Andean Natural Dyes: Practical, Deep, and Empowering

As I sit in the Andes at 12,000 feet, the sun is clear and piercing while weavers work. In clear vision, Andean woven color steps forward in a strong and forceful manner. Pattern, line, design, and form are defined by the color the weaver has selected. The hues are rich and pervasive, causing one to marvel at their power and wonder at their origins.

Rescuing A Threatened Art

Today in 2020 we might not realize how the incredible art of producing true Andean color—natural dyeing—was almost lost. Synthetic aniline dyes (created from coal tar extracts) were enormously popular and ensconced in western fashion within fifty years of their discovery by William Perkins in 1856. By the end of the 1900s, aniline dyes had arrived in the Andes and began infiltrating Andean textile tradition. Influenced by entrenched European pressures to blend with the dominant culture and attracted to certain synthetic dyeing efficiencies, Andean dyers began using aniline powdered dyes more and more, and the treasured natural-dyed colors dating back for more than 2000 years began to fade into the past.

Obviously some of the ancient natural dye knowledge and tradition survived, particularly in the higher elevation and more distant Andean communities. It is from the elders of these communities, as well as quiet knowledge passed down through oral tradition, that natural Andean dyeing techniques have been rediscovered over the past thirty years.

Nilda Callanaupa, director of the Andean-owned and operated Peruvian non-profit The Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco (CTTC), has made it a high priority to retrieve traditional and ancient dyeing knowledge. The center trains Quechua weavers in CTTC’s ten Andean communities how to gather and use traditional formulas to achieve an amazing color palate for use in their regional textiles. And Nilda, herself, has worked with many elders during the past three decades to preserve crucial Andean dyeing techniques. (Your donations to Andean Textile Arts have and continue to support Nilda and the CTTC’s natural dyeing revitalization work.)

The Power of Color

A generation ago, Andean textile artists said nothing as they were pushed off sidewalks and to the back of the bus—avoided, and heavily discriminated against for their garments, traditions, and who they were as a people. Today, weavers speak up. They work against remaining discrimination and do not allow negative actions or words to push them aside as in the older days of their parents. They empower themselves by using knowledge of their ancient heritage to achieve rich and forceful color that informs the design aesthetic of their weaving. They feel this empowerment both personally and as a people. Quechua weavers discuss this and other things as they seek to incorporate more of their traditions in self-sufficient and sustainable ways, balancing their ancient culture and the impeding 21st century industrialized society.

A rainbow of naturally dyed hand-spun yarn to weave with. Photos in this blog post courtesy of Andrew Holman.

Color is empowering. It has raised people up through economic and spiritual energy through its sheer seductive power on the human psyche. It’s worth the time to look at the stunning color palate of the Andean weaver. It is with great pride that weavers declare their work to be handspun, handwoven, and completely naturally dyed. We can’t eat the color or bathe in it, but we can wonder at its origins and wear it!

The Andean Color Story

In a previous blog post, I discussed cochineal, the wonderous bug that produces deep carminic reds, purples, and pinks. There also are many other Andean dyes, and over the coming months our ATA blog will share information on what these dyes are and how they are used.

Some of our favorite upcoming color stories will focus on:

  • Indigo, a color seen over millenia around the world. And did you know that currently the oldest known extant sample of indigo dyed fabric comes from Peru and is over 6000 years old!
  • Kinsa q’uchu, a magnificent and curious dye that creates an unusual teal color. It is a symbiotic dye, which made it a difficult tradition to retrieve due to the challenge in understanding the symbiotic relationships of its dye partners.
  • Ch’illca, a dye that creates lovely greens. In other parts of the world, greens usually are products of overdyeing or lichens, but this is a leaf that I will share with you soon!
  • Chapi, a distant cousin of the madder plant. A very ancient dye, it was used for lighter reds alongside of cochineal over two thousand years ago.
  • Q’olle or Qolli produces a lovely yellow on its own, but also can be used as a base for over dyeing other colors.
  • Natural colors from fleece. Amazing color is produced by both the native alpaca and sheep of the Andes. How are natural colors blended and used to build a textile? The use of these natural colors is an art form all on its own.

Color has empowered the Quechua people socially, spiritually, economically, and personally for thousands of years and continues to be a valuable contribution to human culture. The rescue of this culturally respected and guarded knowledge speaks of something that sustains a people, an environment, and indeed our world. Comprehending and conserving this form of ancient wisdom serves to preserve a way of life that is inherent in the Quechua people’s woven tradition. The ATA community is privileged to be able to enter into their world and be a part of its understanding. I look forward to sharing more of their color story with you.

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