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Color Your World…Naturally

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Women in Pitumarka dye alpaca in cochineal (photo courtesy of Kelsey Quam)

In a world where more and more objects are created artificially, it’s comforting to know that dyes can still be obtained from natural sources—mainly plants, animals and minerals. Natural dyes have been around since the dawn of civilization, with the first written record of dyestuffs dating back to China in 2600 BC. Egyptian mummies—including King Tutankhamen—have been found wrapped in cloths dyed red from a pigment extracted from the madder plant. By 715 BC, wool dyeing was an established craft in ancient Rome. And legend has it that Alexander the Great deceived the Persians into thinking that his army was wounded by sprinkling his soldiers with a red dye, also probably madder juice.


Natural dyes have created a wealth of beautiful textiles—from Persian carpets to sumptuous tapestries to kingly regalia—and yet the origins of some of these selfsame dyes can be pretty unappetizing to think about. 800px-Cochenille_z02 Vivid shades of red, like scarlet, crimson and garnet, come from crushed cochineal bugs, which live on cactus plants. Coveted by the ancient Mexicans, the insects were dried and sold in the Aztec marketplaces. In the early 16th century, they caught the attention of the Spanish conquistadors, who had never seen such brilliant red hues on textiles. The conquistadors brought the cochineal insects back to Europe, where they became one of the world’s most precious commodities.


Tyrian purple, also known as royal purple or imperial purple, derives from a mucous secretion from the gland of the Murex, a sea snail found in the eastern Mediterranean. Julian Pollux, a Roman mythographer writing in the 2nd century BC, attributed the discovery of Tyrian purple to the Greek mythic hero Heracles—or more specifically, to his dog, whose mouth was stained purple by chewing on snails along the Levantine coast. Murex However, recent archeological evidence—including ancient pottery and a substantial number of Murex shells found on the island of Crete—suggests that the Minoans may have been the first people to extract the dye back in the Bronze Age.

It took approximately 8,000 Murex snails to extract just one gram of the purple dye, making it extremely expensive. Textiles dyed in Tyrian purple were considered status symbols, and early sumptuary laws restricted their use to the imperial family—hence the saying, “born into the purple.”


So what is the moral of this little tale? That beauty can be derived from the beast! At Peruvian Connection, we still use natural dyes on several pieces in our collections, including the handwoven Patabamba Bag and Belt.

It's In The Details, Luxury Fibers & Textiles | , , , , , , | Permalink | ShareThis

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