Each natural dye requires its own unique method for bringing out the colors. It can take up to five months for some plants to mature or for trees to give fruit, and for insects to harvest. This needs to happen first before we can start to dye any material. The natural dye practice involves chemistry, alchemy and a deep understanding of variations that a plant can have, depending on the soil where it is grown, the amount of rain it received, and how this affects the colors. To understand the depth of this practice, it can take a lifetime.
Below is a list of dyes used by Porfirio Gutiérrez y family, notes on their preparation and the colors they produce. There are also two videos on specific dye stuffs— the first video features tree moss, pomegranate, pericón, sapote negro and oak wood; the second video features cochineal.
Oak Wood: Splintered oak logs can be soaked in room temperature water for a couple of days or boiled for 2 to 3 hours to produce a dye. Yarn color will be a light yellow.
Indigo or Anil: Indigo is one of the more complicated dyes to prepare. Dehydrated indigo cake is usually bought from the last few families in Oaxaca growing and processing the indigo plants. From this state, it takes a minimum of 3 to 4 days to ferment before it is ready to dye the material shades of blue.
Pericón: Mexican tarragon is collected in the springtime when it is in bloom. It can be dried and used later throughout the year. Color can range from a brilliant yellow to a light butter creme.
Sapote Negro: This is the fruit of a tree that is often found in local gardens. When ripe, it has a mild sweetness and dark mushy flesh. When using it for dyeing, it can be green on the outside and white inside.
Cochineal: Cochineal is a parasitic insect that lives on nopal cactus. It is a very laborious process to cultivate and harvest cochineal for use in dyeing. The Gutierrez family have a small amount of the live bugs, it usually is purchased from a professional grower. The insects look like white spots when alive and grey pellets the size of a small BB when dehydrated. Before dyeing begins, they are ground to a fine powder on the metate.
Pomegranate: Pomegranate is another plant that grows in the Gutierrez studio’s gardens. Colors range from black to yellow.
Tree moss: Tree moss is found on the wild trees high up on the mountains in the village. It is often plucked off with lichen that also grows on the trees. It imparts a gold to a yellow.
Marush: Marush is another flowering shrub that is common in the family garden.It produces several shades of a fresh green.
Pecan leaves: The pecan tree is indigenous to Mexico. Its leaves and nut shells can produce several pleasing shades of brown. Photo at left shows pecan leaves.
Natural wool: While not a natural dye or mineral, sheep's wool comes in many colors ranging from white, grays and black to deep browns, tans, and creams. Only cleaning, washing and carding are necessary before spinning and weaving.
The Use of Chemical Dyes — The End of an Art Form
Over the years, over 95% of the weavers in Teotitlán who once used traditional natural dyes have turned to using cheaper, more convenient, chemical dyes. The younger generations do not know how to gather or use traditional natural dyes. This seriously threatens the survival of our ancestral Zapotec art form.
TESTING FOR NATURAL DYES
There are some simple tests that anyone can do to see if a weaving has been made with yarn that has been dyed with natural plant dyes or chemicals. Cochineal is one of the most common dyes to be replaced with cheap synthetic chemical dye because it is very time consuming to grow and gather, and is very expensive if purchased. To test for real cochineal dye, a sample of red yarn boiled in fresh lemon juice for 5 minutes will lighten, whereas chemical dyes will not change. Another characteristic Is the price and the number of pieces available for sale, as well as the overall colors seen on every piece. The process of natural dyeing is much more labor intensive and more costly, therefore goods made with this practice will cost more, and normally only a few pieces can be created each month.
Natural dye colors are rich, but not overly bright or strong. If you are visiting a studio, make sure you see large amounts of dyestuff and dye vats — it should look like a working area, not just a showroom. It is very common to see a demonstration done with cochineal insects, changing the pH, with lemon juice and limestone. Natural dye is much more complex than that, and it takes years to learn and become a master.
Plant-dyed yarns have a residual scent from the plants that were used to dye them. Natural scents range from earthy to fresh green to wild marigold. Chemical dyes can be detected the same way but the smell is not natural. Caution: many chemical dyes are not rinsed clean and may cause respiratory problems with prolonged exposure.