The use of natural dyes to colour textiles has a long history in Cusco and throughout the Andes. Although this ancient technology is healthier than chemical dyes, for both people and the environment, it requires much more time and is more costly. Therefore, after commercial aniline dyes and synthetic threads became available, dyeing hand spun yarn with natural materials nearly disappeared from the Cusco region for almost a hundred years.
Fortunately, today people are returning to natural dyes, thanks to the encouragement of NGOs and the increasing foreign demand for natural hand-made products. However, the excessive use of some natural dyes, such as those that come from lichens, can have a negative impact on a species; therefore an extensive research on this topic is required, as well as a sustainable use of the natural materials.
Here is how some of the main colours are naturally obtained in the communities where Threads of Peru operates:
The colour red may be the most important and most commonly used colour in Andean textiles. Since ancient times, red has been the brightest and most highly-saturated colour that could be produced with natural dyes.
The Cochineal insect (Dactilopius coccus), scale insect (relative of the aphid) found on the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia), common to the Sacred Valley, is widely used in the dyeing process. It is ground up using stonesor mortar and pestle to release the deep red pigment, which is then added to water and boiled with the yarn to obtain a wide range of colours such as red, pink, orange and purple. , The colour can be altered by adding substances to the mix. For instance, lemon salt can be added to shift a cochineal red to a carrot-orange, bright red, light red and reddish purple.
Here is a video of the cochineal being crushed:
Although cochineal is the most common, there are other substances which are used to produce red dye such as, achancaray, and the roots of Chapi-Chapi (a relative of Old World Madder), which was used in ancient Peru.
In Peru, the colour green can be created in a number of ways, depending on the region and the desired shade. Green is achieved using various plants or a combination of plants and minerals such as ch’illca (used also for the production of yellow), a green leafy bush with white flowers or collpa, a mineral compound found in the jungle. Broken pieces of collpa can be mixed with ch’illca, boiled for about an hour and then wool is added.
Instead of ch’illca, the mutuy or nunuqay plants can be used. Apart from the use of ch’illca as a natural dye it has a variety of other uses as well. In the natural medicine it is valued for its inflammatory and anti-rheumatic properties, in the agro forestry and phytochemistry for the soil protection and conservation. It stems are used in basketry and the ashes of the burned ch’llca are used for the development of Lliptta powder accompanying the chewing of coca leaves. The wood is used as construction material.
A combination of Tara, which is a bean like pod, and blue Colpa, which may be a local form of iron sulphate, are a common method of producing the colours blue and grey. The process calls for Tara to be boiled with the wool and the Colpa to be added as a fixer. Colour shades vary with time and measures of material.
Indigo is another plant, used to obtain natural blue colour. As it grows mainly in the Amazon and on the coast, it is hard to acquire in the high Andes. However, when weavers can find it on the market, they will also use Indigo dyes for the colour blue. Anil is a plant that yields the Indigo dye when processed, but it doesn’t grow in the region. In the medicine, the indigo is used as an antidote to scorpion bites and also as an antiseptic that heals skin ulcers.
Here are some naturally coloured finished products! So many colours, it’s hard to believe they all come from the Pachamama (mother earth).