo for over-dyeing:

DyeWorkshop-34 DyeWorkshop-15Royals around the world coveted indigo as a symbol of their wealth, power and prestige.  When we think of the color royal blue, what comes to mind is an intense, deep color that saturates the fabric and draws attention to the person wearing it.  Indigo was used 6,000 years ago in Egypt, sought after by the Pharaohs who procured it from traders who traveled the tropical belt of Africa.

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Indigo is mystical, says Eric.  In Africa, dancers pray for an abundant indigo harvest to give them an abundant life.  In Puebla, Mexico, there is a traditional story that warns pregnant women not to approach an indigo dye bath.  If they do, the power of the color will disappear.  But indigo is a chemical process, says Eric, straightforward and scientific.

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Today from Oaxaca, Mexico, to Africa, to India, to El Salvador, to South Carolina, USA, over 40 different indigo plant species, some of them wild and native to each region, are cultivated for dye material, explains Eric. In Oaxaca state, the wild bush grows along the Pacific coast, is cultivated, fermented, dried into blocks, and sold to weavers and dyers, who grind it into a fine powder for use on protein fibers such as wool and silk, or on plant fibers such as cotton.  Our workshop focuses only on dyeing wool, since cotton takes much longer.

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This year, in 2012, Oaxaca had the largest harvest of indigo ever.  Over 400 pounds of dried leaves were picked.  Oaxaca’s indigo produces one of the most powerful, intense colors in the world, along with the indigo of San Salvador.  The color from India and Africa pale in comparison. This is good for local weavers who are turning to the use of indigo for its color-fast results and organic properties that ensure environmental sustainability.

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During this second day, we used an indigo recipe developed by French chemist-dyer Michel Garcia.  Eric has studied with Michel Garcia and uses his fructose-based recipe along with hydrogenated lime.  The fructose reduces the oxygen in the water, stabilizes the water, and suspends the indigo to yield a more uniform, intense color.  One only needs to stir gently with a wooden stick or fingers!

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To pulverize the rock-hard indigo, ancient dyers used a metate and mano de metate.  Today, Eric uses a coffee grinder — one for blue indigo, another for red cochineal.  He dissolves a bit of the indigo in a small sealed jar of water filled with marbles, and shakes it well.

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There are many indigo dye recipes available on the Internet along with recommendations for making dye baths, so we are not going into that here.

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During the two days, we dyed a range of primary reds and yellows using cochineal and pericone.  On day two, over dyeing these colors with indigo, we were able to make a broader range of greens, oranges, browns and blacks.  All in all, the two days resulted in over 20 stunning colors — all color-fast, durable and natural.

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We are happy to organize customized workshops and plan a series of open-to-anyone-interested two-day workshops starting this summer, just like we did for Walter G & Company principals Lauren Bennett and Genevieve Fennel with friends Lara Zilibowitz and Tempe McMinn.

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