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Natural Dyeing in Teotitlan Del Valle

One of my plans for this year is to include more naturally dyed wool in my work. Last year I had some skeins dyed by Birstol-based knitter and natural dyer Ria Burns. She produces fantastic colours using a combination of plants she grows in her dye-garden and some that she forages locally too. For my wool she used madder root to produce a beautiful, muted peach-pink and coreopsis flowers for a zesty yet mellow (if that's possible!) yellow. They have woven really well with the natural fawn shade of the Shetland wool and, I think really worked in harmony with the cloth. This year I would love to explore more colours to add to my Truly Mendip range. I am also now very pleased to be growing my own madder, which I am hoping is surviving this wet winter in a pot in the garden.

One place where I had the opportunity to delve into natural dyeing previously, was in Teotitlan Del Valle, in Oaxaca state, Mexico. A few years ago we made a much anticipated trip to Oaxaca, where I was just perpetually overjoyed by the incredible range of exquisite textiles and embroidery. I was very keen to meet some weavers and had learned that Teotitlan (Xiguie'a in the Zapotec language) was the centre of weaving in the area - a place where Zapotec culture thrives.

We stayed at Dixza Farm at the north end of the village, with a family of rug weavers and natural dyers. The setting was beautiful; at the foot of the cactus studded mountain sat their farm, speckled with bright bougainvellia and a lively and very friendly pet turkey!

A cochineal insect on a nopal in Leonor's garden
A cochineal insect on a nopal in Leonor's garden

Leonor, the owner of the farm, was so welcoming and ran a natural dyeing session for us in her garden. She works with cochineal, which she buys locally. She showed us some that exist on her own cactus plants in her garden, but would not yield enough for dyeing in the quantities she needs for the family's rug making business. Cochineal are small insects that dwell on the nopal cactus, funnily enough they are white when they are alive on the plant (see left - this was one in Leonor's garden). It is only when they are dried and crushed (sorry vegans!) on the stone 'metate' that they release the carminic acid which manifests as a rich purple-magenta.

Using the metate really felt like a privilege and an insight into Zapotec heritage. It is a significant tool both within their craft as well as their cooking - we discovered the following day how to make a delicious, cacao-rich mole on the metate! And it is very heavy - grinding the cochineal into a fine powder requires muscle and perseverance. Look how beautiful the colour is!

Omar Chasan, also a rug weaver of Teotitlan Del Valle says 'Cochineal alone represents nearly 45% of the colour spectrum. By adjusting the pH, you can get as many as 90 hues' - Selvedge Magazine, issue 104.

Dyeing took place at the bottom of Leonor's garden in her outdoor cooking area. After washing and mordanting the native wool, we bathed various skeins in the bubbling bath of cochineal, to achieve a huge variety of shades from damson right through to fuschia pink. I was fascinated by Leonor's fire building (something I noticed across the state of Oaxaca, particularly for cooking) long logs are posted into the flames from the side and pushed forward into the heart of the fire as they burn away.

The skeins that were first to go in the bath we took out as these had taken on the richest colour, and some we left in the pot overnight for the remaining pigment to permeate the fibres more slowly.

As well as dyeing with cochineal, we also made a golden dye using a local flower 'pericon' which is a type of wild marigold, and dried pomegranate skins following a similar process - see the full, glorious spectrum all together below...

Skeins of naturally dyed wool drying in the sun
Skeins of naturally dyed wool drying in the sun

It was an absolutely fascinating experience, to meet the family and spend time with Leonor and gain an insight into Zapotec culture and the importance of natural dyeing and weaving in their lives. Cochineal can be traced back to the second century BC and to see it held with such value today is testament to the incredible spectrum of colours it produces and the heritage it carries. It also highlights how Zapotec tradition works in harmony with nature, crafting with natural, local fibres and dyestuffs, leaving no harmful trace on the environment. I would go back again and again if I didn't have to fly!

A rug in progress on the loom, featuring traditional Zapotec patterning, Leonor demonstrating wool carding and, of course...the turkey!

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