Dodging waves at low tide, a barefooted, shirtless Mixtec man is carefully walking along the Pacific Coast of Oaxaca, Mexico. He navigates his way through the gray rocks on a quest to catch a particular kind of snail, Purpura pansa. When he catches one, he presses just the right part of the snail's foot to encourage it to secrete a neurotoxin directly onto a skein of cotton yarn. The milky liquid stains the yarn in a greenish color. As it oxidizes, the color turns blue and finally becomes a brilliant reddish-purple hue.
Extracting colors from snails is an ancient dyeing method that the Mixtec people have been practicing for around 1,500 years. Like their ancestors, Mixtec dyers do not hurt the snails. They carefully return them to their habitat. They give them time to recover and recharge. They also stay away from the snails during the mating season.
This group of Mixtec dyers is among more than two dozen artisans whom author Keith Recker profiled in his book, True Colors — World Masters of Natural Dyes and Pigments.
Recker is interested in natural dyes because he finds them fascinating.
"There is usually more than one thing happening in the union between the natural coloring substance and fiber," he says. "I think the eye is much more entertained by this complexity than it is by chemical simplicity where you only have one weave length, one vibe coming to your eye from the fiber."
To explore traditional techniques and personal approaches to natural dyeing, Recker embarked on a journey and met with artisans from all over the world, from West Africa to Bangladesh to China to Northern California to Mexico to Uzbekistan.
"Before 1856, when the first synthetic dye was invented in England by a chemist who made a beautiful purple color out of tar, all colors were natural. They were made in some vividly amazing ways," Recker notes. "Dyes were mostly extracted from plants, but in some cases from animals."
Most of these artisans not only keep their ancestors' handmade natural dyeing techniques alive, they pass them to younger generations as they train other artisans in their communities.
Artisans come from different artistic and cultural backgrounds, however, their work is similar in many ways.
Audrey Louise Reynolds, for instance, is an artisan living in Upstate New York. She extracts beautiful colors from turmeric, while Rupa Trivedi in Mumbai, India, creates a range of colors from marigold, hibiscus and rose flowers and coconut husks. With much trial and error and online research, the self-taught artist understood the principles of natural dyes and started her business 15 years ago.
Maria Elena Pompo, who moved from Venezuela to the United States and from engineering to fashion design, also developed her natural dyeing technique through experimentation.
"She colors her clothing with recycled avocado pits," Recker says. "She goes around Brooklyn, collecting avocado pits from Mexican restaurants and uses them in a very precise way to create a whole range of blushes and yellowy apricots and pink browns. It is very low impact because they're things that would otherwise go to trash."
Red is one of basic colors artisans use in dyeing fabrics, but they extract it from different resources.
In southwestern Mexico, the Gutierrez Contreras family members who are weaving textiles using old Zapotec traditions are famous for working with cochineal.
"Cochineal is a red color that comes from dried beetles," Recker explains. "That sounds terrible, but the body of these dried beetles is made of carminic acid, which is still the safest red colorant we've known of."
Carpetmakers Fatillo Kendjeav and his family, in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, extract a variety of red shades from madder roots. They use other natural ingredients to deepen the authenticity of their carpets, such as walnut hulls to create deep browns, and pomegranate skins to create a beautiful bronze green. They also use onion skins, apple, grape and mulberry leaves to create different shades of yellow.
Recker notes that these artisans tend to use such natural plants not only as colorants, but also as food and medicine.
True color advocates
As many people have become more conscious about natural foods and healthy eating habits, some see wearing naturally dyed fabrics as another step toward a healthier lifestyle. These dyeing techniques also have a lower impact on the environment as they encourage recycling and reusing practices, says Recker.
"If you learn how to use natural ingredients available around you, you can easily refresh an old, tired T-shirt, or a scarf, or a sheet and give it a new life instead of throwing them away," adds the author.
Even if he does not inspire readers to do it themselves, Recker hopes raising awareness about natural colors will press the fashion industry worldwide to become more sustainable and environmentally friendly.