Threads of Peru Blog

Unveiling the Secrets of Dye Plants in Calca: Science...or Magic?

This past weekend, a colleague of mine and I went to visit a man in Calca to learn about some of the mysteries of the natural dye world.

Martín Solís has been working with natural dyes professionally for the past 15 years, though it’s a subject he’s been interested in since he was just a boy growing up in the Paucartambo district. He has an innate passion for the extraordinary diversity of colours that can be achieved using locally available plants and minerals, and a deep respect for the plants themselves. Although we carried out our workshop in his relatively urban home in the middle of the Sacred Valley, more than once he insisted that it was infinitely better to dye “in the field”, surrounded by a wide variety of dye-bearing plants, so that we could truly appreciate their gifts. 

Martín lifting out the freshly dyed red yarn, our first batch of the day

Martín lifting out the freshly dyed red yarn, our first batch of the day.

 Martín is a master of working with the dye plants themselves: he knows just where to go to collect the best quality materials, knows just how to use the plants in different combinations to produce different shades, and knows all the little tricks to ensure that these colours last. 

Leaves of the dye plant ttere, which dyes shades of yellow

Leaves of the dye plant ttere, which dyes shades of yellow.

For the past six years, however, Martín has been developing something truly Martín is a master of working with the dye plants themselves: he knows just where to go to collect the best quality materials, knows just how to use the plants in different combinations to produce different shades, and knows all the little tricks to ensure that these colours last.: he has found a way to dry, grind and combine his usual array of dye materials into prepared, ready-to-use, just-add-water dye mixtures.

It’s absolutely amazing!

His preparations (the exact ingredients of which are a proprietary secret) come in a set of six basic colours: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and black. By using different combinations of each of these base colours as well as pure cochineal, Martín is able to produce a range of 50 natural shades, from the brightest, truest shades of red, orange, green and blue to a range of purples, pinks, and even browns, greys and black. 

5 of the 6 prepared dye preparations

5 of the 6 prepared dye preparations

The best part about his dye mixes? They allow the user to conserve water and fuel!

Because his dye recipes are calculated exactly, all of the dyestuff in each colour batch is taken up by the yarn being dyed. This means that the same dye bath can be used to dye multiple shades, one after the other. No need to dump out large volumes of water and start fresh with each new colour. During our lesson, we dyed 12 different colours in the same two pots of water! We were also able to add back in water that drained from finished yarn, thus preventing any water from going to waste.

Furthermore, Martín told us that during the course of our workshop he expected to go through about 10kg of firewood in order to boil the water for dyeing. This is a huge savings compared to the 40kg he says it would take if you had to boil fresh pots of water for each new colour. 

The scene at Martín's house

The scene at Martín's house.

Martín teaches a variety of workshops to weaving groups and institutions, including a three-day workshop that combines the practical skills of natural dyeing with colour theory, both how to combine different colours in a weaving and also the traditional meanings of colours.

He also takes custom dye orders from weavers all over the Cusco area. 

Checking on the orange...

 Checking on the orange...

...and the green              ...and the green

 When not teaching or dyeing himself, Martín is often off on plant-collecting excursions. On three separate occasions while planning this workshop, Martín had to apologize for the bad cellphone connection when we called him, saying that he was “on the top of a mountain” collecting plants, and the reception must not be very good.

He’s off again today.

But the best part of the experience for us was definitely watching it all unfold. Squeals of delight rang out as a spoonful of non-descript powder was added to the water and instantly turned it a brilliant shade of blue or green or red.

I actually understand a great deal about the chemistry going on during the dye process, but when you watch it happen before your very eyes, no amount of science can explain away what is really going on: pure magic. 

- Written by: Project Coordinator, Sarah Confer

The dazzling array of 12 shades that we dyed that day

The dazzling array of 12 shades that we dyed that day.