Demetrio Bautista Lazo - Master Weaver

La Cúpula Bed and Breakfast
Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico

Tapetes de Lana 100% Hechos a Mano
Colores Naturales y Vegetales

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Natural Dyes: Classes, Workshops and Demonstrations

The natural dyes are obtained from:

  • Natural shades of wools
  • Bujuco, a parasitic moss native to Oaxaca
  • Campeich Wood, a tree native to Oaxaca
  • Cochineall, produced in Oaxaca
  • Indigo
  • Marigold
  • Madrone Bark
  • Moss, a tree moss native to Oaxaca
  • Muitle, a small shrub native to Oaxaca
  • Pecan shells, leaves or bark
  • Wild Tarragon, native to Oaxaca

The cochineal bug is a beetlelike insect and parasite that lives in a symbiotic fashion with the nopal cacti (or prickly pear), feeding on the abundant sap of the thick round leaves. It has the external appearance of a white velvet-like mold.

The process of extracting the dye is very similar to that of making tea. After being ground-down and added to water it's then heated to extract the color and then combined with either alum or another mordant which acts as a fixer. The resulting distinctive tones can range from red to purple depending on the acidity or the alkalinity of the mixture.

Of notable interest, only the females have this red pigment, due to the presence of carminic acid; the males only serve to fertilize the females. The town of Nochixtlan in the state of Oaxaca was renowned for its abundant cultivation and production of this insect which thrives specifically on the Oaxacan species of nopal cactus(prickly pear). Nowadays the Tlapanochestli centre in Santa Maria Coyotepec is the main location for production and development of cochineal.

Natural Dyestuffs

To many people the most exciting thing about any piece of textile is its colour, and certainly in studying hand-made textiles the development and application of dyestuffs is one of the most interesting aspects. Until the latter half of the nineteenth century, with the exception of a few mineral colours, all dyes were vegetable or animal in origin. Colouring matter was extracted from the roots and stems, leaves, berries and flowers of various dye-plants, and from certain insects and shellfish by an elaborate series of processes used, with little basic change, from hundreds of years before the Christian era, through the Middle Ages, until the rationalization of chemistry in the eighteenth century. These natural dyes, with very few exceptions, are not substantive (that is to say they have very little or no colouring power in themselves), but must be used in conjunction with mordants - or 'drugs', as they were often called. Commonly, large stocks of alum were handled by Mediterranean traders for many years. A mordant, usually a metallic salt, has an affinity for both the colouring matter and the fibre and in combining with the dye in the fibre it forms an insoluble precipitate.

A brilliant scarlet dye had been known and used in Europe since ancient times, obtained from the dried bodies of the pregnant females of the kermes shield-louse, as well as the more expensive reds from the "purple" Murex, obtained from several species of shellfish found in the Mediterranean. In the sixteenth century when the Spaniards conquered Mexico they discovered the Aztecs wearing materials dyed bright red and they immediately had vast quantities of the dried cochineal insects, from which the dye was obtained, shipped to Spain and other countries. The so-called cochineal beetle is in fact another species of the shield-louse family which lives on cactus plants. Cochineal was used to dye wool, silk, morocco leather and, laterly, cotton, and quickly replaced kermes. Cochineal dye has a powerful affinity for alum.

The Indigo plant is a sub-tropical bush about five feet high. At the time of flowering, particularly if the buds were removed, the leaves, from which the colouring matter was attained, yielded their highest percentage if they were cut down close to the ground and immediately collected into bundles and put to steep. The roots which were left very quickly started to sprout again, giving a second and sometimes a third crop, but yielding progressively weaker concentrations of colouring matter.


The color of cochineal is called nocheztli, which means blood of the prickly pear. For some strains of these fruits are host to a certain worm, called cochineal, whose blood is bright red. Such is the most refined dye of this land. That which is already processed and formed into cakes is called 'solid' or 'fine'; "this is sold in the markets to painters and dye-masters," reported Fray Bernadino de Sahagun with regard to this most eminent of pre-Hispanic dyes. At that time, dozens of communities were expected to contribute five, twenty or forty bundles or sacks of cochineal every eighty days. Barbo Dahlgren has calculated that the total of 65 sacks, at 150 pounds each, could weigh 9750 pounds. These communities were located in the Mixtec provinces of Tlachquaico, Tlaxiaco and Coaixtlahuaca, in the upper Mixteca region, and in the Zapotec province of Coyoloapan and Cuilapan, in the Valley of Oaxaca.

Since cochineal appears as a highly specialized tribute exacted from this Mixtec/Zapotec zone, it would not be presumptuous to suggest that this was the area in which the properties of the modest insect were originally discovered, and its domestication and exploitation first worked out. As a pest attacking certain species of prickly pear cactus, particularly Opuntia and Nopalea, it requires constant attention and specially maintained breeding grounds.

