Natural dye journeys to Mexico

It's been a crazy couple of weeks for most of us, we are stuck in social isolation, doing our part to help stop the spread of the virus.  I had this email drafted a while ago, and was not going to send it at all, but then I figured that people are in need of some things to read that are NOT related to the pandemic, and that it might be nice to daydream about once again travelling to far off places.

Living in Toronto, winter is long, and while not as cold as some parts of the country, it can be very grey.  I am lucky enough to usually be able to get away for a few weeks every year, and for the past years it has been to Mexico, a country I really adore.  This year, our adventure took us to Mexico City, and we were meant to go to a little beach town on the Pacific from there, but cut our trip short last week and are now safely nestled and in self quarantine back home.

For the past couple of years, it's been to Oaxaca City that we travelled, and since many of you are new to this list, I wanted to share a few little tidbits about that magical place, since it's a textile lover's dream.

Oaxaca city has been growing in popularity in the last few years, and it's easy to understand why.  A small city with incredible food and amazingly friendly people, it has so much to offer, including a really great textile museum.  But for a true textile nerd, it's travelling just outside the city that really pays off.  We spent a few nights in Teotitlan del Valle, a village which is well known for it's woven rugs. 

Weavings have been found from Teotitlán from as far back as 500 BCE, and it continues to be the main economic activity in the town, with 150 weaving families there. ⁣

Teotitlán is a Zapotec village, many of the folks there can still speak Zapotec, and until the middle of the last century, the wool for was all dyed with natural dyes, using traditional Zapotec recipes. But when a highway that connected Oaxaca to Mexico City was completed in the 40s, tourism to the area increased and demand for the weavings increased.  Folks began using synthetic dyes, because it was both cheaper and faster, and within a couple of generations there was almost no natural dyeing happening anymore. ⁣

But the happy part of the story is that in the last 15-20 years, a dozen or so families have begun to re-learn and re-explore the world of natural dyes, and the town is once again becoming known for it. ⁣

We visited several studios, and the folks were so kind, so warm, and so generous in the sharing of their art, and their homes, as most of the studios are in the courtyard area of the family home.  Our favourite studios were Fey y Lola, who also have a gallery in the city, and the Biidauu co-operative, where my (then 5-year old) daughter got to try her hand at grinding some cochineal, and where we bought our rug, our most precious souvenir.  Dyed with only with cochineal, marigold and indigo.

If you've been following me for any time at all, you know that I'm obsessed with cochineal, and have been ever since I began working with botanical dyes in 2002.  I even wrote a paper on cochineal in art school.

So needless to say it was a highlight of our trip when we went to visit a cochineal farm in a little town south of Oaxaca city.  Manuel at Tlapanochestli has been cultivating cochineal for a couple decades now, and they also have a self built museum all about the juicy red little ladies (it’s only the female bugs that procure dye!) and teach workshops to school kids and travellers. ⁣

Cochineal are a scale insect that only live on the prickly pear  cactus (in fact they’re a parasite), so to raise cochineal you must first have some cactuses - Manuel (who was so incredibly generous with his time and expertise) has a little field (grove? orchard? What is a collection of cactuses called?) under a giant jacaranda tree. He then harvests single leaves (again, what is a cactus “leaf” called? Can you tell I’m a northern gal?), which are kept alive in big flat planters, in rows. ⁣

Small baskets, called “Zapotec nests” are hung on the cactus, and fertile females are placed in the baskets. They make their way out to the cactus, await fertilization, and settle there, where they have their nymphs (baby bugs!) which secrete a white waxy substance to protect themselves, which is why they appear to be kind of a dusty white.  Once mature, the cochineal are harvested (usually being brushed off with a paintbrush) and are either placed into the little nests, or dried, to be used for dye.  The whole cycle takes about 90 days. ⁣

Cochineal was a major export for Mexico in the 16th and 17th century, and almost all of it came from Oaxaca state, but cultivation has largely died out, and most cochineal is now grown in Peru, and is exported mainly for use as a food and makeup dye. ⁣

You can see more photos of our visit here.

If you've made it this far, thanks for reading!  And thank you for indulging me in sharing a little bit of our love of Mexico with you!

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