Purple Snail Dye, Pinotepa de Don Luis and Identity Markers

The caracol purpura is losing ground and so are the tintoreros, the dyers who milk them, applying the dye directly to the cotton cloth on the rocky Oaxaca coast to give up its extraordinary purple color, keeping the mollusk alive. The dyers, led by 78 year-old Don Habacuc Avedano, come from the Mixtec town of Pinotepa de Don Luis, high in the mountains on Oaxaca’s Costa Chica. It’s the women of the village, the wives and daughters, who spin and weave this cloth into some of the most coveted textiles in Oaxaca.

Nancy examines purple snail dye skein with Don Habacuc

The snail is close to extinction.

One of 4 skeins dyed in 2018. Before, 40+ skeins.

We visited this village during our recent Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour, an 11-day investigation into the growing, spinning, dyeing and weaving textile culture of Oaxaca. I will ONLY offer this trip again in January 2020 IF I have six people committed to go by April 1, 2019, with a $500 deposit. Contact me.

We arrived on Don Habacuc’s 78th Birthday with a Mañanitas song

We visited this village during our recent Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour, an 11-day investigation into the growing, spinning, dyeing and weaving textile culture of Oaxaca’s Pacific Coast. I will ONLY offer this trip again in January 2020 IF I have six people committed to go by April 1, 2019, with a $500 deposit. Contact me.

Mexico’s cultural anthropologist Martha Turok Wallace has worked tirelessly over her career to help preserve the natural dye culture here, support villagers, and suggest ways they could adapt their work to reach new markets. Without sales to visitors, the textile culture will be lost. Without conservation and public education, the snail will become extinct.

Gauze-weave huipil from Pinotepa de Don Luis

As recently as the 1970’s, the traditional dress for Pinotepa de Don Luis women was a posahuanco (wrap-around skirt), woven in three-lengths of cloth on the back-strap loom, the lengths hand-stitched, and the cloth dyed with caracol purpura, indigo and cochineal. That’s what the purple snail dye was used for. Topless for this hot, humid climate, they wore a finely hand-woven, transparent white huipil that draped from head to shoulders. The cloth was held in place by an inverted dried gourd, worn much like a crown with a veil.

Hand-carved gourd (jicara) with sea life

Martha suggested that the gourd could be carved and used as a container. It is now finely carved with intricate figures of birds, flowers, sea life and used as wall decor and lamp-bases, too.

I’ve heard Martha speak at conferences about how important it is to innovate and adapt in order to keep the traditions of a culture vibrant. Otherwise, we run the risk of losing people to blue jeans and polyester. But for me the question always remains, What is authentic and does this mean we behave as colonials to keep people fixed in their place? Progress means change. Progress means better education, health care, access to economic prosperity.

Posahuanco with apron cover-up

Today, women in the village cover themselves with bra-type aprons that drape over the posahuanco. The posahuanco has also changed. It can include native coyuchi brown and white cotton. I’ve seen it worn as a mini-skirt with a zipper by younger women.

The skirt is the main identity marker of the village along with the purple shell dye.

Bitty looks over the vintage posahuanco and intricate weave

What is an identity marker?

An identity marker is how one defines self in relationship to the group(s) we belong to. It is cultural and distinctive, based on a common language, values, ethnicity, religion, social class, age group, where we live, or the type of dress we choose to wear. Walk into the regional market in Pinotepa Nacional and you know immediately that the woman wearing the posahuanco with the apron top is from Pinotepa de Don Luis.

Linda is thrilled with this indigo dyed blusa

What about the hand-woven long dresses (huipiles) and tops (blusas) from Pinotepa de Don Luis?

Gretchen’s Blusa: Fertility figures, double-headed turkeys, flowers on supplemental weft

These are designed and made for foreigners — those who live outside the village. Sometimes, you will see a local woman wearing this huipil at shows or special tourist sales events, but it is rare. This is another form of adaptation to use the native hand-spun cotton produced in the village, woven on the back-strap loom, the threads often dyed with indigo or touches of the shell dyed cotton or silk.

Purple snail dye on the coast of Oaxaca
Rafael, Don Habacuc’s son, the next and perhaps last generation of dyers

I’ll be writing more about this region in days to come. So stay tuned. On Wednesday, I’m off to Michoacan to lead another folk art study tour.

4 responses to “Purple Snail Dye, Pinotepa de Don Luis and Identity Markers

  1. Hi Norma, the caracol purpura is a mollusk, not a crustacean. Crustaceans belong to the phylum Arthropoda. The Mollusca and Arthropoda are two different phyla.

    I would love to visit Pinotepa de Don Luis and the Amuzgo villages someday.

  2. Friday noon, Jan. 25

    Hola Norma — I’m going to your Apron Talk this evening at OLL but have a different question for you — a friend & I plan to visit San Marcos Tlapazola to buy their red pottery pieces & to (hopefully) be able to view a firing — what day do you think would be the best for this?
    I’m looking VERY forward to your talk w/Jackie this evening!
    Sincerely, Kathleen Foltz

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