Teotitlán del Valle
A thirty-minute drive from Oaxaca city, Teotitlán del Valle (teoh-teet-lahn dehl vah-yeh) was the capital of the Zapotec culture during the 11th and 12th centuries. The Zapotec community here is world-famous for its colourful weavings (called laadi in the local Zapotec language).
Weaving in Teotitlán dates back to 500 BC. The earliest weavings were done on back strap looms using cotton and ixtle. Today, the weaving is done on peddle looms and the fabric of choice is wool. This change took place in 1535 with the arrival of Dominican bishop Juan López de Zárate. He introduced wool and the first loom, shipped from Spain across the Atlantic. The use of natural dyes and weaving predate the conquest, but it was the European invasion which jump-started a cottage industry producing serapes and tapetes or rugs. Slowly the town grew, and began specializing in rugs which were initially sold within the state and to a certain extent, in different parts of the country. Now, exports from this town reach foreign shores too.
Century-old recipes are still used in the production of the natural dyes which are obtained from: marigold petals, añil, pomegranate zest, cochineal bug, seed pods, moss, caesalpinia echinata(Brazilian tree) and pecan. The cochineal beetle, which lives on the Nopal cactus, secretes a substance which, when dried, gives an inimitable blood-red colour. The rich variety of cochineal dye was once so highly valued that it was known as ‘red gold’ and the export of the furry white insects was strictly forbidden. Today, both cochineal and indigo remain the two most expensive, and most desirable, of the natural dyes. Marigold petals, indigo and the cochineal bugs give the respective colours of yellow, blue and red. The dyes are obtained after cooking together the natural substances, leaves and other secret ingredients. The pH balance of the dyes is measured so as to remember the formulas for the future. With just a few drops of liquid, 10-12 different shades are obtained in matter of a few seconds. The weaver has to be a chemist, herbalist, and artist all in one, to make the lovely, world-class creations./>
The cochineal is a scale insect in the suborder Sternorrhyncha, from which the crimson-coloured natural dye carmine is derived. A primarily sessile parasite native to tropical and subtropical South America and Mexico this insect lives on cacti in the genus Opuntia, feeding on plant moisture and nutrients. The insect produces carminic acid that deters predation by other insects. Carminic acid, typically 17–24% of dried insects’ weight, can be extracted from the body and eggs then mixed with aluminum or calcium salts to make carmine dye, also known as cochineal. Carmine is today primarily used as a food colourning and for cosmetics, especially as a lipstick colouring.
The carmine dye was used in Central America in the 15th century for colouring fabrics and became an important export good during the colonial periode. After synthetic pigments and dyes such as alizarin were invented in the late 19th century, natural-dye production gradually diminished. Health fears over artificial food additives, however, have renewed the popularity of cochineal dyes, and the increased demand has made cultivation of the insect profitable again, with Peru being the largest exporter. In Mexico, some towns in the state of Oaxaca are still working in handmade textiles.