As eco-awareness spreads around the world, it’s refreshing to remember the natural, sustainable practices in places such as Peru. Natural dyes and fabrics are not simply a trend in Peru, they are a way of life. Peruvian textile techniques are a time-honored tradition, with roots that extend back hundreds of years, well before the advent of chemicals and synthetic dyes. Although Peru was not immune to the spread of synthetic dyes in the late 19th/early 20th century, many Peruvians have continued to produce eco-friendly dyes from insect, plant and mineral sources. Peru has seen a resurgence in natural dye production over the past few decades, as demand has steadily increased.
The bold red hues that characterize many Andean textiles often start with a bug: the Cochineal. As early as the 15th century, the Aztecs and Mayans were extracting red dyes from the cochineal. Cochineal feed on the prickly pear cactus, which thrives in the Sacred Valley of Peru. Cochineal yields over 20 shades of red, pink, and even blue depending on the type of fixant used. Cochineal is also used as a food additive, and is the only natural red dye approved for consumption by the FDA.
Peruvians also extract red dye from an indigenous red flower, the Achancaray, or madder root, which is one of the earliest known red dyes in mankind. Mot’e mot’e, Yamamiyo, and Nukch’u are native Andean plants also used for red dye. While these alternatives are in use, cochineal is favored for its unique red colors that mark the beauty of Andean textiles. For more information on cochineal, see the book Cochineal Red: The Art History of a Color by Elena Phipps.
Yellow and orange dyes are made from the flowers of the Qolle tree or Quico flowers, both indigenous plants of Peru. Orange dyes can also be extracted from Beard Lichen, known as Qaqa Sunka in Quechua.
The color green can be derived from a gamut of plant and mineral sources, with Ch’illca, a green leafy shrub with white flowers, being one of the most common. The essential oil found in Ch’illca also has many medicinal purposes, and can be used to help protect and heal Alpaca skin.
Indigo is one of the oldest and most coveted dyes in the world, used in ancient India to create gorgeous blue hues to be worn only by royalty. Indigo is still used as a natural dye source, but it can be rare in Peru as it does not grow in the region. Instead, Peruvians tend to rely on a combination of Tara, a native pod, and Colpa, an iron sulfate, to create natural blue dyes.
While synthetic dye is readily available and much easier to use, cultural revitalization programs – such as dyeing workshops sponsored by NGOs, cooperatives, and textile projects, bring hope to indigenous weavers in revitalizing the ancient textile techniques.
There are many beautiful textiles and garments produced without any dyes at all. Alpaca fleece is available in a beautiful range of natural colors, including black, grey, white and caramel.