Discovering Natural Dyeing in Peru

At the end of June last year, I went to Peru on my honeymoon. I was excited to see Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, but I didn’t know that part of the tour we’d booked would take us to two different community led centres, where we’d learn about natural dyeing.

Natural dyeing in Peru uses a lot of different plants
Here you can see a selection of plants used for natural dyeing in Peru and the colours they produce

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After starting our trip with a brief stay in Lima, we soon went to Cusco: the central city of the Incan Empire. Our hotel was directly opposite Qorikancha, which was once an incredible Incan temple which the Spanish built on the top of. Also opposite our hotel was a little shop front that our guidebook had recommended a visit to: the Centre For Traditional Textiles. I was determined to find some Peruvian fabric to bring home and so we started looking for some here. In the Centre there are regular live demonstrations of weaving, though there wasn’t any fabric as everything is woven with a purpose in mind; ponchos, bags, hats, blankets, belts. This is actually a really good way to produce fabric, as there’s very little to no wastage, but not what I was looking for.

A demonstration of hand spinning wool before it is naturally dyed.
This lady demonstrated how wool is hand spun before it’s naturally dyed

On a tour around Cusco, we visited the first textiles centre demonstrating natural dyeing, which I think was called Inka’s Expression, near the Sacsayhuaman ruins. One of the women demonstrated hand spinning techniques while we were talked through the different dyestuffs and the colours they can produce. Initially, I was interested in the use of natural colourants in makeup and cosmetics – I have been experimenting for a while with making my own cosmetics and had begun to experiment with makeup not long before we went to Peru. I therefore instantly recognised that cochineal would be a key ingredient, as it’s such a bright and long lasting red pigment that it’s used in most commercial makeup too. At that time I really had no idea that you could create such vivid colours from natural dyes and pigments and was absolutely captivated by the colours you could produce. This was in complete contrast to what our guidebook states, which said that naturally dyed products were “more muted” in colour and not as vibrant as synthetically dyed ones – frankly the guidebook couldn’t be more wrong! Sadly we didn’t have long to spend here, which I felt quite bad about as our group was whisked away before anyone had a chance to purchase anything from the artisans.

The second centre we visited which demonstrated natural dyeing techniques was the Centro Cultural Parwa in Chinchero, a town in the Sacred Valley around 30km from Cusco. The centre was within walking distance of the incredible Incan terraces that Chinchero is famous for and we had a great demonstration of how the different colour modifiers really affect cochineal. There was also a weaving demonstration and the centre has several animals including alpacas and llamas. I really liked this centre, especially because the woman running our demonstrations had a wicked sense of humour! Here you could buy all sorts of textiles, from balls of wool to gloves, hats, tops, ponchos etc and they were all made on site by the artisans who run the centre. As we were planning on going to Rainbow Mountain a few days later, which is 5,200 metres tall and gets very cold, I bought some gloves from the centre – plus we bought some alpaca wool balls for my mother in law, as she is an avid knitter.

A demonstration of natural dyeing at the Centro Cultural Parwa in Chinchero
This lady led our natural dyeing demonstration at the Centro Cultural Parwa – here she’s demonstrating how different ingredients modify the colour of cochineal

I think somewhere like the Centro Cultural Parwa is where I would want to go back to in order to learn dyeing techniques, as it was quite a large place that would have space to accommodate a more hands on course on dyeing in addition to their regular demonstrations. I also really liked Chinchero’s winding streets, and it’s not that far from Cusco – I really loved Cusco, it’s a wonderful city to explore and we spent as much time as we could wandering around the city while we were there. I did eventually find the fabric shops, tucked away in the back streets of Cusco, and this is where I bought my fabric for my Tea House Top.

A demonstration of weaving with yarns that have been naturally dyed
Another lady at the Centro Cultural Parwa demonstrated weaving techniques and how naturally dyed yarns are used to create intricate designs

It took a few months before natural dyeing really captured my attention, though I’m not sure I would have picked it up had I not been introduced to it in Peru. I bought Wild Colour by Jenny Dean in October last year and during lockdown I’ve also been working on a course which is on Domestika and run by Mexican textile artist Anabel Torres, plus for my birthday I got Sasha Duerr’s book Natural Color. I would love to eventually have my own range of naturally dyed yarns for sale, but I’m still experimenting with dyestuffs and colours at present. Several of the items I want to make as Christmas gifts involve natural dyeing though, so I’ll soon be dyeing larger quantities of yarn!

While I’m yet to use any of the dyestuffs I was introduced to in Peru, one of the wonderful things I’ve learned about natural dyeing is that there are plants locally in each region of the world which can be used for dyeing. I was particularly excited when I realised that the blackthorn hedge I’d planted could be used for dyeing – in fact it’s one of the few plants where you can dye with almost every part of the plant. The leaves and twigs, the sloe berries and even the brilliant white flowers which bloom at the end of winter can all be used for dyeing and they all produce different shades. The hedge has been growing a bit out of control since it was planted a few years ago, so it’s fantastic to know that I can put my hedge clippings to a good use! I’ve been planning to grow several plants in my front garden specifically for dyeing with and so was excited to discover that not only can I get hold of Peruvian purple corn for the garden, which gives the most beautiful rich purples (and also makes a very tasty soft drink called Chica Morada in Peru), but that you can also get a similar colour from some purple carrots! It really is amazing to learn of all the different plants which you can dye with. There’s also several bugs which produce bright and long lasting pigments – cochineal being just one. Lac is a similar bug but is found in South East Asia (this is the same bug which produces Shellac from which the furniture polish is created) and it is also a strong pigment used in dyeing, though at present I’m quite content with discovering as many dye plants as possible.

Naturally dyed alpaca wool hanging on a drying rack
These alpaca yarn skeins were hanging on a drying rack after being dyed – it really shows the range and vibrancy of colours you can get from natural dyeing

One thing I have noticed though is that a lot of natural dyes tend to take better to wool than they do cotton. This is presumably because of the difference between the cellular construction of the yarns – cotton is a cellulose fibre while wool is protein based. Perhaps I simply haven’t come across enough natural dyes yet which take to cotton; there are a few which I know will dye cotton but I haven’t had opportunity to try yet, like eucalyptus and avocado. I’m actually really looking forward to dyeing with eucalyptus as you can get so many different shades from it – in Peru it seemed to be mostly used for producing greys and silvers, though I know it’s also possible to get a bright, electric orange from the leaves. I’m happily enjoying experimenting with different dyestuffs and expect it’ll be some time before I start producing my own yarn to sell, but I do think that I’ll be dyeing more and more for my own personal use and for gifts rather than buying commercially produced yarn.