Brilliant Natural Dyes…another note about Peru

Lesson by an Inca wall (that smells too much like pee)

Lesson by an Inca wall (that smells too much like pee)

The Peruvian women know how to use natural plants and insects to transform their rather ordinary wool from sheep and alpacas into rainbows destined to wrapped their loved ones in warmth.

One day, while waiting in one of the dozens of beautiful squares of Cusco, a women approached with a basket of textiles to sell.  She spoke mostly Quechua and my Spanish is broken at best but with traveler smiles, gestures and a few key words we managed to have a lively conversation…sharing a bit about our lives and our families.

Her name is Paulina Cullanaupa Contreras, she is the single mother of four children, 39 years old and came into the city of Cusco by bus every day from Chinchero so that her children could attend school in the city.  She learned to weave with her grandmother and her aunts and didn’t enjoy doing complicated patterns…she liked coloring the wool more than the weaving.

Honestly, the weavings she was trying to sell at the square weren’t particularly good.  Perhaps because she had rushed to bring things to market, or maybe she didn’t know how to do better work or more probably because the general tourist public doesn’t look closely at the workmanship  and she learned quickly that doing intricate work didn’t pay…who knows?  When I said I was hoping to bring home samples of finer weavings and natural dye color, she smiled, asked me to wait a few minutes.  She left me holding her bag of goods while she ran off for some other things she thought I might like better.

Paulina's Blanket

Paulina's Blanket

Think for a minute how trusting she was…we had only been conversing for a little while and yet she left me with all of her hand wovens because it never crossed her mind that someone would take them while she was away…don’t you love that kind of trust in the world?

Well we did wait and soon she was back, her cheeks flushed from running in the thin Andean air.  In her arms was this beautiful handwoven blanket.  It consists of two lengths of back strap weaving sewn together, all spun, dyed and woven by her during free time of the past two months.

I asked her about the colors and was astounded at the depth of her knowledge.  I’m only sad that we didn’t share a common language that actually allowed me to ask all the questions that were running through my mind about mordants and fixatives and seasons of harvesting the plant material…but still,  Paulina was kind enough to take my little notebook in hand and write down the different dye plants as they corresponded to the stripes of the blanket.

Paulina's notes

Paulina's notes

Each of the three shades of color is the result of the dye baths.  The first is the strongest, second a bit lighter and the third the most pale.   The plants she used were:

Nogal…Walnut (browns)

Chilca with Iron Sulfate (greens)

Cochineal (insect) (reds)

Indigo (blues)

Mixed cochineal and indigo (purples)

Lichens (oranges)

This blanket is the perfect primer for someone like me who is only beginning to understand the world of natural dyes…I have something to aim for now.  And the mystery was solved…Paulina certainly knows her craft, she simply doesn’t waste her precious time making things for the tourist market that she knows won’t pay a high return.  Luckily for me, she had this blanket stashed away and was willing to sell it…I’ll share it with you during Fiber College this fall.

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