Working with natural dyes like cochineal that yield red, indigo blue, wild marigold (pericone) and fustic to give us yellow, is like being a pastry chef and following a recipe. It helps to know a little chemistry or have a willingness to learn.
Eric Chavez Santiago, who is one of Mexico’s most knowledgeable natural dye experts and our workshop leader, takes us through the steps to use a non-toxic process to mordant wool that we will use to dye cochineal, fustic and wild marigold. Wool that we dye with indigo requires no mordant but another set of intricate steps that will guarantee a result of intense blue and its variations. See the green bloom in the photo above. The chemistry here is to allow no oxygen to enter the dye bath. Stirring is a no-no.
The intense colors we get depend on a number of factors, including the original color of the natural wool, the amount of dye for the recipe, the length of time in the dye bath, the number of dips, how little dye is left in the dye bath, and whether we use an acid (lime juice, for example) or a base (baking soda, alum or ashes). Eric has developed an extraction technique for the cochineal that yields the most intense, concentrated color. The extract can be saved and refrigerated for later use and then refreshed.
In the three-day Oaxaca Natural Dye Secrets workshop, we go through the basics and then tackle more advanced dyeing techniques using acids, bases, and over-dyeing. Over-dyeing is when you first dye your fiber with the base color such as red (cochineal) or yellow (fustic or wild marigold). The red is then dipped in the indigo dye bath to yield various shades of purple depending on the shade of red.
This is not a complex process, but requires attention and following the recipes. By the end of the workshop, participants have color samples with specific formulas/recipes for all the shades from yellow to green to pink to red to orange to purple to blue.
During the workshop, we also experiment with shibori dye techniques using indigo with 100% cotton fabric. The resulting pattern depends on how we fold, wrap, package, or tie the fabric. Some use rubber bands, string, marbles, sticks, and other materials to manipulate the design.
Everything depends on whether the material is a protein (animal) or cellulose (plant) fiber. Cochineal only works best with protein fibers that are mordanted in advance. Indigo is not really a dye but a stain and only coats the surface of the fiber (which you can see through a microscope). Indigo works well with protein AND cellulose fibers. And, wow, does it attach to everything it touches!
Assisting Eric with the workshop is his wife, Elsa Sanchez Diaz. As his partner in life and this workshop, Elsa takes detailed notes about the formulas that Eric is using so that there is a record of the colors achieved. She also helps the participants to complete their samplers with tagged formula notes at the end of the workshop.
Our participants come from Pennsylvania, Virginia, Northern California, and Kansas. They include novices and experienced fiber artists/dyers. Several had never been to Oaxaca before. One is an English professor, another a faculty member in architecture and interior design, another a mixed media artist, and two professional weavers. Everyone came away with a great experience and more information than they ever dreamed possible.
If you can’t attend this workshop, let us know! We can possibly schedule the next workshop to suit your travel schedule.