Natural Dye Intensive: San Bartolo Coyotepec, Oaxaca, Mexico

In February of 2019 I attended a natural dye intensive taught by sustainable fashion designer and master dyer Nereida Bonmati of Naive Slow Fashion, at the Tlapanochestli Grana Cochinillia in San Bartolo Coyotepec, Oaxaca, Mexico.


During this fascinating and academically rigorous engagement with the practical application of natural dye I learned about the following natural dyestuffs: Pericone; Brazilwood; Huizache; Cochineal; and Anil (Indigo). I also learned about the history of natural dyeing in Mexico, the colonial history of cochineal (pre and post-hispanic), Oaxacan coastal dyeing techniques using mollusks that yield a beautiful purple, and indigenous production of Mexican silk.

For the applied portion of the intensive, I first washed and mordanted all of the fibre for dyeing, then ground and prepared the dyestuffs. Through multiple dips, and adding iron and various percentages of lime juice, as well as cross dyeing, I then created many beautiful colourfast colours. All through this I was given precise formulae for dye mixing which I utilized to set up the dye pots. I will therefore be able to reproduce the dyestuffs in the future with my students.

Dyestuff extraction was done by boiling natural dyestuffs in water for 40-50 minutes. Skim off any scum or residue, strain and then put fibre in for one hour to dye. Needs heat and time and a good stir every 15 minutes. Hang in the shade to dry, wash out once it’s dry, then wait for a month and clean and dry the dyed fibres.

I also learned about the history and use of cochineal. Fine cochineal is a domestic insect, and can be seen on the nopal cactus as areas of white powder residue. Males become a small flying insect and live 3-5 days. Only females are used to make color, and have a three month life cycle. When going into reproduction females are put into a little cage which is attached to a nopal leaf, and have on average 150 babies. The cochineal babies get out of the cage and walk out on the large flat cactus leaves and their proboscis finds a spot on nopal where they attach themselves and do not move again. It takes 600 to 1000 harvested nopal cactus leaves for I kg of cochineal.

Red dye #4 is the industrial name for cochineal. It is now used to dye textiles, colour food and cosmetics and even fountains in Oaxca city during speacial occasions. The Incas used cochineal, and it was used in Mexico even earlier. Oaxaca was the birthplace of cochineal culturing, but Peru is now top producer in the world.

In the indigo section of the intensive I learned about the history of that most ancient of dyestuffs in the Mexican context. I also learned that indigo doesn’t p enetrate fibre, instead it covers it. As such, it doesn’t need a mordant. Instead it oxidizes and fixes with air, so I had to wave my samples around to get the best indigo colours. You don’t boil indigo, instead you get it as hot as you can stand (which was still very hot as you have to hold the fibres under the surface of the water but keep them from touching the bottom). You also want to disturb the dyepot as little as possible when inserting and removing fibres from the indigo dyebath. Indigo can’t dissolve into water, and needs a special water preparation that is very alkaline. This then must ferment to get all the oxygen out. Traditionally fruit and animal urine has been used for the fermentation process. We used carbonate to alkalize our Indigo water.

During this intensive, I learned about the history and current practices in natural dyeing. Which will go toward my ongoing research into fashion sustainability, and ethical fashion production. I would recommend this workshop to academics like myself who need practical grounding in their research into the history and modern applications of natural dyes, the Tlapanochestli Grana Cochinillia can also accommodate larger student groups.


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