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Color Me Natural

Every day we’re flooded with alarming warnings about the modern lifestyle and its impact on the environment, from dyes and pesticides to plastics.  As eco-awareness increasingly sweeps across 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 methods 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.  What’s more, 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 carmine dyes from the cochineal, a scale insect that resembles a beetle. Cochineal feed on the prickly pear cactus, which thrives in the Sacred Valley of Peru.

To extract the deep purplish-red carmine pigment, the dried insect is simply ground, usually with a stone, and then boiled into a concentrated source of dye.  Once extracted, mixtures of lemon and salt can be added to create a stunning array of reds, purples and oranges for use in textiles, cosmetics and even foods.  In fact, cochineal is the only natural red dye approved for consumption by the FDA.  Although cochineal dye is the most widely available, Peruvians will also extract red dye from an indigenous red flower, the achancaray, or from the madder root, which is one of the earliest known red dyes in mankind.

Foraged wild flowers are used at length in the production of yellow and orange dyes.  The most commonly used are the flowers of the Qolle tree or Quico flowers, both indigenous plants of Peru.  By simply boiling the flowers with the yarns (most often alpaca) for various lengths of time, Peruvians are able to achieve an impressive spectrum of oranges and yellows.  Orange dyes can also be extracted from a type of lichen that grows on rocks, known as Qaqa Sunka, which translates from Quechua to mean “beard lichen.”

Probably the easiest of all dyes to find in nature is the color green, which can be derived from a gamut of plant and mineral sources. In Peru, Ch’illca, a green leafy shrub with white flowers, is one of the most common sources for green pigment, especially around Cuzco. 

The essential oil found in Ch’illca also has many medicinal purposes, and can be used to help protect and heal Alpaca skin.  To intensify green hues, collpa, a mineral found in the Amazonian jungle, can be added to the Ch’illca dye mixture and boiled for about an hour before adding the yarns.

Indigo is one of the oldest and most coveted dyes in the world.  It was used extensively throughout ancient India to create gorgeous textiles and for centuries blue clothing was seen as a status symbol, being worn only by royalty. 

Indigo is still used as a natural dye source, but it can be hard to come across in Peru.  It can sometimes be found in Peruvian markets, but it does not grow in the region and can be very expensive.  Instead, Peruvians tend to rely on a combination of Tara, a native pod, and Colpa, an iron sulfate, to create natural blue dyes.  The Tara is first boiled with the yarn until the desired shade of blue is achieved and then Colpa is added near the end to “fix” this shade.

Of course, 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.

Over the years, we have offered numerous undyed pieces that are not only fashionable, but environmentally sound.  I can’t get enough of them!  My favorites right now are the Boho Hoodie (can you believe that’s undyed?) and the Sullivan Minidress.  Our Coca bags are a true cultural gem too, embodying the textile genius of the Peruvians: hand-woven in the ancient tradition and hand-dyed from natural sources.  You can also look forward to a gorgeous rug coming up in our Gift book, artisan made by hand with sustainable fibers and natural dyes.  Here’s to being naturally fabulous!

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