Natural Dye Intensive: San Bartolo Coyotepec, Oaxaca, Mexico

In February of 2019 I participated in 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 dyes I learned about the following natural dyestuffs: pericone; brazilwood; huizache; cochineal; and añil (indigo). I also learned about the history of natural dyeing in Mexico, the history of cochineal (pre and post-hispanic colonization), Oaxacan coastal dyeing techniques using mollusks that yield a beautiful purple, as well as indigenous production of Mexican silk.

For the applied portion of the intensive, I first washed and mordanted all of the fibre for dyeing, then measured, 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. The process needs heat and time and a good stir every 15 minutes. Hang in the shade to dry, wash out once it’s thoroughly dry, then wait for a month and clean and dry the dyed fibres.

I also learned about the history and use of cochineal. In Mexico, 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 colour, 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.

In the añil/ indigo section of the intensive I learned that indigo doesn’t penetrate 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 in the air after I removed them from the dyebath to get the best indigo colours. You don’t boil indigo, instead you get the dye bath as hot as you can stand it. This is still pretty close to boiling, and you have to hold the fibres under the surface of the water but keep them from touching the bottom. (See photo above of me about to scream.) 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 be fermented 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 dyebath water.

The practical exploration was invaluable, it was not all that I gained from this amazing residency. In the añil section of the intensive I learned about the history of that most ancient of dyestuffs within the Mexican context. I also learned about the history and use of cochineal and that it has been used as a colorant in Mesoamerica since pre-Columbian times. Indigenous people of the Americas used it as a pigment for body painting and possibly for painting stucco.  In dry form, cochineal was a highly prized commodity serving as a medium of exchange and tribute demanded by the indigenous Aztec rulers of central Mexico. It was also used in courtesanal makeup, food dyes and textile dyes. Although Oaxaca was the birthplace of cochineal culturing, Peru is now top producer in the world (Bonmati interview 2019). According to Arie Wallert, “as early as 1540” this profitable colonial item was one of the major items of import in Antwerp (Wallert 1997: 60). Under Spanish rule during the 16th to 18th century the production of cochineal in Oaxaca increased until it became one of the most lucrative commodities of New Spain for exportation to Europe. Still actively used today, Red Dye #4 is the industrial name for cochineal, and it is now used to dye textiles, to colour foods and cosmetics, and even colour the water in the fountains of Oaxaca city during special occasions (Bonmati 2019). All of which impressed upon me the complexity of these processes—how amazing the development of this was over a millennium of experimentation—and then the building upon rivers of acculturated wisdom to perfect these processes. All of which was then passed down through the doing, by pre-colonial cultures

During this intensive, I learned about the history and current practices in natural dyeing. Which will go toward my ongoing research into fashion sustainability, globalization 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 large student groups, so it would be a great opportunity for a larger research trip with students. Tlapanochestli Grana Cochinillia in San Bartolo Coyotepec (Zapotec name: Zaapeche) is about a half hour drive from Oaxaca city and easily accessible by bus.

More information on sustainable fashion designer and master dyer Nereida Bonmati of Naive Slow Fashion can be found here:

Wallert, Arie (1997) “The Analysis of Dyestuffs on Historical Textiles from Mexico” The Unbroken Thread: Conserving the Textile Traditions of Oaxaca, Kathryn, Klein ed, Getty Publications.

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