SANTA MARÍA ATZOMPA, MEXICO — On a cloudy morning, Eduvigis Cabrera walks into her garden and down a narrow pathway lined with plants, in this town neighboring Oaxaca de Juárez, the capital of the state of Oaxaca. The path leads to a jacaranda tree, from which she hangs her loom. Sitting on the ground, under the shade of the thin branches, Cabrera positions the loom at her waist and begins to weave dyed cotton threads.
“I just finished dyeing them a couple of days ago,” Cabrera says. “I used brazilwood for the pink, indigo for the blue.”
This is a daily routine for hundreds of people in this part of southern Mexico. Oaxaca is an important center of artisanal textile production, with 265 villages dedicated to the craft. Crucially, Oaxaca is the only part of the country where valuable indigo dye is produced.
But demand for textiles dyed with natural pigments has increased dramatically in recent years, straining the natural resources from which these dyes are derived. Pericón, a type of marigold used to make a rich yellow dye, has grown scarce. Whereas weavers in Teotitlán del Valle, a village at the foothills of the Sierra Juárez Mountains, used to gather it from the nearby forest, now they must hike farther up into the mountains to obtain it. Indigo, which yields multiple shades of blue, requires a humid and warm climate to thrive and is harvested only once a year. Low rainfall leads to smaller harvests. Extracting dye from the plant is also a complex and time-consuming process. Santiago Niltepec, a town in Oaxaca, is the only place in Mexico that still produces the dye using traditional methods.
Artisanal textile producers have worked to keep up with the increasing demand. But the situation has reached something of a breaking point, and many producers are reconsidering their approach.
Ena Aguilar Peláez, GPJ Mexico
“If the demand or the customer is the one who is going to make decisions about the products made with raw materials, we have a significant problem,” says Ana Paula Fuentes, a textile designer who works closely with artisanal producers to achieve sustainable practices. “There must be a balance.”
In many ways, the current situation is the unforeseen consequence of efforts to revive natural dyes in Mexico. Long before Europeans arrived in the early 1500s, the country’s indigenous people used dyes made of plants and insects like the cochineal bug, which produces a deep red dye. But their popularity faded following the introduction of synthetic dyes in Mexico in the 1930s.
In the early 2000s, the Mexican government launched a series of programs designed to revive and promote natural dyes. The government sent anthropologists, designers and biologists to indigenous communities in Oaxaca and other parts of the country to help teach a new generation of artisans how to harvest, produce and work with natural pigments.
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“Those of us who wanted to follow this path relearned, with the oldest of the elderly, the techniques that had been dying out in our community,” says Mariano Sosa, a weaver from Teotitlán del Valle who co-founded a weavers’ cooperative called Bii Daüü.
Global demand for products made with natural dyes has skyrocketed as part of the push for more sustainable and environmentally friendly products. “Now we want everything with natural dyes,” says Fuentes, “because it’s sustainable, because the other ones pollute.”
Fuentes says that over the past decade, more and more designers have come to Oaxaca looking for naturally dyed textiles. But interest has really boomed since 2017, she says. As a result, some artisanal textile producers have had to search far and wide to obtain natural dyes. One year, members of the Las Sanjuaneras weavers’ cooperative in the town of Pinotepa de Don Luis had to source indigo from El Salvador because there was no more to be had in Oaxaca, says Camerina Cabrera, Eduvigis Cabrera’s mother and a member of the group.
Fuentes encourages artisans to get creative with the materials they have on hand, and to inform consumers that true sustainability means working with what nature offers, rather than what the market demands. If textiles made with a specific dye are not available, customers should be open to purchasing textiles dyed with other plants, even if they are a different color.
Ena Aguilar Peláez, GPJ Mexico
“When everyone wants the same dye, the time comes when there isn’t enough,” Fuentes says. “The idea is not to compromise nature and its cycles so everyone can have it. It’s better to explain, ‘Up to this point, it is produced with this dye. Now you can try another one.’”
As dyes like pericón become more scarce, textile producers have begun to experiment with different plants, producing various colors and shades according to the seasons and what is available, says Mauricio Cuevas, a member of Arte Textil Orozco, a collective of textile artisans in the town of Santa María del Tule, just outside the city of Oaxaca de Juárez. For example, huizache — a type of acacia — and the zacatlaxcalli plant can produce yellow dye.
“We want to respect the timing of the dyes,” Cuevas says, “to adapt ourselves to what grows in each season naturally and not force them to be overused.”