Aug 1 2013

Natural Purple Dye from Sea Snails


Natural Purple Dye from Sea Snails 

By Saasaan Nabavi

We first heard of the possibility of sea snails possessing the capability to produce purple dye for textiles while in Teotitlan del Valle. It was when we were there learning the methods used in retrieving natural dyes for red, yellow, blue and brown; we asked about purple. We learned then that natural purple can be found in live sea snails!

We were beyond intrigued and wanted to know more!

The natives in Teotitlan told us we might be able to find these snails in Huatulco, a coastal town 7-hours west.

We were soon on a bus zigzagging through the Sierra Madre del Sur’s on our way to Huatulco.

Scientific name for this sea snail: Plicopurpura pansa  

Teotitlan del Valle down to Huatulco


Jesus and I spent our first day roaming around the area talking to locals with the hopes of being pointed in the direction of the snails. We must have talked to a dozen different locals who pointed us in all directions. By the end of the day, we had found no snails!

The plan for the following morning was to ask a few more locals and if they didn’t know, we would hit the road back to Oaxaca City.


As it would turn out on our final attempt, we spotted a fisherman coming back with his days catch. After talking to him about what we were after, we received the response we had been searching for! Turns out he knew exactly where we could find the snails and was happy to give us a ride on his boat to where they were!



This practice of dying by the Plicopurpura pansa is an ancient practice that has been developed and used by the Zapotecs in this region for centuries.  However, over usage has brought this species into danger of extinction.

No longer do the snails inhabit the coastal shores like they once before did.

Today Plicopurpura pansa inhabit in tranquility on off shore rocks off the coast.



Once within the snail’s habitat, which in this case was 2 miles off shore, we began searching for the snails. Plicopurpura pansa range in size from 2cm to 6cm’s long. The snails shell is spirally and prickly with a color that often resembles the rock they are living on.


Our guide used a thin rod to poke the snails off their rocks. When the snail is extracted off it’s rock, it releases a white ‘milky’ liquid as a self defense mechanism. After this white liquid dries, it turns whatever it dried on to purple!

The snail was then released immediately back.







In all, it was a fascinating trip learning about the ancient dying methods. As Zoku Handicrafts develops and continues to deal with textiles from all over the world. It is important for us to know first hand what color dyes are good for the environment and which ones pose a threat.

Plicopurpura pansa is currently under threat, good news is, in the last decade scientists have been working with local communities where P. pansa live, developing policies to better protect and manage the Plicopurpura pansa populations!

Special thanks to our southern Mexico correspondent Jesus Herrara for assisting on this adventure and the fisherman who taught us everything we came to learn!

Leave a Reply

(not published)

© 2010