Indigo Mules

We flew to Peru carrying precious cargo in our suitcases—seventeen 1-pound bags triple-wrapped in plastic, and labeled “Ground Indigofera Tinctoria” just in case our bags were searched. This wasn’t the first time we were asked to be “indigo mules” and I’m sure we haven’t been the only carriers over the years. This indigo would be given as gifts to each of the ten weaving communities, association members of the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco (CTTC), whom the ATA board and volunteers would be visiting in late October (2022).

Recovering Natural Dye Usage

Since the 1990s, the CTTC has worked to recover the practice of natural dyeing in the Cusco region. Through extensive research, attending workshops, talking with natural dye experts from outside Peru, and above all, extensive work with elders, the CTTC revived a process that had disappeared from common knowledge in the early-to-mid-twentieth century.

Many of the dye materials used by pre-Columbian cultures came from all three geographical areas of Peru: coast, mountains, and jungle. These ancient cultures worked with extensive trade routes that extended far outside of their territories to source the materials they needed for dyeing and weaving. Today the dye materials used by the weavers come from the Andes mountains and the Amazon jungle. That is, all but indigo.

What About Indigo?

In 2006, the CTTC began investigating the native strain of indigo (Indigófera suffruticosa of the family familia fabaceae) found in pre-Columbian textiles. After years of work and experimentation, the CTTC managed a small indigo farm in the jungle close to Machu Picchu. The plot of land was 700 to 800 meters square and produced three crops per year yielding about 400 kilos of the unprocessed indigo leaf. After the extraction process, the plant material produced 1.5 to 1.8 kilos of indigo dye per crop, yielding 4.5 to 5.4 kilos (10-12 lbs) of indigo a year. Hardly enough dye to sustain the needs of ten weaving communities. After several years, it became clear that indigo production carried out by the CTTC was not going to be economically prudent and they would need to use imported indigo. For reference, the 17 pounds of indigo we transported in October would be used by the weavers during their winter dyeing and weaving time. The richness of the blues, as well as color variations when Indigo is mixed with other natural dyes, are prized by the weavers, especially those of Chinchero. Here you can see just a sample of their community’s signature mantas (carrying cloths) proudly shown to us during our visit.

Indigo is just one of the many natural dyes used to produce the multiple colors used in exquisite Andean weavings. In addition to indigo, the weavers also need help purchasing cochineal and the dye mordants. Your donation can help buy a pound of cochineal for $25 or a kilo of indigo for $50.

ATA board members brought gifts for each village. In addition to indigo, the most popular items were reading glasses and Starburst candies!

Share the Post:

Related Posts

Don't Miss Out!

Sign Up for Our Newsletter

Want a behind-the-scenes look at Andean textile culture? Our quarterly newsletter is your source for insider information.