Dyes and Dyeing in Peru

The cochineal beetle is a native of Peru. When one visits the Highlands, all the prickly pear cacti are covered with a grayish bloom. That gray, that looks like fungus, is actually colonies of these beetles.

Crushing a beetle results in a deep red color, the insect’s blood, and this blood when mordanted creates a beautiful and intense red. Think the Pope’s robes. Until the invention of the aniline dyes, this color was the standard for red. (Madder was also used but the color was not always as intense.) The Spanish kept a tight grip on this dye for several centuries.

But the Peruvian Highlands are home to many other wonderful natural dyes as well.

Although green was difficult to obtain in Europe and Early America, the Peruvians used the leaves of a plant called Chilka (Baccharis caespitosa (family: Asteraceae).

Kiko flowers result in yellow and nogal (or walnut) in dark brown or black.

One natural dye they did not grow themselves was indigo, for the bright blues. Indigo was available but it was expensive.

Other plants surrendered their roots, leaves, berries and fruits to make dyes. One lichen, called Qaqasunkha (family Usneaceae) comes with a caution. Although natural dyes tend to be less toxic (but not always) and better for the environment, gathering large amounts of lichen could actually be detrimental to the environment. So here is another example of the dangers of making a general statement about using only natural dyes.

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