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In Mexico, Weavers Embrace Natural Alternatives to Toxic Dyes

Thoroughly Americanized 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 realized 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.”

Mr. Gutiérrez 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 Gutiérrez Contreras, serves as dye master, combining seven or eight natural elements to produce more than 40 colors. Ms. Contreras’s husband, Antonio Lazo Hernandez, is also a master weaver and helps develop the textile designs.

Photo

Porfirio Gutiérrez working at a loom. Many of the region’s traditional techniques may be lost, he fears.

Credit
Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

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 añil plant grows primarily in the southern part of the state of Oaxaca. As for cochineal — a dye that colored the red coats of British soldiers — tens of thousands of dried insects are needed to produce just one 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 coloring.

The dye is so harmless that the family uses it to water the garden, while the remaining plant material serves as mulch.

In Teotitlán, Mr. Gutiérrez 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 Mr. Gutiérrez’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.

“I’m able to see my culture from an outsider’s perspective and also from an insider’s, as part of the community,” he said.

Photo

Porfirio Gutiérrez examines a rug colored with natural dye.

Credit
Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

The family is compiling a book of dye recipes, formulas passed down for centuries by word of mouth. And Mr. Gutiérrez has worked to expand traditional designs used by Zapotec weavers into new territory, for example, by combining wool with agave fiber, palm leaves — used for thousands of years to make mats for sleeping — or other natural materials.

He has contributed samples of natural dyeing materials to the Harvard Art Museums’ Forbes Pigment Collection. Last year, with a grant from the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian’s Artists Leadership Program, he held a four-day workshop in Teotitlán for 15 young weavers, teaching them the science and practice of natural dyes.

“Their reaction was almost a, ‘Wow, let me try it, let me do it,’” said Keevin Lewis, who ran the program and recently retired as the museum’s outreach coordinator.

“They got their hands on the wool, they got their hands in the dye, they were crushing up the cochineal bug. They were in it.”

In July, Mr. Gutiérrez’s work was featured in the “innovation” section of the annual International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe.

“What my family and I are doing is continuing an art form and honoring 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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