Photo: Samantha Demangate

The Art of Dyeing Naturally in Oaxaca

Art + Architecture
by Samantha Demangate Mar 2, 2022

Finding the perfect traditional souvenir to bring back from Mexico isn’t a difficult exercise — there is a multitude of culturally rich crafts to choose from throughout the country. When visiting the state of Oaxaca, however, there is one type of memento that travelers should consider over everything else: Zapotec weavings.

Small Zapotec rugs on display in weaving studio in Oaxaca

Photo: Samantha Demangate

The Zapotecs are an indigenous people of Mexico, who live in the eastern and southern parts of the state of Oaxaca. The Zapotecs are famous for their beautiful hand-woven rugs. Zapotec weavings can be purchased throughout Mexico, but Teotitlán de Valle in Oaxaca is where you’ll be able to fully immerse yourself in the traditional craft. Here you can visit individual studios and see the Zapotec weaving process up close.

Traditional Zapotec weavings are made with natural ingredients native to the region of Oaxaca. Alpaca and sheep wool are the fibers of choice, and they are dyed with locally produced ingredients such as wild tarragon, muicle (a variety of honeysuckle), campeich wood (a native Oaxacan tree), and moss, among many others.

Weavers in Oaxaca, Mexico, use natural ingredients to dye their fibers to create Zapotec rugs

Photo: Samantha Demangate

During the centuries-old dyeing process, the ingredients are generally left to steep in boiling hot water. As they soak, their pigments slowly seep out creating dyes. Each batch of dye is used up to three times and becomes lighter after each use. Before dyeing, the fibers are coated in a mordant, usually potassium alum, so they may absorb the pigment of the dye. The fibers are then bathed into the dye to obtain the color of choice.

The natural ingredients used to dye fibers for Zapotec weavings

Bugs provide red pigments

Cochineal are insects used to dye fibers red or purple

Photo: Samantha Demangate

Cochineal is a curious ingredient that is used to bring shades of red to Zapotec weavings. Cochineal is an insect that resides on the pads of the opuntia cactus, their feast of choice being the cactus’ red fruit. The bright juices of the cactus’ berry concentrate inside the female cochineals, creating a bright crimson color. After the female cochineals are harvested, they are dried in the sun and later ground into a fine powder using a metate (a stone tool used to grind ingredients). The powder is later used to create a rich crimson dye. The red pigment obtained from the cochineals can also be mixed with iron to create purple dye. Iron powder is measured, mixed in cold water, and then added to the red pigment of the cochineal to create a brilliant purple.

Herbs, fruit, and flowers produce every color in the rainbow for Zapotec weavings

wild tarragon is used to dye fabric yellow for the making of Zapotec weavings

Photo: Samantha Demangate

To create a yellow dye for Zapotec weavings, the dried leaves of wild tarragon are steeped in a piping hot vat. Pomegranate husks produce similar shades as tarragon, ranging from a soft yellow to hues of gold depending on the maturity of the fruit used. Pomegranates husks also have the unique ability to produce dark and even black dyes if mixed with iron.

Pecan leaves (browns), marigolds (creams and yellows), and oak wood (browns]) are also boiled in water to create natural dyes, though some require a longer boiling time than others to reveal their colors.

Natural ingredients used for dyes fibers for Zapotec rugs include pomegranate husks and marigold flowers

Photo: Samantha Demangate

Indigo creates arguably the richest pigmentations. Derived from the leaves of the añil plant, indigo, unlike other natural ingredients, is not boiled in water. Instead, the leaves are fermented in water, creating a paste that is later dried. This dried mass is then ground into a powder using a metate. The powder is mixed with rubbing alcohol or mezcal and is added to warm water. An alkaline solution is then added to the mix, as the indigo powder cannot be absorbed in water alone. Once dissolved in the solution, an acid such as mango skin or pineapple juice is added and the vat of liquid is left to ferment to create a deep blue. To craft a brilliant shade of green, fiber can be first bathed in indigo and then submerged in a coat of yellow pomegranate dye.

Natural dyes create a brilliant spectrum of colors sure to mesmerize the eyes. They can even compete with synthetic dyes, creating very bright tones you would never have believed can be found in bugs, herbs, flowers, and fruit.

Process of dyeing fibers blue using Indigo

Photo: Samantha Demangate

Many weavers harvest and dry their ingredients themselves. Textile artist Alejandro Gonzalez of Casa Don Juan — Zapotec Weavings in Teotitlán del Valle explains that their weavers harvest their local plant twice a year. “But for some of them [dyeing ingredients] we need to use fresh and collect them when we want the color.” Additional harvests are made when necessary. These fifth-generation weavers strictly use natural dyes, their local flora woven directly into their craft. Many other studios, like Casa Don Juan — Zapotec Weavings grind and prepare their ingredients at their worksite.

Gauging the authenticity of Zapotec weavings

Each textile created with natural dye is unique due to the nature of small batch dyes. Naturally dyed textiles also tend to be slightly uneven, creating a one-of-a-kind, impossible-to-replicate textile.

When purchasing Zapotec weavings, prices tend to be a good indication of quality. As explained by Gonzales, “Most of the weavers, they use synthetic dyes because [the dying process] is fast and they can make many rugs in [a] short time.” Natural dyes require more time and effort resulting in a higher price, whereas synthetic dyes ensure a faster process for the weaver, cutting time and costs.

weavers creating a Zapotec rug on a loom

Photo: Samantha Demangate

But price isn’t everything. When shopping for an authentic naturally dyed Zapotec textile, like a Zapotec rug, location is also a factor. Shopping near a high-traffic area, like an airport, will narrow your chances of finding a quality piece. You will have more luck in designated market places, but your best option is to make a visit to a weavers’ studio. At their studio, you will not only find gorgeous authentic pieces, but you may also be able to view the dyeing and weaving process for yourself.

The studios of ​​Teotitlán del Valle: Where to see the natural dyeing process and buy Zapotec rugs

A forty-minute drive from Oaxaca City, Teotitlán del Valle is where you will learn about the Zapotec weaving process right from the source. Here are a few places of interest that interested travelers should visit.

  • Casa Don Juan — Zapotec Weavings: a family-run business that provides an excellent experience. The weavers create their textiles in an open-air studio consisting of a courtyard and dyeing station on its second level. They are devoted to preserving traditional techniques and are eager to inform their patrons about the craft’s history.
    Where: Antonio de León 4, Tecutlan, 70420 Teotitlán del Valle, Oax., México
  • Taller Huella Carmín is a family-owned studio that has been practicing traditional Zapotec weaving for five generations. They have modernized Zapotec weaving practices by crafting precious accessories for pets in addition to traditional textiles like Zapotec rugs.
    Where: Emiliano Zapata 6, Tecutlan, 70420 Teotitlán del Valle, Oax., México
  • Taller Nahualli — Zapotec Weavers is a studio that offers weavings with complex, traditional patterns, as well as geometric patterns with a modern flair.
    Where: Av. B. Juarez 214-A, 70420 Teotitlán del Valle, Oax., México

All three studios mentioned above create their own natural dyes, and all three will gladly demonstrate the process for you upon visiting. If you are not ready to commit to purchasing a large piece upon your visit to Oaxaca, all three studios also offer worldwide shipping.

When shopping outside of Oaxaca, the best way to contact many studios is via their Instagram page. Here, you can discuss what they have to offer, worldwide shipping, and possibly even custom-made textiles.

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