Natural Dyes of Mexico

Jun 23, 2020

The Vibrant History & Revitalization of Natural Dyes in Teotitlán del Valle

There is something about traveling through Southern Mexico that changes your view on the world. Indigenous cultures and tradition is all around you. Surrounding the area of Oaxaca, many of those traditions are deeply rooted in Mexican textile weaving and the creation of natural dyes. During our travels through this area, we visited a small village about thirty minutes southeast of Oaxaca called Teotitlán del Valle. To this day the people of Teotitán harbor and nurture their historic traditions in daily life.

Our last post explored the local weaving culture in Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico. One key feature of this traditional art form is the natural dye process.  Expert weavers utilize it to create the bold colors that are intrinsically characteristic of Mexican textiles. The people of Teotitlán del Valle are experts in the creation of natural dyes.  Rich colors captivate and surround you when walking down the streets.  

This quaint village in the Mexican foothills will forever hold a place in our hearts. We look forward to the day we can return!

A Short History 

The Zapotecs founded the village of Teotitlán del Valle as early as 500 BC. They started weaving traditions to provide clothing, blankets, and daily necessities for their families. After the Spanish conquered the area, the Aztecs utilized their weaving skills as a way to honor and pay their conquerors. The indigenous people shared their methods and natural dye processes with the Spanish, including an introduction to the cochineal insect.

The Cochineal insect was highly valued because of its brilliant red color.  As a result, European export of the dye became popular.  It was used to create the red cardinal robes as decided by Pope Paul II. It was also the pigment that created the bold color of the famous red coats worn by the British during the Revolutionary War.

Their history is diverse, inspiring design across the globe while maintaining traditions from their Zapotec roots.

Teotitlán del Valle Today

The people of Teotitlán del Valle still live off of the land and many speak Zapotec.  To this day over 70% of the inhabitants of the village are directly or indirectly involved in textile production. Most make their living selling their creations to tourists, other townsfolk, and by working with companies like Wanderluxe Home to spread their designs across the globe.

Today it is easy to authentically connect with the village in a few specific places.

You do not want to miss the morning market, open early on weekdays, and gone before noon. You’ll find stalls full of fresh fruit and the famous rugs. Some lucky days, you can witness the natural dyes process firsthand.

A must-visit museum in town is Museo Comunitario Balaa Xtee Guech Gulal. Named in the Zapotec language, this museum encapsulates all things Teotitlán del Valle in one location. From ancient Zapotec and Aztec artifacts to textiles throughout the ages. It’s also located near the Giae’ a Xte Ladih, the famous local rug market.

Be careful, you’ll fall in love like we did! You’ll want to go back year after year for the serene environment, beautiful artistry, tasty cuisine, and friendly people.

The New Age of Natural Dyes

When synthetic dyes originated in the late-1800s the textile culture began to shift to this new way of production. As years went on the synthetic dyes became more easily sourced. When demand grew from tourism in the early-1900s, the use of synthetic dyes was far less work than crafting natural dyes. This led to many local artisans pivoting their techniques and leaving the natural dyes behind or using them solely for pieces they created for family and personal use. However, it was in 1970 when tables started to turn. Research starting to show the toxicity of synthetic dyes and many artisans realized the utilization of natural dyes was becoming extinct.

In efforts to revitalize this ancient practice, talented artisans who had knowledge of the trade united to re-teach the community this important technique. The art of natural dye-making is now a daily practice for many once again.

Natural Dyes for Textile Production

While in Teotitlán del Valle earlier this year we visited with one of our artisan partners, the Lopez family.  During our visit Josephine showed us the stunning rugs the family creates and demonstrated the use and creation of natural dyes. 

As she showcased the process, she explained how to prepare the natural dyes for production. Focusing on insects and plants, expert weavers can create any color with materials found from the Earth.

When visiting with Josephine, we saw the versatility of use for different plants and insects firsthand. Perhaps the most “famous” she shared with us was the Cochineal insect which as mentioned above, is an important part of Teotitlán del Valle’s history.

Cochineal is a small red insect that lives on the pads of prickly pear cacti. The females create an acid called carmine which produces the deep red color of the dye. Since the beginning, locals have harvested the insects from the cacti to dry them. Once dried they crush the bugs to expel the rich pigment needed to produce dye. Depending on how you mix the pigment, you can create a variety of colors. For example, when you add baking soda the pigment transforms into a purple hue. Similarly, when you add vinegar the red pigment becomes orange.

While there, we learned about other natural dyes as well. Marigolds produce a bright yellow color. Indigo leaves look green, but create indigo hues. Dried roots and leaves to make brown and orange hues, and more. Once created, the dyes are then used to transform the wool and silk used to craft the works of art the town is famous for. While rugs are the specialty, weavers create a range of textiles. Patterns include traditional indigenous designs, contemporary art, and Southwestern-inspired designs.

Pros & Cons of Natural Dyes

Everything used to produce natural dyes comes from the Earth. There are many pros to this practice, but also a few cons. The positives include the sustainable practice, no toxins in the water or textiles, preservation of historic culture, and more vibrant colors. The negative is that due to the lack of chemicals, the natural dyes don’t typically last as long as their synthetic counterparts, especially if left in the sun for an extended period of time. The production can also be time consuming and expensive. It can take nearly 100,000 cochineal bugs to produce just over two pounds of dye.  It’s easy to imagine the cost and labor to create this for bulk production.

In an effort to leave synthetic dyes behind many artisans are transitioning back to natural dyes for a more sustainable and healthy future.  

Experience Natural Dyes in Our New Wanderluxe Home Product Line

We’re so excited to share the launch of our first product line in late-2020, inspired by our travels through this Southern region of Mexico.

Wanderluxe Home products will be available via our online marketplace and also through our limited-edition seasonal subscription boxes.  Discover artful décor from across the globe – all without leaving your home.

Our first product line will include Mexican textiles from the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, with wares like pillows, table runners, napkins, and other home goods. Looking forward to 2021, we’ll be introducing the elaborate and intricate rugs crafted in Teotitlán del Valle to the collection.

We are looking forward to sharing the craft of these master artists with you… sign up for our email newsletter to be the first to know the release of new collections!

Sources: | Zinnia Folk Arts | New York Times | Porfirio Gutierrez

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Wanderluxe Home is a conscious home décor brand dedicated to preserving the heritage of master artisans.

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