Weavers embrace natural alternatives to toxic dyes.
ERICA GOODE NYT Syndicate As a child, Porfirio Guti`rrez hiked into
the mountains above the village with his family each fall, collecting
the plants they would use to make colourful dyes for blankets and other
woven goods. They gathered peric'f3n, a type of marigold that
turned the woolen skeins a buttercream colour; jarilla leaves that
yielded a fresh green; and tree lichen known as old man's beard
that dyed wool a yellow as pale as straw. "We'd talk about the
stories of the plants," Guti`rrez, 39, recalled."Where they
grew, the colours that they provide, what's the perfect timing to
collect them." Gregarious and possessed of an entrepreneurial
spirit, Guti`rrez is descended from a long line of weavers. His father
taught him to weave as a child; he even wove the backpack he took to
school. In this small village near Oaxaca, known for its hand-woven
rugs, he and his family are among a small group of textile artisans
working to preserve the use of plant and insect dyes, techniques that
stretch back more than 1,000 years in the indigenous Zapotec tradition.
Textile artists in many countries are increasingly turning to natural
dyes, both as an attempt to revive ancient traditions and out of
concerns about the environmental and health risks of synthetic dyes.
Natural dyes, though more expensive and harder to use than the chemical
dyes that have largely supplanted them, produce more vivid colours and
are safer and more environmentally friendly than their synthetic
counterparts. To be sure, natural pigments are not always benign. The
plants they are extracted from can be poisonous, and heavy metal salts
are often used to fix the colours to the fabric. The dyes fade more
quickly from sun exposure than chemically produced colours, arguably
rendering the textiles less sustainable. But environmentalists have long
worried about the damaging effects of the wide array of toxic chemicals
" from sulfur and formaldehyde, to arsenic, copper, lead and
mercury " routinely used in textile production. Runoff from textile
factories pollutes waterways and disrupts ecosystems worldwide. And
long-term exposure to synthetic dyes " first discovered in 1856 by
an English chemist, William Henry Perkin " has been linked to
cancer and other illnesses. Most of the master weavers in
Teotitl'e1n are men. But until the Spanish arrived in the early
1500s, weaving in the village was done by women using back-strap looms,
said Norma Schafer, who writes the blog Oaxaca Cultural Navigator and
has studied the history of indigenous arts and crafts in the region. The
Spaniards, Schafer said, brought free-standing, frame-pedal looms and
used them to reward villages that helped fight the Aztecs. Zapotec men
in Teotitl'e1n were taught how to use the devices. Woven blankets
and wraps eventually became the village's main source of income.
But it was Americans, travelling through the Oaxaca valley in the 1970s,
who saw an opportunity to market the Teotitl'e1n weavers'
colourful hand-woven throw rugs. "They brought Navajo designs to
the village," Schafer said."These then were sold at a lower
cost to people decorating their houses in the Southwestern style."
Increased demand led to higher production, with wholesalers distributing
rug patterns and paying village weavers by the piece for rugs. Today,
about 75 percent of Teotitl'e1n's population of 5,600 is
involved in some aspect of weaving. "Every family has their own
recipe, and every family does their dye process differently,"
Schafer said. The majority of those rugs are made using chemical dyes.
By the time Guti`rrez was born in 1978, the ninth of 11 children, his
family was using natural dyes only for personal items, such as blankets.
At 18, he left the village for the United States, working first in a
fast-food restaurant and later as a manager of a concrete plant in
Ventura, California. It was 10 years before he returned to
Teotitl'e1n to visit his family. Thoroughly Americanised by that
time,"it was a huge culture shock," he recalled. Leaning on
the family loom while his father worked, he listened to stories about
what life had been like in the village and how it had changed.
Eventually he rediscovered a passion for weaving. And he realised that,
just as he had forgotten the richness of his culture, the village, too,
was slowly losing its age-old traditions. "There was not much soul
anymore," he said."These natural dyes were absolutely on the
brink of extinction." Guti`rrez and his family decided to create
their own weaving studio to create pieces using only natural dyes and to
teach others how to do it. His sister, Juana Guti`rrez Contreras, serves
as dye master, combining seven or eight natural elements to produce more
than 40 colours. Contreras's husband, Antonio Lazo Hernandez, is
also a master weaver and helps develop the textile designs. Potassium
alum, or potash, a mineral found in the mountains around Oaxaca, is used
as a mordant, holding the dye to the yarn. In addition to plants
gathered in the mountains, flora common in local gardens " zapote
negro, marush and pomegranate, for example " are also used as
sources for dye. The indigo and cochineal pigments, however, are
purchased from elsewhere. The aEaAil plant grows primarily in the
southern part of the state of Oaxaca. As for cochineal " a dye that
coloured the red coats of British soldiers " tens of thousands of
dried insects are needed to produce just 1 pound of dye. So the studio
buys the pigment from families who farm the prickly pear cactuses that
host the parasitic insects. Only females produce the carminic acid that
is responsible for the intense red colouring. The dye is so harmless
that the family uses it to water the garden, while the remaining plant
material serves as mulch. In Teotitl'e1n, Guti`rrez is not the only
artisan concerned with preserving Zapotec weaving traditions. Perhaps a
dozen others in the village use natural dyes exclusively, and some train
tourists in the techniques. But Guti`rrez's fluency in English and
familiarity with the United States " he still lives much of the
time in Ventura " have given him an opportunity to reach a wider
audience. "What my family and I are doing is continuing an art form
and honouring the work that our ancestors started," he said."I
think once people learn more about these processes, then they'll
support this market, and that's how it will continue."
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