Rugs made with natural dyes on display in Rafaela's cooperative
Story and photos by Julia Turnbull
Rafaela and her family are artisans in Teotitlán del Valle. They use natural dyes to color the lambs’ wool that they weave into tapetes (rugs), bags, and shawls. The integrity of the process is very important to Rafaela, which is why she is working to have her weaving business certified as all natural by a Mexican government agency.
The rugs display bold, rich colors—deep reds, oranges, purples, blues, and greens—accented with yellows, grays, and beiges. The blues are made with indigo. The greens and yellows are made from pericón (ester) and anis, which grow locally in the hills surrounding the village. The purples, reds, and oranges are made from cochinillas (cochineals), which are small bugs that live in the leaves of the nopal cactus.
Eugenia, another borrower, grinds dried cochinillas on her metate
Cochinillas are harvested from their nests on the nopal leaves, dried out, and crushed into a red dust. Dried cochinillas are crushed on a stone metate, which is a mortar-like device also used to grind corn kernels into maize flour. Mixing small amounts of ground cochinilla and water produces a deep red. The secret to making an orange dye is adding limejuice. The secret to making a purple dye is adding limestone powder. The ground cochinilla powder is used to make more than 50 distinct tones. Last fall, the rains were heavier than usual and flooded the valley, which killed many of the nopal cactus plants. This has diminished the supply and driven up the price of the dried cochinillas that are essential for making so many of the dyes that weavers use to make the designs in their rugs.
Rafaela’s goal is to become certified as a natural dye maker and weaver. This will benefit her because she believes clients want to purchase weavings made from natural materials. Rafaela also believes that natural dyes are of a higher quality—more resistant to fading, richer, and safe for clients to display in their homes. To overcome the challenge of the diminished cochinilla supply, she has built a rack on the upper floor of her house from which she hangs nopal leaves and harvests cochinilla. Rafaela is using one of her loans to pay for the wooden frame and the cost of traveling to the fields to harvest and bring back the nopal leaves. Not only is she ensuring the integrity of her natural dyes and working toward the natural certification process, she is also able to sell her extra cochinillas to other weavers—of which there is no shortage—in her local market.
Rafeala's nopal rack for harvesting cochinillas
Rafaela’s nopal rack and cochinilla harvesting is an example of the ingenuity of our borrowers. With an interest-free loan from En Vía, Rafaela is ensuring the quality of her chemical-free dyes, creating a sustainable source of the natural red dye, and providing a local source of the cochinillas for other weavers in her community. She is well on her way to achieving her goal of receiving a certification from the state of Mexico, and expanding her business. Rafaella shared that the certification process requires patience with the bureaucracy here, but she is nonetheless dedicated to completing the process and feels that the expense and time are an investment in her business.