Just outside of Oaxaca, Mexico, lays the small village of Teotitlán del Valle. There, weaver Porfirio Gutiérrez keeps alive a textile practice that dates back over 1,000 years in his indigenous Zapotec tradition – using plants and insects to create natural dyes. Gutiérrez uses everything from cochineal, an insect that produces a vibrant red color, to wild marigold in order to create vibrant, steadfast colors for dyeing.
Although around 70% of Gutiérrez’s village are involved in textile production, only a handful exclusively use natural dyes. In the late 1800’s, chemical dyes began to replace the use of natural dyes. As the use of synthetic dyes and materials expand, the traditions of natural dyeing fade. Gutiérrez and his family dedicate themselves to preserving the art form and techniques of his ancestors – not just for the tradition, but for health and the environment as well.
Chemically dyed materials pose a variety of risks. Many home dyers who use synthetic dyes end up developing respiratory problems or lung cancer from breathing in toxic fumes. Certain chemicals can burn the skin or cause blindness if splashed in the eye. Plus, toxic runoff from textiles factories pollutes waterways and damages ecosystems.
Natural dyes are more expensive, since materials are harder to find and pricier to obtain. However, they do not pose the health risks that synthetic dyes do. In fact, Gutiérrez and his family use certain dyes to water the garden.
The creations of Gutiérrez are labor and time intensive. A traditional weaving may take several days to several weeks to complete. However, there is plenty of time and energy that goes into a piece before weaving can even commence. Plants and materials to make dyes must be collected, processed, then imparted into the yarn. For example, indigo must be grown, harvested, fermented, dehydrated, ground into powder, then steeped for several days. Only then can it be boiled and put into yarn.
For Gutiérrez and his family, the hard work is worth it, and they strive to share their work with others. The Educational Adventures Company supports Gutiérrez’s mission by bringing travelers to his home and studio for workshops. Travelers get to learn the art form of Gutiérrez and his family as they partake in the natural dyeing process. The workshop is a fun, informative and exciting hands on experience. Plus, by participating, each individual contributes to the continuation of ancient, slowly disappearing textile traditions.
If you want to learn more about Portifirio Gutiérrez and his work, get in touch with The Educational Adventures Company. The natural dye workshop with Gutiérrez is just one part of their incredible, culturally authentic Oaxaca tours. Contact their team of travel experts to find out what other unforgettable experiences they have to offer.