It’s an ongoing discovery. Finding the weavers who work with natural dyes. They live and work in humble homes or grander casas, on back alleys, dirt streets, cobbled avenues, main highways, hillsides and flat-lands. Their studios are filled with the aroma and sights of natural materials — stinky indigo dye vats, wood burning fires, prickly pear nopal cactus studded with insects that yield intense red.
All photos © Norma Schafer, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC
In this photo, above left, dyer/weaver Juana prepares ground cochineal on the traditional metate, grinding the dried insect by hand until it is a fine powder, ready to make a dye bath for wool that will be used for rugs. Above right, tree moss waits for the dye pot.
That’s why I’ve organized one-day natural dye textile study tours to explore this artisanal process.
Above left, ikat rebozo with natural dyes of wild marigold, cochineal and indigo from San Pablo Villa de Mitla. Right, wool on the loom.
Cleaning a rug woven with naturally dyed wool
You know how committed I am to the artisans who work with natural dyes. It is a laborious and vertical process — winding the yarn, preparing the dye baths, dyeing the yarn, then weaving it. To create textiles using natural dyes takes time and is a many-step process. I believe the people who work this way deserve special attention and support.
Nopal Cactus and Indigo, copyright 2016 Norma Schafer, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator
They start with the natural wool that comes from the mountains surrounding the Oaxaca valley. The best wool is hand-spun for strength and has no additives, like nylon or polyester, to lower cost.
Then, indigo and cochineal is bought from local Oaxaca sources. Both are expensive, now about 1,800 MXN pesos per kilo. Synthetic dyes are a fraction of this cost and only requires one-step to produce colored yarn.
Other dye sources are wild marigold, pecan leaves and shells, pomegranate fruit, tree moss, eucalyptus bark, black zapote fruit and much more. The wool needs to be washed of lanolin and mordanted to absorb and fix the natural dye so it will not fade. To get a full range of color, local weavers and dyers use over dyes, too.
When the yarns are colored they are then ready to weave. Depending on size and material density, a piece can take from one week to several months.
It takes a special person who understands quality of materials and finished product to work this way. The process is organic, sustainable and environmentally sound.