Ancient knowledge regarding the process of dyeing wools using natural materials, until recently, was rapidly vanishing from indigenous Andean culture. Over the last 100 years, while weaving traditions continued, people preferred to use brightly colored synthetic wools and yarns bought in the market. Today, when indigenous women weave for their families, they still tend to use synthetic material, because it's easier. Also synthetics offer much more intense shades of colour, such as florescent red, which is very popular in the personal clothing of indigenous Andean people. To them, brighter is better in their own clothing, which is one of the main reasons why natural dyes had nearly faded into history.
Various capacitacion projects, plus the demand created by foreign tourists for 'natural' handmade products, has meant that the people are now placing much greater importance on the use of natural dyes, and the preservation of their ancient traditional skills. They now reserve their naturally dyed animal fiber for market.
“The Andes are filled with a great diversity of plant life and the Andean people have a rich knowledge of the use of these plants for medicines, and for dying their cloth.”
The spun yarns will be boiled for varying periods, depending on the dying material or mix of materials, and the colour desired. Often fixers, such as salt or urine are necessary to create colour fastness, alter hues, or intensify colour saturation. After the yarns have dried, they are re-spun, plied, and/or made into balls of yarn ready for weaving.
Dying is an art, which depends on personal colour preference, situation, size of the dying batch, etc. Techniques and materials required to achieve particular shades depend largely on the region and the materials available, as well as the education and experience of the dyer. At one time, most weavers would be well-aware of the natural processes and materials for dying. The popularity of convenient synthetics nearly resulted in a complete erasure of these skills from indigenous culture, and a whole generation came to lack this knowledge. Thankfully, a recent resurgence of interest in the old ways led to consultation with the elders who still remembered the processes, and the traditions have been (at least in part) rescued. However, more education is required for the indigenous population to completely regain these traditions.
While it is generally accepted that natural dyes are better for human health and the environment, we recognize that there is still a need for more complete and comprehensive research into the environmental impact of these natural dyes an processes. Threads of Peru hopes to organize, fund, and/or participate in such research in the near future. Please contact us if this subject is of interest to you.
Red is a very important colour to the Andean people. Since ancient times, red has been the brightest and most highly-saturated colour that could be produced with natural dyes. This fact coupled with the peoples' innate love for bright colour has led to red playing a dominant role in the palate of Andean cloth.
Cochineal (above) is the most commonly used substance for the production of red dye. It is a scale insect (relative of the aphid) found on the prickly pear cactus, which is common to the Sacred Valley.
The insect is ground using stones or mortar and pestle to release the deep red pigment, which is then added to water and boiled as the basis of the dying process.
The addition of other substances can alter the core colour and create new hues. here, lemon salt has been added to shift a cochineal-red to a carrot-orange
Women in Chaullacocha take part in a dying workshop organized by RUFADA Peru.
Watch as the cochineal is crushed.
Cochineal living on the prickly pear cactus.
Dried cochineal in a bowl with cochineal-dyed yarn.
At least 5 colours can be derived from cochineal with addition of other substances. These combinations include:
(Prepared in a 5l pot)
Bright Red=cochineal+a pinch of lemon salt
Light Red=cochineal+approx. 2tsp lemon salt
Reddish-purple=cochineal+approx. 1tsp lemon salt
Carrot Orange=cochineal+approx. 4tsp lemon salt
There are other substances that are used to produce red such as, Achancaray, and the roots of Chapi-Chapi (a relative of Old World Madder), which was used in ancient Peru.