Preserving the ancestral Mayan tradition of natural cotton dyeing
The longer I’ve been advocating for environmental and social responsibility in the fashion industry, the more concerned I’ve become with how toxic synthetic dyeing is to the health of humans, animals and the natural environment. While living in Lake Atitlán, Guatemala I learnt that some indigenous Mayan women still practice natural cotton dyeing methods and I was blessed to witness this ancient process in person.
“Since the introduction of synthetic dyes to Lake Atitlán, the traditional way of using plants as tint has been more or less abandoned.”
Rosalinda (Rosa) Tay is one of the remaining artisans who is working to preserve the natural dyeing skills passed down through three generations of her family. Early one morning I took a small boat (local public transportation) across Lake Atitlán to San Juan la Laguna, a small artisan village of the Maya Tz’utujil to meet with Rosa.
Rosa also runs the Asociación Lema' (Lema' Association) - in the Tz'utujil Mayan language “Lema'” means “calling tree” - a women’s cooperative aiming to financially support the artisan families of San Juan la Laguna by selling their naturally dyed, handwoven cotton clothing, accessories and homewares.
“By making these handmade textiles with natural dyes and colours, we are keeping our ancestral Mayan culture and tradition.”
Originally, Rosa learnt about her ancestors’ handicraft methods from her grandmother who used seeds as a soap substitute to wash her clothing. Rosa began to experiment with dyeing fabric using local and traditional plants. A “gringo” (Spanish for “foreigner”) took interest and suggested that she make a business out of it.
The cotton dyeing process involves boiling a pot of water over a fire, and adding various plants and bark that Rosa grows on her land. Freshly picked plants result in a more subtle colour, whereas using dried plants results in a stronger colour. The cotton is submerged into water to ensure that it dyes evenly and is clear of debris. It is then transferred to the dyeing pot.
“Nature is very important, it is our mother. This is why we use only 100 percent natural dyes.”
During this demonstration Rosa used brown branches and green leaves of the “Sacatinta” plant, which I expected to produce a grey, green or brown colour. Instead a beautiful mauve emerged which then morphed into purple. The same plant also produces multiple shades of blue.
Various plants and water temperatures result in different colours. For instance, the bark of “Hilamo” or coconut shells results in brown. Other sources of colour include: “Achiote”, “Pericon” and “Pimienta” (pepper). Mixing different plants results in more diverse colours.
“This is the beauty of natural dyes.”
The cotton is left to steep in the dye until the afternoon. Rosa then uses a natural “mordiente” (mordant) to fix the dye into the cotton such as salt, fruit peel, and ashes. In this case, Rosa used salt and hung the cotton to dry. The cotton is then woven into products like the beach bag I've featured in this post.
If you missed my last post about meeting with other Mayan artisans that Hiptipico partners with you can read it by clicking here.
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Photographs one, two, three, twelve, thirteen and fourteen taken by Alastair McCann. Photographs eleven taken by Hiptipico. Photographs four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten taken by me (Nerida Lennon).
Quotes are from the Lema' Association website.
Transparency: I was not paid to write this post. Alyssa from Hiptipico partners with Rosa and gifted me one of her naturally dyed, handmade beach bags.
Share your thoughts
I'd love to hear about any experiences you've had with natural dyeing. Are you also concerned with the toxicity of synthetic dyeing?