For three days I am immersed in natural dyes with Elsa Sanchez Diaz who teaches our Oaxaca Natural Dye Workshops through Oaxaca Cultural Navigator. We make 32 different colors starting with a base of gray and white natural wool.
Indigo blue shirts are first made with natural manta cotton, then get four dye dips.
The natural plant and vegetable materials we dye with include palo de brazil (Brazilwood), nogal (walnut), cochineal (the red insect found on the prickly pear cactus paddle), caoba (mahogany bark), palo de aguila (alderwood bark), palo de mora (fustic), pericone (wild marigold), granada (pomegranate) and añil (indigo).
Indigo plant from Oaxaca’s coast.
Using a combination of base dyes and over-dyes, we make color variations of red, purple, orange, pink, yellow, green and blue. Based on the wool color and number of dips into the dye bath, the color will be light or intense.
Rhiannon uses the mortar and pestle to grind cochineal to a fine powder. Elsa is happy with her results.
For the complete three-day workshop, the first day is mostly preparation of the materials, starting with making the skeins of yarn. We learn about the history of natural dyes in Mexico, how the pre-Hispanic indigenous people used the dyes, and the symbols of the colors.
(We also offer One and Two-Day Dye Workshops)
Pomegranate seeds and brazilwood for dye baths.
To understand the entire dye process, Elsa says that it is important to begin with all the basic preparation steps. This is a time-consuming process and to be a natural dyer one must have patience. This is something we learn in Mexico daily.
Mahogany gives a peach color that is stunning and grey when over-dyed with iron.
Natural grey wool and dried cochineal bugs.
On the street below the rooftop terrace where we work sheltered from the sun at the outdoor dye studio, I hear the sound of a high-pitched whistle. It’s the knife sharpener, Elsa says. Other street sounds signal the coming of the gas man and tortilla vendor.
Pericone or wild marigold dyed on white and grey churro wool
Elsa says even when she uses the same recipes, the color will vary slightly each time. This is handmade, after all! Color intensity depends on the pH of the water, the dryness, age or freshness of the plants and fruits, and the natural shade of the wool. This is chemistry, for sure.
Straining the cochineal dye concentrate to eliminate bug debris
Plus, when there are natural tannic acids in some materials like mahogany, indigo, fustic and pomegranate, the color is stronger.
Fine powder yields the most intensity. More muscle, please!
Day One is a complete introduction to the two most frequently used dyes, pericone and pomegranate, and getting into the mindset of natural dyes, says our participant Rhiannon, a textile and jewelry designer from Canada. But, you don’t have to be experienced or a professional to learn … and have fun with color.
Breaking the tough Brazilwood. Smallest pieces give strongest color.
Oaxaca Natural Dye Workshop. We can schedule your experience when you come to Oaxaca.
Indigo dyed wool drying on the rooftop terrace.