Leah in Cusco: Dye Magic
I wind through the narrow streets of Cusco one hot afternoon in early March.
I pass the covered market, cross sidestreets lined with vendors selling fruit and sandals, continue on past shop fronts displaying plucked chickens, and eventually arrive in a block of agricultural feed stores. I look for the sign for a dentist and duck down the adjacent alleyway. At the far end of the alley I spy a small sliding glass window. Propped in the window is a hand-written sign for “cochinilla”, or cochineal.
My treasure-hunt through the maze of Cusco’s ancient streets has finally come to an end. I am searching for cochineal to purchase for the dye workshops to be held in Q’ente’s partner communities. The goal of these workshops is to obtain a sample of each colour the weavers can produce using natural dyes. Q’ente will use these samples as a reference to ensure we are buying textiles that contain only natural dyes. Once we have the full palette, we will also be able to use the samples to place textile orders with exact colour preferences. It is a very exciting project for me and I am eager to purchase the necessary supplies. Q’ente has agreed to provide the wool, cochineal and certain fixatives for the workshops. The weavers will gather the necessary plants and I will visit each community to participate in a day-long dye workshop.
I approach the window and tap on the glass. A woman with two long black braids and an ancient face slowly weighs out kilos of cochineal for me on an old metal scale. In addition to cochineal, I purchase fixatives for the dyes. These include “lime salt”, which is citric acid derived from limes, and “piedra de alumbre”, or alum, a mineral that comes in pinkish shards of crystal. Once I have the dye components, I dive back into the maze of winding streets to purchase the wool we will use for our sample swatches.
Once I have all the materials, it is time to prepare for dyeing. Luckily I have 25 people as roommates in Casa Mosqoy, and we spend many evenings winding 100g skeins off the 1kg cones of wool. We wind the skeins hand-over-hand in a swooping motion or around the back of a chair. I learn that technique is important while making skeins, as I will have to unwind them into balls once the wool is dyed.
With the skeins prepared and the dye materials carefully weighed out into little bundles of equal weight, I set off to witness the dye process in each community. I get to see colours come to life before my eyes every weekend throughout the month of March. In each workshop, groups of men and women build small outdoor fires and set battered metal pots on them. The weavers work in groups to prepare each plant for dyeing. Sometimes this involved crushing leaves or bark, or grinding the cochineal before it is poured into a bubbling vat of water. The undyed skeins are placed in the dye pots and emerge transformed. Brilliant shades of teal green, cotton-candy pink, acid yellow, pumpkin orange and ruby red are pulled dripping from each pot.
The smoke of the burning eucalyptus branches stings my eyes as I lean forward excitedly to admire each new shade. I consider each new colour a victory on the part of the weavers. Watching them dye reaffirms my immense respect for these Andean villagers’ knowledge of their land and their craft. The skeins are hung to dry and form a brilliant banner as each new colour is added to the line. Some communities produce a handful of colours, while others succeed in dyeing over 25. In Pitukiska, the weavers work together quickly and efficiently to produce an amazing 27 shades in a number of hours!
Once back in Cusco, we assemble dye books to showcase each community’s results. There is a page for each community with swatches of the colours dyed. Each shade is given a code, and the recipes for each code are recorded in a later section of the book. The natural (undyed) colours available from the communities’ alpacas are also displayed. The final section of the book features photos and small samples of the dye plants used, along with a description of the plant and any known medicinal uses. I am immensely proud of the dye catalogue we’ve assembled, and so grateful to have been part of it all. Now when I flip through the pages of the dye book, or see a certain stripe of red in a shawl, I am transported back to a high Andean village where women chat and laugh as they stir pots which hold all the colours of the rainbow.