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 less time-consuming and offers much more intense shades of colour, such as fluorescent 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.
The demand created by foreign tourists for ‘natural’ handmade products, has meant that 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 dyeing their cloth.
The spun yarns will be boiled for varying periods, depending on the dyeing material or mix of materials, and the colour desired. Often fixatives, such as mineral salts 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.
Dyeing is an art, which depends on personal colour preference, situation, size of the dyeing 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 dyeing. 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 and processes. Threads of Peru hopes to organize, fund, and/or participate in such research in the near future.
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 palette of traditional Andean cloth.
A wide range of red hues can be achieved with natural recipes.
Cochineal 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 dried in the sun and then ground into a fine powder using stones, a mortar and pestle, or a hand-turned grinder. This powder is then added to water and boiled as the basis of the dyeing process. Fixatives must be used with cochineal to adjust the pH and ensure colour fastness. Depending on the type, quantity and combination of fixatives used, cochineal can be used to dye a wide range of shades, from bright red to shades of pink, purple and more.
Watch as the cochineal is crushed.
Dried cochineal is added to the pot and stirred into the wool.
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.
A common way to achieve the colour orange is to add citric acid (known to local weavers as sal de limon, which literally translates as lime salt) to cochineal dyed wool. As shown in the right-hand image, this creates a very bright carrot-orange.
Yanali is also a common ingredient used for orange colour. Yanali is obtained by chopping the native tree bark. The bright orange bark is collected and produces a mustard yellow or yellowish orange yarn when boiled and fixed with salt.
The inner bark of the Chapi plant also produces shades of orange and coral. Chapi grows in Parobamba, in the Mapacho Valley region of Cusco, during August and September.
In Peru, the colour green can be created in a number of ways depending on the region and the desired shade. The colour green is achieved using various plants or a combination of plants and minerals.
Ch’illca is commonly used to make a green dye. It is a green leafy plant and has white flowers when in bloom.
Collpa is 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 and boiled some more.
According to our discussions on colour with indigenous weavers, green can also be achieved using a similar process, but substituting the plant Mutuy for the ch’illca. In the area of Lares, the plant Nunuqay is used.
As with many colours, purple can be achieved in a variety of ways. A common method used in the Sacred Valley is the combination of cochineal and a fixative, such as copper or iron oxide.
Other methods include the use of a hard-to-find mountain plant, uncommon to the Sacred Valley, called Awaypili, and a seed called Mote Mote. Awaypili is purchased in the market at around 5 soles (or $1.60) per kilo. The dying process calls for the leaves to be boiled and the wool to be added and turned every 5-10 minutes until the desired colour is reached. When boiled and cooled, urine is added, which both fixes and intensifies the colour.
A combination of Tara, which is a bean like pod, and blue collpa, 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 collpa to be added as a fixative. Colour shades vary with time and measures of material.
When weavers can find it in 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 does not grow in the region.
The flowers of the Qolle, which is a small tree within the region, are used to make the colour yellow and some shades of orange. The wool is boiled with the flowers and a variety of shades is achieved depending on the length of time the wool remains in the solution.
Qaqa Sunka can be used to create shades of yellow, as can a combination of Mutuy and citric acid. Quico flowers, Nunuqay and Molle (a Peruvian Pepper tree) are also known to produce yellow dyes.
Most neutral shades are found naturally as undyed fibre so there is no need to colour the wool to get hues such as grey, black and brown. However, sometimes these colours are not available and weavers will need to dye some wool. Also, because the natural colours of wool are often speckled with fibers of a different shade (a natural black fiber will often have many bits of greys and browns mixed into the black), then wool can be dyed naturally to achieve a more consistent colour.
A combination of Tara (a bean like pod discussed in the Blue section) and blue Collpa, which may be a local form of iron sulphate, are commonly used in producing the colours blue and grey. The process calls for Tara to be boiled with the wool and the Collpa to be added as a fixative. Colour shades vary with time and measures of material.
In order to create a brown dye, Qaqa Sunka (pictured above), which is a lichen, is boiled with wool, then about 1 cup of fermented urine (which has been stored for 2 weeks to 1 month prior to use) is added, as a fixative, and boiled for about 10 minutes. This process makes an orange colour first. Once a batch of orange wool has been finished, a fresh batch of wool can be added to the weakened mixture to produce a light brown.
Although natural dyes do exist that produce black, most people we have spoken to tend to giggle when we ask about it. This is because sheep and alpaca all produce naturally black fleece.