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Care What You Wear

In Mexico, Weavers Embrace Natural Alternatives to Toxic Dyes

Concerned about the health impacts of textile chemicals, traditional artisans are producing vivid colors from crushed insects and forest plants.

TEOTITLÁN DEL VALLE, Mexico — As a child, Porfirio Gutiérrez hiked into the mountains above the village with his family each fall, collecting the plants they would use to make colorful dyes for blankets and other woven goods.

They gathered pericón, a type of marigold that turned the woolen skeins a buttercream color; jarilla leaves that yielded a fresh green; and tree lichen known as old man’s beard that dyed wool a yellow as pale as straw.

“We’d talk about the stories of the plants,” Mr. Gutiérrez, 39, recalled. “Where they grew, the colors that they provide, what’s the perfect timing to collect them.”

Gregarious and possessed of an entrepreneurial spirit, Mr. Gutiérrez is descended from a long line of weavers. His father taught him to weave as a child; he even wove the backpack he took to school.

In this small village near Oaxaca, known for its hand-woven rugs, he and his family are among a small group of textile artisans working to preserve the use of plant and insect dyes, techniques that stretch back more than 1,000 years in the indigenous Zapotec tradition.

Textile artists in many countries are increasingly turning to natural dyes, both as an attempt to revive ancient traditions and out of concerns about the environmental and health risks of synthetic dyes.

Natural dyes, though more expensive and harder to use than the chemical dyes that have largely supplanted them, produce more vivid colors and are safer and more environmentally friendly than their synthetic counterparts.

To be sure, natural pigments are not always benign. The plants they are extracted from can be poisonous, and heavy metal salts are often used to fix the colors to the fabric. The dyes fade more quickly from sun exposure than chemically produced colors, arguably rendering the textiles less sustainable.

But environmentalists have long worried about the damaging effects of the wide array of toxic chemicals — from sulfur and formaldehyde, to arsenic, copper, lead and mercury — routinely used in textile production.

Runoff from textile factories pollutes waterways and disrupts ecosystems worldwide. And long-term exposure to synthetic dyes — first discovered in 1856 by an English chemist, William Henry Perkin — has been linked to cancer and other illnesses.

“They are very toxic,” Mr. Gutiérrez said. “The more awareness you raise, the more artists are going to use natural dyes and stay away from heavily chemically dyed yarn.”

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