When one of our designers, Catalina, asked to go on a few day journey exploring some traditional Mexican textiles and techniques, it sounded so fun and interesting I asked her to take pictures and report back! Here is a bit of her trip, what she learned, and the history of textiles in Mexico, specifically Oaxaca, where she was.
Oaxaca is a region in southern Mexico, well known for a variety of textile traditions, most notably embroidery, weaving and natural dyeing.
Although there are a variety of natural dyes used throughout the world, two heavily used in Oaxaca are Indigo and Cochineal. The Prickly Pear Cactus above is providing a home to the Cochineal insects - the white mounds on the leaves are a sign of the insect colonies!
Cochineal and Indigo were the two more valuable natural dyestuffs for centuries. Indigo is the only naturally occurring blue dye, and Cochineal is responsible for a vibrant range of reds to pinks. Historically Indigo was combined with Cochineal to create produce purple; the color reserved for royalty throughout human history.
Indigo is a mysterious and complicated process. Indigo is extracted from the leaves of the Indigo plant, and in the case of the Indigo dyers in Oaxaca, their Indigo is now supplied already in the extracted form. However, traditional Indigo is harvested, fermented for 300 days, and incorporated to a vat with a mixture of alkaline liquids. I cannot imagine how the first person discovered Indigo! If you do not ferment the plant, or if you mix it directly with water, you will not get Indigo’s signature shade of blue.
Above Catalina agitates an Indigo dyebath, and below is a shot of the prep for the wool yarn before dyeing alongside the Indigo vat.
Wool is a traditional material for weaving in this part of Mexico. Bright, geometric patterns are woven in the different hues of blue and red to create the rugs and woolen garments the region is known for.
A freshly dressed floor loom alongside the Cochineal and Indigo dyed wool.
The carmine Cochineal dye comes from the female Cochineal insect. The insects live on the leaves of the prickly pear cactus, are harvested by brushing off, dried and then ground to create the red pigment seen below.
The picture below depicts the range of hues and shades that can be dyed using Cochineal on wool.
Below a traditional woven wool tapestry, using the Cochineal shades in the densely woven weft on a natural undyed wool warp. Although smaller goods are woven on backstrap looms - portable looms worn by the weaver - these larger tapestry rugs are woven on larger scale floor looms.
Although we work in interiors, and therefore are always drawn primarily to interior textiles, Oaxaca has a great variety of wonderful and colorful traditional dress. I’ve included some images from Oaxaca; Stories in Cloth by Eric Mindling to give an idea.
Of course, the images from this book are absolutely stunning. But, the book delves into the unspoken communication of textiles, clothing, colors and appearance. It’s a fascinating - and beautiful - read!
The color combinations are so bright, but somehow feel perfect for these clothes. Can you imagine a green and hot pink dress? Me neither, but the woman above looks fantastic!
If you’re curious to learn a bit more about the Oaxaca region, dress and amazing textile history, you can purchase Oaxaca; Stories in Cloth here.