The Spaniards did not find as much gold as they had hoped for in Oaxaca, but they were quick to turn cochineal into an alternative source of wealth. By 1660, the export of this dye to Europe had become a leading economic earner for New Spain, second only to silver, and was to retain an important place throughout the colonial period.
The high quality of the carmine red produced by Oaxaca stock overshadowed all the other red dyes in the Old World, including Rubia tintoria and even Persian Kermes, (also derived from an insect). Unusually versatile, cochineal can adopt shades from orange to violet, according to the mordents, fixatives and toners applied. Its effect on wool and silk - both protein fibers - can be spectacular; but the great challenge remains to discover the formula elaborated by ancient Oaxacans to dye cotton with it.

The cultivation of cochineal was introduced by the Spaniards to various parts of New Spain, as well as to Peru, Guatemala and the Canary Islands. Around 1821, Guatemala became a serious competitor in its exportation. Cochineal's final knell in Mexico was sounded in 1850, with the invention of chemical dyes. Today, Peru supplies sixty percent of the world market. Demand has risen in the food and cosmetics industries, due to the carcinogenic factor recently identified in synthetic red colorants. Cochineal production was saved from extinction in Mexico by the efforts of engineer Ignacio de Rio, who has concentrated on the Tlaponochetzli nursery in Santa Maria Coyotepec, Oaxaca. However, output is low and reserved for national consumption.

Demetrio participated in a 3-day workshop with Ignacio del Rio


Evidence of the pre-Hispanic use of indigo, known in Nahuatl as xiuhquilitl or "blue herb", has been considerably reinforced during the last decade. Maya Blue, a turquoise pigment, is now thought to consist almost certainly of indigo extract blended with clay called atapulguita. It is found on murals as well as vessels, and was used to paint textiles in places such as La Garraga and Chiptic, in Chiapas. There are also indications of its presence on fabrics found in caves at Ejutla(Oaxaca), as well as in La Garrafa, where an antique child's huipil was discovered.

We know that hundreds of Indigoferas, or indigo-bearing plant species, exist throughout the world, especially in southern India and North Africa, the home of Indigofera tinctoria. Researcher Dean Arnold contends that the American strains originated in, and spread from, an area between Guerrero and Michoacan, including the State of Mexico, Morelos and Oaxaca; later they reached Central and South America. Among the fifty-odd native American species the most significant are Indigofera suffruticosa and Indigofera guatemalensis. The task of identification and historical accuracy are complicated by the fact that soon after the Conquest, the Spaniards introduced Indigofera tinctoria, which displaced or decimated the native strains.

The cultivation of the imported plant was encouraged by Spanish landowners, and as was the case with other crops, formed part of tribute. Ever since the pre-Hispanic period, a commercial corridor existed from Oaxaca to Guatemala; it was accessed through the coastal estuaries. Later, merchants would take mule-trains laden with huipils, rolls of sackcloth and ayate ponchos, returning with cargoes of Guatemalan cocoa and indigo. In Mexico, the cultivation of indigo only survived in Niltepec, on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec; in recent years, efforts have been made to revive it.

Marta Turok, Artes de Mexico, "Textiles de Oaxaca", Número 35, 1996, Translated by Lorna Scott Fox, Transcribed onto the web without permission (pending)

Other notes:

Natural dyes are very laborious to process, not only with respect to the colors but also how well the mordant or fixer is mixed in. Usually lime juice, or sometimes the leaves and bark of a tropical tree called bejuco are used.

Natural dyes went out of style in the 1920's when chemical dyes were introduced. However, due to the beautiful subtle tones that no chemical can reproduce, natural dyes are now well and truly back in vogue. There is a large variety of plant, animal and mineral sources available today. Among these are lichen, twigs, berries, flowers, pecan bark, walnut husks(tans and browns), huisache seed husks(black), alfalfa and purul leaves(both give green), and "guaje" husks(reddish brown). The brown dye that comes from pecan shells is also made this way.

"This red we get from the cochineal comes from a little insect that lives on the nopal cactus. The color of most natural dyes is soft, but by adding lime juice to the cochineal, we can get a brilliant red. We use three different plants to get the yellows, and each one gives four different shades from successive dyes. We use several different parts of the pecan tree to get our browns, including the roots, the leaves, and the shells."

Using secret combinations, recipes and mixtures the weavers can conjure up an astounding array of colours and textures. These colors are the deep, vibrant tones of nature and are very long-lasting.

Traditions Mexico
Hands-on Workshops with Demetrio can be organised in conjunction with Eric Mindling.
" Murex, Cochineal, and Indigo! Oaxaca Natural Dye Workshop"
March 10 - 19, 2011.

More info about these in-depth group workshops from their website.



Dec 2003
" Thank you for the time you took to show us how you make the natural dyes. The rugs you make are beautiful. Please let us know when you come to Chicago so we can see you. "
Pat Janezich, Dennis Talbott, Chicago, Il. (

Jan 2004
" Your kind hospitality and knowledge of natural dyes is warming. Thank you so much! Come Visit! "
JB and Lisa Rogers, Evergreen, Colorado (


Also, Rebecca Severeide from Portland, Oregon leads all-inclusive tour groups to Oaxaca. For more details see

If you are interested in learning more from Demetrio, he offers classes, workshops and demonstrations. Just send an Email .


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Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico

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