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New Website, New Blog, but the Old Blog Archive remains: September 28, 2023

After many years of wanting a real website, this month I finally have a website designed by the very knowledgeable Rey Rey Rodriguez ( TheMindOfReyRey ). My old blog,  Vacation-Travel-Adventure  continues with the same address but it is located in the "Archives" tab on my new website . The new blog which is a continuation but with much better resolution for 4K screens, it is now at .

Natural Dyes, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico: December 24, 2017

On this vacation there were so many highlights, but one I found most interesting was our visit to the home and workshop of Mariano Sousa and his wife Rafaella Sousa-Ruiz. When we arrived Mariano gave us a short lecture about why and how they make their natural colors. He explained that by using artificial dyes, the water table and rivers had become polluted so about 25 years ago they investigated how to make dyes using natural components.  They learned how to make red, blue, and yellow and how to layer these dyes to create additional colors.

Cochineal, one of the most important natural dyes, is made from a small beetle that is a parasite on the nopal (prickly pear) cactus. If a female cochineal is squeezed between your fingers, she bleeds a deep crimson or maroon. The color stain on your fingers is effected by the alkalinity or acidy of your skin.

Incubating Cochineal Insects
Once Spanish conquerors discovered in the 16th century that the indigenous peoples of Mexico were making a red dye from an insect, cochineal became as valuable an asset as gold and silver. Tons of dried red pellets were exported to Spain and beyond. Discovering a secret of "red" became the goal of France and England. This red was used for dyeing textiles (think British redcoats), food colorings, medicines, and for cosmetics. For those who didn't control the industry, the price was very high. The Spanish managed to hide their secret for about 200 years until a French spy discovered the center of cochineal production in Oaxaca and exported a few insects and nopal paddles back to France.

The nopal paddles must be checked regularly to remove the pregnant females to a fresh nopal paddle for the laying of the new generation. She is then dehydrated and crushed into a powder. It takes about 80-100,000 insects to yield one kilo of dye. Today, cochineal is mostly used in food colorings and in cosmetics.

Cochineal is not colorfast without the use of a mordant like alum. Wool skeins are boiled in alum to prepare them to accept the cochineal.

Skeins of alum soaked wool yarn ready for dyeing
The strength of the color is based on the ratio of cochineal to yarn. The color can be moved toward purple or be redder based on whether the process occurs in a cast iron pot, an aluminum pot, or through the introduction of wood ashes to the pot.

Shades of cochineal red and one skein of yellow
Next Mariano showed us indigo. In Oaxaca this dye is called "añil." The color comes from the indigo plant. A large vat is filled with water and the stems and leaves of the indigo plant. After hours of soaking, the color sinks to the bottom of the vat. The water is drained off and the bottom blue sludge is left to dry to a solid. Using a metate, chunks of añil are pulverized into a powder. 

The powdered añil is added to a pot of water that is then boiled in a covered pot with the skeins of wool yarn. Leaves of the muitle plant are added to the pot to keep the color from oxidizing. Once the desired color is achieved, the yarn is rung out and hung up to drip dry. When the yarn is first removed from the pot, it is a rather insipid blue-green color. As the color oxidizes, the blue becomes deeper, more saturated.

The lighter blue yarn began with white yarn while the darker blue began with natural gray wool yarn.

This workshop uses two yellows. A wild marigold called peticon (tagetes lucida) yields a buttercup yellow while marusch produces a golden yellow.

The entire wild marigold plant is used for the dye. First, the plant is soaked in hot water and then the solution is strained into a new pot. Wool skeins are placed into the strained solution of yellow dye for the boiling process. When Mariano lifted the yellow-dyed yarn, it looked just like a pot of cooked spaghetti.

While Mariano schooled us, his wife Rafaella prepared tlayudas for our lunch. It was a great afternoon.