By: Eda Tajuddin- Responsible Tourism Manager
Following our successful crowdfunding campaign over winter 2017, En Vía has been offering specialized courses within our Education Program. That means workshops and classes that are more relevant to the different businesses owned by the women entrepreneurs in En Vía. Earlier this year, we held special courses on “English for Business” tailored to help the women learn vocabulary that will help them in the day-to-day running of their businesses. In San Miguel del Valle, En Vía borrowers who make and sell aprons learnt how to use their beautiful embroidery to make other products such as bags and purses. Most recently, we facilitated a course on natural dyes, which I was lucky enough to attend.
The natural dye course
The course was given by Mariano Sosa Martínez, a fellow resident of Teotitlán del Valle. He and his wife, Rafaela Ruíz Gutiérrez (an En Vía borrower), belong to a cooperative dedicated to rescuing the art of using natural dyes. The course was extensive, spanning 4 days with a total of 18 hours altogether! The participants were asked to pay 250 pesos (12 USD), not only to ensure genuinely interested participants, but also to serve as a donation towards the materials required in the course. Fermina Ruíz Gutiérrez, an En Vía borrower and the secretary of the Teotitlán-based natural dyes cooperative, BII DAÜÜ, commented that when they took a similar course in the past, it was much more demanding and cost 3000 pesos (150 USD)! It was perhaps then no surprise that the spaces in the course filled up quickly.
On our first day, we all gathered around in a circle for introductions. Mariano quickly established that the course would be held in Zapotec to ensure that the participants could understand clearly. Jokes were flung about in reference to my lack of Zapotec but I reassured them with all the Zapotec I knew – yo (yes) and zakchi (good afternoon). Luckily, I had Yanet, our Education Coordinator and a Teotitlán native, to do some translating throughout the day.
Mariano explained that the first cooperatives were created 25 years ago. There was a men’s group called Arte y Tradición (Art and Tradition) and a women’s equivalent called Mujeres que Tejen (Women who Weave). The men learnt about cochineal from a course in Tlapanochestli (a nearby community), while the women learnt about indigo from an abuelo (grandfather) in Teotitlán. By 2001, each cooperative had closed and a new one was created, which involved men and women. In 2004, they established their name as BII DAÜÜ, which means sacred wind in Zapotec. The cooperative’s knowledge has been a collective effort accumulated over the years. Juan Carlos Contreras Sosa, the President of the Supervisory Board explained that the experimenting never stops. “Los colores no son finitos” – the colours are infinite, he said.
Learning from nature
On En Vía tours, the borrowers we visit often explain that the art of using natural dyes is the work of grandparents and ancestors. As chemical dyes rose in popularity, weavers stopped passing down the knowledge of natural dyes. Now that it is in demand again, weavers are returning to their grandparents and sometimes parents for their expertise. Some women talk about learning from nature. As one En Vía borrower once beautifully put it, “la naturaleza es muy sabia” – nature is very wise. She explained that nature inspires and teaches us in many different ways such as showing us different colour combinations through flowers. Another borrower once explained on a tour that they want to start focusing on natural dyes to restore balance. She told us that they believed the recent earthquakes were a warning from Mother Nature and now we must work towards appeasing her. Chemical dyes are not only harmful to the people that use them and inhale the fumes but also to the environment. As it is common for weavers to wash their wool in the river, the contamination can spread even further.
Environmental concerns and the desire to preserve cultural tradition are, of course, the main motivators for reviving the art of using natural dyes. Another motive for Mariano in giving this particular course was to maintain the reputation of his community. Teotitlán del Valle is known for its weaving – they say that behind every door is a loom and that everyone in the community knows how to weave, even if it isn’t their main business or trade. More and more consumers are demanding natural dyes and accordingly, more products claim to be made with 100% natural dyes. However, there is always the risk that this may not be true. At En Vía, we encourage our borrowers to be honest when discussing their craft. Whether they use natural or chemical dyes, it is more important to explain the process and the reasoning behind their business choices. Many of our borrowers use both as they see the advantages of both. Still, as products made with natural dyes fetch a much higher price due to the cost of the materials and the laborious process, you can see where the temptation lies. By teaching others in the community about natural dyes, Mariano hopes to preserve the strong reputation of his community.
After introductions, the women prepped their wool and it was weighed for future calculations. Mariano stressed that it was important to weigh the wool while it is dry to ensure the most accurate reading. Indeed, working with natural dyes seems to be as much a science as it is an art. This became increasingly evident the further we got into the workshop.
After the weighing, Mariano explained how to calculate the amount of alumbre (alum mineral) to add to prepare the wool for dying. The alumbre acts as a fixing agent and opens up the fibres of the wool so it can absorb more of the dye.
We headed further into the fields of Teotitlán to Mariano and Rafaela’s workshop. There we were greeted with a rainbow of beautifully dyed wool and a stunning view of Picacho (the famous peak of Teotitlán) in the background. After soaking the wool with the calculated amount of alumbre, we moved on to prepare our indigo. Indigo is a plant and is processed in few communities in the mountains. Fermenting the plant is one of the many steps in the production of the dye. The final product is rock-like, which must then be ground in order to be used as a dye. To prepare indigo, Mariano explained, it must be fermented in an alkali solution of just the right PH, for which they use ash. So the calculations began again as they measured out the right amount of ash and used litmus paper to test the PH. As we left the wool to boil slowly in its alumbre solution and we amended the ash-water according to its PH, I began to understand why this course needed 4 days.
Throughout the workshop, there was constant laughter amongst the Zapotec. Although I didn’t understand most of it, it was clear that the women had a lot of questions and enjoyed being there.
The process of natural dyes is fascinating. As a tour guide, I get to see so many different demonstrations yet I learn something new every time and it never ceases to amaze me. If you haven’t had the chance to see a demonstration, I truly recommend it. We’ll be holding a workshop in our Feria (Fair) on July 13th and 14th at Convivio, so come by to see the magic for yourself!