We knew from the moment we started working with henequen that natural dyes would play a prime roll. When we searched for information, we found that there was minimal data on the plants used to make natural dyes and that there was even less information on how to actually use them for dyeing.
We focused on bark dyes because bark was available the villagers were familiar with the dye-producing plants. When taking bark, we keep these points in mind:
Although dye bark has been relatively accessible to the village artisans, now, it is becoming more scarce, primarily because the natural areas, the surrounding uncultivated land, around villages is rapidly disappearing dye to village growth. It is a longer walk to find dye trees. Since more men work away from the villages, there are fewer actually working in the land.
For years the government sought to have local weavers use brightly colored synthetic (aniline) dyes. The idea was that since synthetic dyes had been used successfully with the familiar, brightly colored Mexican souvenirs available in most resorts and tourist shops, they would serve well in the Yucatan. These commercial dyes, packaged for home dying, are sold in Mexican drug supply and fabric-related stores. They are reliable in reproducing a specific color. Since they come pre-packaged, in small quantities, they are convenient and relatively inexpensive for the weavers. They believed that the bright colors made their products attractive to tourists.
In the late 1990's, a growing ecological sensitivity began to be felt in the Yucatan. Foreign organizations, Mexican educational institutions and government departments started numerous projects to preserve and protect natural resources. At this time, the use of plant dyes in fiber crafts was unusual in Yucatan. Although researchers began working with community groups to develop medicinal plant gardens to promote the use of native medicinal plants, natural dye plants were not included. The Veterinary school of the University of Yucatan was funding a natural dye project in the town of Hocaba. I met Mucuy Kak Moo, the coordinator of the project. She had gathered some samples of dyes that had come from the plants in that region; however, extensive and effective applications in henequen products did not develop.
Finally, in 1998, a group of artisans in a village approached us to seek funding for a workshop. They wanted to learn more about natural dying. Over a two-week period, an average of twenty ladies and all kinds of kids gathered in an outdoor space. We had five aluminum pots and one fire. Each day we experimented with a different color. This was an incredible experience. In addition to the dye instructor's input, we discovered that all of us had bits and pieces of knowledge about the plant resources that added tremendously to the knowledge base.
Along with the dying, we interspersed workshops in creativity and in the technique of Paho -- a looping technique using hand-twisting thread.
We always consider the dye process an experiment . These natural dyes are affected by many uncontrollable factors. They come from such different sources--bark, seeds, flowers, wood, or leaves. Essentially, achieving any color is more important than a particular color. The season of the year, whether it is rainy or dry, the particular plant environment, how it is harvested, how long it is stored can all affect the final results. The particular quality of the water used and the type of containers used can affect the outcome, too.
The dyeing methods we use are suitable to village daily life. Most dye stuff comes from plants growing in and around the village. The dyeing is done in an informal manner over a wood-burning open fire, using large aluminum pots. The basic process involves heating the dye source material (bark in our case) in hot water, until the material releases its color. Sometimes chemicals can be used such as alum, which tends to fix colors, or bicarbonate of soda which often intensifies a color. Sometimes pieces of metal, even a horseshoe, will modify a color's hue -- maybe change a yellow color to green or a brown to a gray or even a black.
Finally we remove the dye stuff and place the fiber into the water. When the dyed fiber is removed, it is rinsed in water to eliminate the excess and then it is hung up to dry.
GREY/ BLACK can be made in many ways.... by mixing left over dyes into one bath or by adding metals to a previously discarded dyebath.
A SPECIAL CASE:
Palo de Campeche (also called Logwood and Tinto), Haematoxylum campechianum, produces the greatest variety of hues. It is an extremely intense dye, taken from the heartwood. It produces a variety of colors from a deep, bright, golden yellow which is very unstable through the spectrum of red/ browns; with additives such as alum, it will make a beautiful purple.
It is one of the few dye sources that can be stored in its natural state for long periods of time. The wood can dry out and yet retain its potency. Since it has been logged to near extinction, we do not harvest it from live trees. One time I was given about a bushel of Palo de Campeche sawdust left over from the clearing for a hotel on the Cancun coast. This amount supplied us with a potent dye for two years. The more surface exposed, the more intense the color becomes. For this reason sawdust is especially potent.
Indigo, Indigofera tinctoria, is a plant we have tried but do not use because it is so volatile: The dye comes from a shrub that appears during the rainy season. It is very delicate to work for several reasons. It must be used before the leaves show signs of wilting. It is a dye that requires careful handling. The dye bath is made by submerging the leaves in hot but not boiling water. The color develops by lifting the material out of the dye bath and exposing it to the air. The color gradually changes as the oxygen in the air interacts with the dye. It blooms before your eyes. This process is repeated in order to darken the tone. However, placing the material back in the dye bath is tricky. Oxygen getting into the water diminishes the dye's potency.