Natural Dyes as Part of Mexico’s Cultural and Spiritual Heritage: A Hands-On Workshop

This spring I had the great privilege of meeting Porfirio Gutiérrez, an educator and social justice activist from Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, who with his Zapotec family is part of an indigenous movement striving to revive the ancient practice of handcrafted dyes for textiles. His sister Juana Gutiérrez Contreras has become a master in the process of producing dyes, and can claim to have come up with 200 different hues. By using essential materials such as pericón (white marigold) flower and the cochinilla insect (ground to a fine powder), these Zapotec communities are safeguarding the importance of using natural dyes as a way of life and in harmony with nature. There are only four families in Oaxaca, for example, who have the knowledge and ability to process natural dyes from cochinilla.

After dyeing our wool scarves with pericón, we prepared them to dip them again in cochinilla-infused boiling water

While his extended family in Oaxaca is producing natural dyes and weaving elaborate textiles, Porfirio has been running workshops in the US and Mexico to build awareness among foreigners, pass these important traditions to the next generation of indigenous artisans, and create a sustainable system of reciprocity to keep this tradition alive. During our workshop at the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, Porfirio explained the complexity of natural dyes as “applied chemistry” where colors are never the same because they change depending on the amount of that year’s rainfall.

Our beautiful scarves drying up after the 5-hour process.

“Working with Mother Nature is very satisfying when you understand it is a living being, and you understand your limitations as a human being,” said Porfirio and explained that climate change has driven folks to adapt to more arid conditions. Pericón flower, for example, used to be 12 inches long but for the past couple years, it has barely reached seven inches. Climate change has made these traditions vulnerable to the extreme changes and also helped them reach the conclusion that they need to take back their land to grow their own materials, harvest cochinilla, and have the space and time to engage with young indigneous people, as well as visitors.

Porfirio himself had an epiphany at a young age when he went back home after living in the US for several years. Although as a 12-year-old he already knew weaving techniques, it was upon his return that he learned to appreciate his culture, his traditions, and his native language. “During spiritual ceremonies I am welcomed as a local, but also extremely mindful of every second because I see things as an outsider,” he explained. “These materials are sacred, and these traditions are under threat of extinction.”

A young apprentice learning the craft of natural dyes.

It was in the 1960s that people began to mass produce textiles and use chemical dyes to create them, but according to Porfirio, selling textiles is also about selling their culture and their identities—it is a spiritual calling. By promoting the natural dye process, these Zapotec families hope to promote a closer relationship with nature. Sheep’s wool just doesn’t smell the same if it goes through a chemical process, so it’s easier to forget where these materials and nature’s colors come from, as well as our relationship with the artisans that make them.

The Mexican government just announced a law proposal whose aim is to protect indigenous practices and cultural heritage such as the one practiced by Porfirio’s family, from cultural appropriation. It will establish a process of surveying Mexico’s cultural indigenous landscape and provide processes of prior consultation, to prevent foreign companies sell similar products for monetary gain. Many of these indigenous practices cannot be divorced from an ancient deep spiritual connection to Mother Earth.

During the hands-on five-hour workshop right outside the Harvard Peabody Museum premises, Porfirio led twelve of us through a patient process of carefully measuring, boiling, sifting, and dyeing wool scarves with pericón and, consecutively, cochinilla, to create beautiful yellow- and carmine-colored garments. He began the process with a one-hour talk to give participants a strong cultural context of what we were about to partake in. The workshop his family leads in Oaxaca includes cultural immersion with Zapotec families as well as meeting other pottery and textile artisans in the area.

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Although Porfirio has become the “face” of this family tradition, he strives to highlight his sister Juana as the true artisan in the family. Below we’d share something he wrote about Juana and indigenous wisdom surrounding this ancient practice:

Juana Gutiérrez Contreras. Photo: Shannon, Casita Colibrí

Many of you have had the opportunity to meet my sister, Juana, either through taking a workshop from her or just visiting our studio. I have shared information about Juana and her practice, but I haven’t shared a lot about her life with the dyes.

Just like all my parents children, Juana inherited her deep artistic traditions and her rich cultural identity from our ancestors, the Zapotec Civilization. In our family, we learned our weaving and natural dyeing practices at a very early age and forged our identities within that artistic expression.

Juana is ten years older than me. She found her calling as a colorist using plants, insects and fruits after formally learning the basic knowledge and wisdom of natural dyeing from our parents.

When one is born in a tradition it is expected they will follow that path. Juana doesn’t work with natural dyes because she was born in the tradition or because there is money to be made or because it is a trend! She works with natural dyes because she discovered her gift and calling within our practice and learned to develop a profound connection with mother earth. As a healer our mother often says one is a healer because you are born with a special gift that the greater being gave you.

The process of creating color from nature starts with a basic understanding that mother earth is a living being and that the plants are also living beings. These plants are alive just like us and grown with thanks to the rain. The elders refer to the rain as divine and without this divine power there will simply be no colors. These are part of our cultural values and the process of creating colors from a natural source starts here.

The elders refer to the rain as divine and without this divine power there will simply be no colors.

Juana’s exposure to the traditional knowledge gives her an understanding of about 10 different color hues. From there on she is continuously researching and experimenting with a diverse array of plants and fibers, building a tremendous respect and connection to mother earth, understanding her limitations and the limitations of the materials.

She has now has developed over 200 hundred different colors, all from natural sources.

Juana is among the last few people in our community with deep wisdom about natural dyeing. Her practice has shaped her artistic expression through a collaborative effort that gives life to each piece of art created in our family studio.

This year I took on the responsibility of doing a series of short natural dye workshops in the United States. I’m not a master dyer myself but we decided to do these workshops to introduce Juana’s practice to others. It is extremely important for students to understand the meaning and responsibility of working with natural dyes within our values and beliefs. Understanding our values and beliefs is the first step to eventually creating colors.

The master dyes classes that Juana teaches at our studio are offered to students after submitting a brief summary of their background and interest in our practice. Our goal is to offer artists and people with a passion for color an in-depth study session, like what they would have in a residency or retreat program. This immersion style of learning also applies for our studio weaving workshops.

This year we are only hosting two group workshops, designed for a very small group of selected students to come and learn from us. We are also taking few independent artists who will come and do textile studies and research. This kind of immersive learning goes beyond our practice, creating a dialogue between the student and the rich creative community of Oaxaca. We are attracting artists, creative people and textile experts from around the world who recognize the importance of natural dyes and textiles in a broader cultural context.

Our goal is to confront the detachment that exists between the object and the culture that nurtures its creation. Through our teachings we aim to bring awareness of traditional wisdom and values. In most cases our voices have been silenced by an attitude of neo-colonialism. The audience never gets to learn the real meaning of our culture. With all of you support we will continue our journey.