In Mexico, Weavers Embrace Natural Alternatives to Toxic Dyes

Thoroughly Americanized by that time, “it was a huge culture shock,” he recalled.

Leaning on the family loom while his father worked, he listened to stories about what life had been like in the village and how it had changed. Eventually he rediscovered a passion for weaving. And he realized that, just as he had forgotten the richness of his culture, the village, too, was slowly losing its age-old traditions.

“There was not much soul anymore,” he said. “These natural dyes were absolutely on the brink of extinction.”

Mr. Gutiérrez and his family decided to create their own weaving studio to create pieces using only natural dyes and to teach others how to do it.

His sister, Juana Gutiérrez Contreras, serves as dye master, combining seven or eight natural elements to produce more than 40 colors. Ms. Contreras’s husband, Antonio Lazo Hernandez, is also a master weaver and helps develop the textile designs.

Photo

Porfirio Gutiérrez working at a loom. Many of the region’s traditional techniques may be lost, he fears.

Credit
Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

Potassium alum, or potash, a mineral found in the mountains around Oaxaca, is used as a mordant, holding the dye to the yarn. In addition to plants gathered in the mountains, flora common in local gardens — zapote negro, marush and pomegranate, for example — are also used as sources for dye.

The indigo and cochineal pigments, however, are purchased from elsewhere. The añil plant grows primarily in the southern part of the state of Oaxaca. As for cochineal — a dye that colored the red coats of British soldiers — tens of thousands of dried insects are needed to produce just one pound of dye.

So the studio buys the pigment from families who farm the prickly pear cactuses that host the parasitic insects. Only females produce the carminic acid that is responsible for the intense red coloring.

The dye is so harmless that the family uses it to water the garden, while the remaining plant material serves as mulch.

In Teotitlán, Mr. Gutiérrez is not the only artisan concerned with preserving Zapotec weaving traditions. Perhaps a dozen others in the village use natural dyes exclusively, and some train tourists in the techniques.

But Mr. Gutiérrez’s fluency in English and familiarity with the United States…

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