Mar 11 2013

Intriguing Tradition: Organic Color Dyes by The Zapotecs

Wool being boiled with cochineal

Intriguing Tradition: Organic Color Dyes by The Zapotecs

By Saasaan Nabavi

There is a truly unique and special process still taking place in several communities around the world to produce natural color dyes. One community in particular is Teotitlan del Valle, a village just outside of Oaxaca City, Mexico. Teotitlan was founded by the Zapotecs in the 1400s and has been at the forefront since their founding for their fabrication of hand woven rugs and traditional clothing.

Our team went to Teotitlan del Valle to learn about the history, the process and the benefits of natural color dyes. Here is what we found!


The tradition of dying wool with organic elements found in nature come from a very old tradition that was developed by the Zapotecs and several other ancient world cultures. The most famous of all the elements used by the Zapotecs is the Cochineal, a native insect which can produce red dye. The cochineal lives off the moisture and nutrients produced by Mexico’s native Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica).

Cochineal being crushed on a metate

Other natural elements being used are

  • Black Sapote (Diospyros digyna): a fruit used for black dye.
  • Marigold (Tagetes lucida): a herb used for yellow dye.
  • Indigofera: a flower used for blue dye.
  • Plicopurpura pansa: a sea snail for purple dye.

Black Sapote (Diospyros digyna): a fruit used for brown/black dye.

The procedure to dye fabric naturally is an incredibly intricate process. The process starts far before the color reaches the wool. First, the ingredients must be cultivated, from there, the color must be extracted from the ingredient using one of several techniques, typically a stone tool known as “metate” is used to crush or grind out the color needed. The wool also must go through a carding process where it is disentangled, cleaned and then spun on a spinning wheel into skein (bundle) of wool.

Once the ingredients have been prepared, they must go through a several step boiling process. The boiling process begins by adding a stone known as “alumbre” or alum, this stone allows the color to set into the wool, and the wool to a large pot of boiling water. The raw dye ingredients are then typically added to hot water, then after some time will join the boiling wool and alumbre.

After the cochineal has been heated with water, it is then added to a boiling pan of wool.

After boiling, the wool is washed in the local river. After the dyed wool has dried it is ready to be used for fabrication of clothing and rugs. The rug and clothing fabricating process requires an even greater set of time and skill.

Zoku’s southern Mexico’s correspondent Jesus Herrera getting a closer look!

Something we also learned was that 
not all textiles that are fabricated in Teotitlan are dyed with organic colors. Over recent time, many families, like the rest of the world have opted to use artificial dyes; naturally because they are cheaper and much easier to get. However, the decision to use chemically made dyes has had serious ramifications on their rivers and drinking water. The reason is that the artificially dyed textiles must be cleaned with sulfuric acid and this cleaning has been taking place in the local rivers, ultimately contaminating the water. By fortune more and more families have caught on to this problem and are now returning to their organic methods.

Special thanks to Alejandro Mendoza and his family for allowing us in their home and sharing their craft with us.



Leave a Reply

(not published)

© 2010